Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why Nasty Stereotypes Can Be Good

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?


Spinsterella said...


(In the main. But I don't think you need to worry about the whole pubic hair thing. This whole fashion for brazilians has been very recent, and in real life I only know one woman who has ever actually shaved/waxed it all off. And that was for a one-off)

Billy said...

I like pubic hair and I'm under 40.

This woman does have a point that we do make judgements about people who have cosmetic surgery. In her case, however, given how much she's spent, I feel this judgements are justified.

GreatSheElephant said...

The main judgement I make is that having undergone major surgery for health reasons, I completely fail to understand why anyone would want to do that simply for the sake of vanity. People die under general anaesthetic. Is a larger cup size really really worth taking that risk (not to mention all the attendant risks that go with the various types of cosmetic surgery).

Plus the effect is often temporary. A friend of mine had a half face lift about 4 years ago. Guess what - her face has sagged right back to where it was.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

spin: then how come porn stars are all smooth? it started 60 years ago with armpits, then legs, then bikini lines. The trend for over half a century now has been moving steadily toward total hairlessness (expect on the head), and to the best of my knowledge there havn't been any short-term reversals in that time. The Brazillian is going to become standard, if it hasn't already.

billy: yes dear, but you are exceptional in so many ways. you are the all-but-extinct man.

GSE: too right. the reason i didn't include the medical element in my arguement is because it is concievable that future medical advancements will make the health risks next to zero, and if/when that happens, i still think cosmetic surgery will be a bad idea, so i didn't want to use an arguement with a limited lifespan that may become moot in the future. it's the principle, damnit! :-)

Chaucer's Bitch said...

heh. i just looked at my site stats, and someone found me by blog searching "lonely women." i was the third hit. Does that mean i'm the third lonliest woman on blogger???

belladona too lazy to sign in said...

Wasn't it John Ruskin who spearheaded the trend for the brailian?

Anyway... yes. Yes! YES! I agree. I have always been firmly of the belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyhow - I have lost count of the amount of people I have initially thought pretty who palled on me through their lack of personality or intelligence. They became associated in my mind with dullness to the extent that other people who shared their facial / bodily characteristics were then judged to also be boring. Don't worry, I do make the effort to find out what people are really like, but we all have met someone we initially found sexually attractive and been wildly disappointed when they opened their mouth.

Farty said...

"pert little nose" - noooooooooooooooooooo! I've got nothing against pert little noses per se, but I find big long ski-slope noses incredibly sexy. Don't take them away, please.

I'm also with Belladonna on brains/beauty, I'd rather spend an hour with Heather Couper than a night with Heather Mills.

And I don't mind pubic hair, but then I'm over forty.

realdoc said...

When I read all this guff about cosmetic surgery it makes me incredibly depressed. I have 2 beautiful daughters, each with their own individual features. If either of them had cosmetic surgery it would make me cry. To alter anything seems completely wrong and unnecessary. As for the aquisitive bastard doctors who do this mutilation. They should be struck off.

Ezri said...

For the folks who haven't, check out the little video on the Dove website showing some of the technological enhancements involved in becoming a face on a bill board. It's pretty unreal- some of the standards we hold ourselves to are completely fictional, no more real than the Mad Hatter out of Alice and Wonderland - guess we've all fallen down the rabbit hole, huh?

Melissa said...

Excellent post, CB! And Ezri, I've seen that Dove video - it was amazing and disheartening. (http://youtube.com/watch?v=qdSAYS05iQA for those of you who haven't seen it - it's fairly short and well worth watching)

I absolutely love the difference in people and would hate to see beauty homogenize. Everybody I know has some feature they've griped about, but when a few have had changes made (nose job, breast enhancement), it seemed to cancel out one of the things that made them who they were. Not a very well framed argument, but that's what I've got.

Newsandseduction said...

great blog. can not agree more.

Newsandseduction said...

