Raising the Bar on Already Unattainable Standards of Beauty
An article over at GSE's prompted a discussion between my flatmate and I on the questionable ethics of elective cosmetic surgery (as opposed to reconstructive cosmetic surgery, which, I think everyone agrees, is kosher). The article is about an extremely unfortunate woman who has spent years of her life and nearly 200 thousand pounds in an attempt to make herself look like Barbie (c), the plastic doll from Mattel. This sad woman (that's sad in the sense of pathetic, not unhappy) has based her entire existance around the singlular premise that no one will love her unless she is beautiful; and not just any kind of beautiful, mind you, a specific kind of beautiful defined by a narrow and physically impossible formula, the basis for which is the aforementioned doll.
The woman, the self-described Real Life Barbie, views herself as an ambassador between beautiful and "ordinary" people. (Clearly ordinary people can't be beautiful.) Her goal is to eliminate the stigma surrounding people who elect to undergo cosmetic surgery and get them the "respect they deserve."
I have several problems with this. I don't think I need to pursuade pursuade people too much to point out that spending money on surgery is no more worthy of respect than spending it on any other luxury status symbol -- admiration, perhaps, but not respect. People, all people, are deserving of basic human respect, regardless of whether or not they are superficially beautiful (and when I say "beautiful" here, I use the word according to RLB's definition). Her comment seems to suggest that us "ordinary" people (her word), are less worthy of respect, a notion which is obviously bollox.
Even though her statement suggests that, I don't think that's what she means. I think she's trying to undo the stigma attached to people who have boob jobs and lipsuction and botox etc. Sure there's a stigma. I know when I am aware of a woman who's had botox or breast augmentation my first reaction is to roll my eyes. I make certain assumptions about her character, judgement, values, and personality. I assume such a woman is of weak character, that is, easily swayed by external influences such as media images, lacks the judgement to determine the most judicious use of her money, values appearance over substance, and is insecure and/or vain. Am I wrong?
Some would argue "yes," that it is precisely that stigma, those stereotypes and assumptions, which are detrimental to surgically "enhanced" people and society as a whole. RLB wants to eliminate these stereotypes so that more people feel free to have cosmetic surgery. And therein lies the danger.
I'm about to argue that some sterotypes, stigmas, perceptions, and social pressures can actually have a positive, normatizing effect on society.
First, lets imagine a world where RLB gets her wish: cosmetic surgery is the norm, every woman over the age of 16 has a D-cup, a 25-inch waist, no cellulite, and a pert little nose. No woman over 40 has any wrinkles, grey hairs, or the capability to express emotion through facial expressions thanks to botox and face-lifts. The horror of living in such a cookie-cutter world scares the crap out of me. Why would we all want to look the same? More importantly, why would we all want to look the way someone else decided was attractive??? On a fundamental level, that's what we're talking about: trying to squeeze ourselves into a mold of someone else's notion of how we should look.
"Yeah," you say, "but we already do that. It's just a matter of degrees. Women wear makeup, dye their hair, spend hours styling it, follow fashion trends like hounds behind a bleeding rabbit, wriggle themselves into body-shaping undergarments, shave their legs, arms, and often pubic hair, endanger their health on extreme diets, develop eating disorders, and all in the name of trying to look like a supermodel. Why is surgery any different?"
You're right, it is a matter of degrees. You're right about another thing: in many ways, surgery isn't much more extreme than many of the things we already do. That doesn't mean surgery is a good idea; it means that we should seriously consider curbing many of the things we already do!
By putting cosmetic surgery in the same category with makeup and shaving, you're adding it to the norm. You're including it in the things that every woman is pretty much expected to do in order to attract male attention. You're saying, "You're waxed, made-up, tressed and dressed. Great. Now do something about those tiny tits."
I've gone on before about how I thing shaving all your body hair to be sexually attractive is creepy, but that's not all. It's a fairly extreme measure. Think about it. It takes time, effort, money, and if you're a waxer, pain. Regular pain, every 4-6 weeks. That's more than just running a comb through your hair. That's pretty hard core when you think about it. And it considered normal. It's standard, expected. The men who are willing to tolerate pubic hair on a woman are few and far between (and, I suspect, mostly over the age of 40. For women of my generation, finding a mate who's happy to work through the fuzz to eat you out is nearly impossible.) Men willing to tolerate leg or underarm hair are beyond endangered, they're nearly extinct.
So what happens if we remove the social stigma from cosmetic surgery? We raise the already unattainable beauty bar that much higher. We add it to the list of standards. We de-value the rarity of the one-in-a-million Barbie build, and make it a requirement. In the same way that sending every Tom, Dick, and Harry to a cheap state university devalued Bachelor's degrees, thereby requiring everyone to get one just to stay in the game, if RLB gets her wish, we'll all have to be 36-25-40 just be considered not ugly.
I already resent the fact that I have to shave my legs and put on make-up to be considered not ugly. When I was lonely and dateless you wouldn't believe (or maybe you would) the number of people who told me I needed to "make more of an effort." I shudder to think that my daughter might have to grow up in world where making "a bit of an effort" starts with body-altering surgery.
What ever happened to variety, the spice of life? Glory be to God for dappled things, variation, and the differences that make us unique, wonderful, AND beautiful. Cosmetic surgery should not be admired, should not be a marker of respect, and should certainly not become the standard. But there is more you can do to help the cause than just rolling your eyes when you see a fake pair bounce past you on the street. Everything comes down to money (sadly), and the image of the Barbie body and the need for that kind of beauty is financially driven. So stop driving it. Don't support the image. Don't by glossy, celebrity mags where every page is a bunch of photos of semi-famous people surrounded by captions that do nothing more than offer approval or disapproval of the famous person's appearance. Don't put money in to the pockets of the media moguls who are doing everything they can to make you feel inferior just because you don't look like Paris Hilton. *shudder* Boycotts work, and if we all unite and say "fuck you" to the fashion, cosmetic, surgical, and Hollywood industries, wouldn't then the world be a nicer place?