Saturday, February 16, 2008

Cosmetic Surgery: Peter Pan & The Beauty Myth

Hey, are you worried that you’re getting a little soft in the middle? Maybe your boobs or your eyebrows are getting droopy? Well, get on that willya. Cripes, everybody’s doing the nip & tuck and it’ll boost your earnings, your chances of promotion and the likelihood of being found not-guilty after you rob that bank to pay for all the cosmetic surgery you just had done. Seriously.
In case you had any doubts that our culture is descending into a pathetic narcissism or that it’s promoting the virtues of shallowness and youth obsession, a quick look at the plastic surgery stats is in order.
The last ten years has seen an explosive growth in cosmetic surgery in North America and beyond. In Canada alone, between 2002 and 2003 non-surgical “enhancements” grew by 24.6 percent, and surgical procedures – led by breast augmentation – jumped by nearly 17 percent.
In the USA, as they were bombing Iraq and immiserating their domestic working class population, they were also rushing to the front of the beauty line with 11.5 million surgical and non-surgical procedures in 2005 alone; 364, 610 of those procedures were for breast augmentation. Since 1997 there has been a jump of 444 percent in the number of procedures. Americans spent $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery.
And it’s not just women who are “getting work done”. Men now make up about 9 percent of the clientele in the USA. In the UK it’s even higher at 11 percent in 2005, with the biggest procedure being nose jobs followed by fixing those embarrassing droopy eyelids.
Don’t worry if it’s a little out of your price-range, not only are the new “less invasive” techniques bringing prices down (ahem, “democratizing access”, as they say), you can also catch a flight down to Brazil where “vanity tourism” is a thriving business. And in Brazil – home to Ivo Pitanguy, father of modern plastic surgery – you can save from a third to a half on the costs.
OK but what’s with this obsession? Why are we afraid to look like we’re growing old?
Sure, we don’t want to die and old age is about the body breaking down as death approaches. But old age isn’t new and it wasn’t always so loathed as it is now. There was a time when our elderly were revered for their wisdom and experience. What’s changed?
Four words: Capitalism makes you vain.
Look, don’t get me wrong – I want to look hot too. I’m scared that my youth is slipping (has slipped?) away. Hell, I may get some “work” done myself, on my face or my ass – just as soon as I win that lottery and pay off my debts. And, Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of yourself. In fact, if more people ate better food and exercised, there’d be less need to get liposuction
But there’s two things about capitalism that makes us obsess about youth and body perfection. The first is that for the vast majority of the population, we look to our older years as a time to retire; our producerly lives come to an end. We want to get the hell out of the workforce, which has taken up so much of our lives with mundane, shitty work. But the flip side is that we are seen as no longer useful to the economy. We are now a net drain (witness all the attacks on pensions over the past decade and a half; hell, we can’t afford our old people anymore). To be old it to be useless – that’s why we put ‘em away in homes and forget about them to be cared for by underpaid and overworked (mostly) women. Soylent Green anyone?
The second factor has to do with how we experience work – it is forced labour. We would rather do anything else than go to our jobs. How many times have you heard someone say that if it weren’t for their mortgage they wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. That’s because the economy, via our workplace, approaches us as an alien being, like a blind natural force. All we see are the innumerable private corporations and businesses fighting with each other for market share and production. It is anarchy.
The only comprehensible way we experience the social, interactive nature of the economy – which, after all isn’t a natural phenomenon but a socially, historically created one – is in the purchase of goods. Production is isolated and privatized, consumption is a public act. So, commodities increasingly seem to exist on their own, without history or process. They have come into the world fully formed. That’s why they are flat, surfacey things that can attract us only through two features: their usefulness and their beauty.
Oftentimes their beauty is a significant part of their usefulness – clothes, shoes, cars – and the less “productively” useful they are, the more beautiful a consumer good they are considered. But whatever the case, their beauty is not connected to the process of their production – except perhaps with luxury goods in which the “artisanal” methods of production are valorized: we don’t admire the welding work of the autoworker or the historical development of silicon chips in our computer. The only basis for judgment is the end product: the commodity.
We are a society that values ends and not means. The ultimate expression of this, for me, was when Secretary of State under Clinton said, in describing the death of over a million children as a result of American led sanctions: “we think the price is worth it (to remove Saddam)”. The ends forever justifies the means. Where does this come from?
As industrial capitalist society develops and spreads, reaching into every nook and cranny of our social world, this commodity fetishism spreads with it, this worship of history-less ends, of aesthetic values without technique or process. Reality and experience become a barrier to the achievement of pure beauty, ie. that which is untouched by the griminess of life. Beauty has no hair, no wrinkles. Its skin is smooth and unblemished. Its curves are perfect without effort or strain and its teeth are perfectly straight. Anything that reminds us that we are beings in process, constantly changing and remaking ourselves through our experience and that this process leaves its mark on us, like medals to show the battles we’ve survived, any such thing is a deformity. That’s why Michael Jackson’s horror mask face and his Never-Never-Land fantasy mansion aren’t a deviation from our society’s values, they are its highest expressions.
And it’s no surprise that Michael Jackson would be the ultimate self-commodifying beauty monster. He is a star and what role do stars play in our society? Their job is to renew our hope in the values we have been taught are good – leisure, beauty, sex, financial success (itself measured in part by beauty), and of course the inevitable rewards of hard work. They are a concrete example that if we follow the righteous path and believe the fairy tales that we’re told we will succeed and we will be beautiful. They are the sugar that makes the bitter pills of so many people’s possible to swallow. That’s why there is such pressure on stars to have their faces done over and over again. It’s the equivalent of Olympic training for ideological athletes.
In this view, Michael Jackson was only trying to do what all the stars do – only with the added handicap that he is a black man, with all the features of an African. And we all know that the real measure of beauty is whiteness, especially when Jackson was coming of age. In 1995, Empire Magazine’s famous “100 Sexiest Stars of All-Time” had only one African-American on it. Even the 2007 list only included six black stars and none in the top ten. Is it any wonder Jackson drew the conclusions he did in his mind. He’d had his star qualities literally beaten into him as a child. He just continued the beating after his father was done but to the same ends.
Besides film and music stars, there is the much larger demographic of women who are the primary targets and clients of cosmetic surgery. Why? For many of the same reasons as movie stars. Movies – and popular music – set up the expectations and it is ordinary women who are expected to implement it. It is women who are still laden down with the task of making people (men and children) fit to continue working, spiritually, sexually and physically. As Marx described it, they serve to reproduce labour – both in the sense of carrying the children and also in refreshing the workers so that they can and will return the next day.
And women are the proof of your success – a beautiful woman on a rich man’s arm is the ultimate success story – she’s bagged the sugar daddy and he’s bagged the sex toy. Ordinary working class people can never hope to live up to the standards of our mega-rich betters with their unlimited expense accounts, private trainers and personal surgeons. But we can emulate them in our own small way. We too can try to hide the labour that marks our bodies – with fat because we’re too busy to cook good meals, with drooping skin from years of being exhausted. Just, whatever you do, for god’s sake, don’t try to eliminate the system that scars you so badly you want to hide from it and the fact that your life is being stolen out from under you.
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