...it also reminds me of the days when the raids of Income tax department of the govenment during a night, in a house of a rich wo/man, was considered to be the final testimonial of his/her fortune.
I think the cosmetic treatments too are like those raids. They prove that people want to look beautiful, never minding that at times the effect could be contrary.

undercovercookie said...

this wis a truly excellent post and says so much better just what I feel on the issue. Normalising surgery makes everyone else have to do it just to be normal.

also, on the hair issue, I'm with a near-extinct man (and he's 40). He tolerates me shaving under my arms for when I go to salsa but he is always somewhat sad that I feel I have to do it (for social acceptance). I don't understand why some signals of sexual maturity (breasts, a waist) are deemed so important they require enhancement and others (body hair in strategic places) is thought bad and needs removing.
I've had a boyfriend who insisted it all come off and with someone who wants it all to stay on - and I feel somewhat worse with the latter because of the social pressures to remove it.

hendrix said...

I (sort of) agree with everything you've said CB especially when it comes to celebrating everyone's individuality. We certainly don't do that now. But I'm not sure it's fair to only blame the media for this attitude. We all judge people based on how they look, if we didn't then we wouldn't roll our eyes when we see a pair of fake boobs, we wouldn't judge the intellect/character of a woman based on her hair colour or the height of her heels or the length of her skirt. What I'd like to see is a cessation of the bitchiness which we (women especially) engage in when we're judging other women.
Maybe if we were a bit more supportive of each other (including those who have had plastic surgery or look a certain way) then media pressure wouldn't be so strong, it would certainly make the world a nicer place.

I don't have a problem with cosmetic surgery. Self-loathing is a terrible thing, obsessing about a real or perceived flaw in your appearance can drive away the people who love you, stop you from getting on with your life, make you profoundly depressed. Whether or not people actually look better after it is a subjective opinion but what counts is what the person thinks of themselves and if it takes a procedure (or 2 or 3) to enable them to feel happy and confident about how they look then where's the harm?

We're using extreme examples here too, I doubt very much whether removing the stigma from surgery would create a world of barbie look alikes (or whatever the media decides is beautiful that month). I don't think you'd see any great change either in the number of people who have it done or the procedures they opt for. MOstly you'd find that it would be women who after trying absolutely everything else were unable to shift that roll of flab from round their middle, or who'd been unmercifully teased at school for having huge boobs and would just like to have them a bit smaller or really didn't like the nose they had and could only see that when they looked at themselves. I don't think it's our place to judge someone's appearance or to decide what they should or shouldn't do with it. Celebrating individuality is a brilliant thing, but it has to work both ways, you have to celebrate the people who decide not to conform to our ideas of what constitute beauty too.

Oh, the porn star pubic thing? It started because people wanted to see the goods (as it were). I doubt very much that it will become a standard throughout all of womenkind - most men don't like it and most women are too sensible to put up with the pain. Even porn stars grow it out when they aren't working!

Miss Melville said...

Elective procedures are also class sensitive. We can't all afford to have the breast lift, the nose job and liposuction. What about the poor young thing who is hook-nosed, flat chested and has hugh thighs? She can't afford to make these dramatic changes, but her more wealthy contemporaries can. It's the same way we can't all afford BMWs here in the states. Beauty is rapidly becoming just another form of inequality.

And it's true, people attribute other virtues to the physically endowed. Life if just that little bit easier for the beautiful people. Even if it's just a door held open or a stranger reaching down to pick up your keys. But it goes farther than that. I'm interviewing for grad schools, and I won't send a photograph (they say it's optional). Not on your life. And I don't think I'm particularly hideous-- my teeth are straight (after braces--another mark of status) and my skin is pretty clear at the moment. Every so often somebody comes out with a study that affirms what we all know: it is easier for physically attractive people to get the good jobs. All I can hope is that this doesn't pertain to the realm of academia, that our institutions of higher learning are above this, can differentiate between a pretty face and literary chops. However, I'm pretty sure this is excessively naive.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

belladona: It's true that Ruskin's wife left him because he refused to consummate their marraige, but as to why exactly that is is a matter of historical debate. Even if it was the pubic hair thing (though I'm personally more inclined to believe the menstual blood theory), he didn't demand that she shave it to satisfy him. He just elected to go without sex instead. So I don't think we can blame him for brasilians, just bad architecture.

I know what you mean about associations. I have the same thing with long hair = nice guy. that theory hasn't cracked yet.

Farty: I'm not familiar with either of the ladies you mention, but i'm glad you like big noses. I inherited my grandmother's Polish shnozz, and it's a whopper!

realdoc: do you think a doctor performing unnecessary surgery on a patient who would almost certainly benefit more from counseling is in violation of the hypocratic oath? hmm.

Ezri: I'm pleased about Dove's new campaign, but I still have a hard time singing the praises of a huge corporation that, at the end of the day, is still in it for the money. They've just figured out that a bunch of us munters will cheerfully buy their products if, instead of telling us the product will make us beatiful, they tell us that we already *are* beautiful. It's nice, but ultimately it's clever marketing disguised as beneficence.

melissa: thanks!

newsandseduction: a very intersting point. more a demonstration of means/wealth, than beauty? a notion worth mulling over.

cookie: celebrate your partner's appreication of sexual maturity and braid your pit hair!

HC: remove the bitchiness!? aw, where's the fun in that?! but seriously, you're right that the media isn't soley responsible, because the media is fueled by the ratings we give them. hence the need for a united voice. Self-loathing is a terrible thing, and if a nip here and tuck there really did make women feel better about themselves i might not have as big a problem with it as i do. but most women who undergo surgery are NOT happy with their appearance after. Just like when you wash all your dishes and counters you suddenly notice how dirty your floor is by comparison, the minute you have your thighs taken care of suddenly your stomach looks horrendous, and then your butt, your jowels, the bags under your eyes... it never ends! it creates a dangerous and damaging cycle; it does not bring happiness and fulfillment. that's the biggest misconception about cosmetic surgery, and the reason so many women attempt it. I'll try to find you some numbers on patient satisfaction if you want.

Herman's Bitch: so true, so true. It used to be that the aristocracy were just as ugly as the rest of us (just look at the British royal family!*), but now that means of beautification are made available to the haves, it creates another viscous loop: the beautiful people get richer (your second point, and also very true), and the rich people get more beautiful. I'll think I'll go back to wallowing in my cold mud puddle and root around for some garbage to eat!

*sorry, couldn't help myself.

Annie Rhiannon said...

"Glory be to God for dappled things"

He wrote that about me.

And you are blonk of the week.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

Annie, in order:


Yes, indeed!

Thank you!

Fussy Bitch said...

Bra-bloody-va! Excellent blog.

B said...

Firstly I think that cosmetic surgery is a bad thing because:

(A) It reduces variety.
(B) It is not successful in its stated aims.
(C) It is irreversible without equally drastic measures.

Of course the media makes this worse by artificially increasing people's desire to be beautiful.

However, I don't think that we should stigmatise people who have such operations. By this I mean we should not lump these people together and stereotype them.#

I would suggest as a general rule we should not stigmatise people just on the basis of personal decisions (those effecting only the individual). Doing so can result in the creation of tremendous peer pressure to stifle individuality. In a way this is a kind of socially enforced authoritarianism. There are other ways in which we can discourage people from having such procedures (and reduce the negative consequences):

(1) Advise our friends not to have cosmetic surgery.
(2) Stop buying the magazines that inflate the desire to be beautiful.
(3)* Develop a more pluralistic notion of beauty.
(4) Have a public information campaign on the risks associated with cosmetic surgery and the rates of customer satisfaction attained.

The media encourages us to measure those around us by their personal choices rather than by how those people treat others.

We should not respond in kind.

*The most effective imho.
#Of course people have a natural inclination to judge others based on decisions they make. Such judgments become a stigma when they are reinforced by larger groups within society.