Friday, May 02, 2008

Plastic Surgery, or Pot?

As hypothetical questions go, that one is admittedly pretty bizarre. But let me explain:

About a week ago, a friend of mine--a fellow co-blogger at Times and Seasons--called his readers' attention to a couple of, shall we say, unusual children's books. The first, It's Just a Plant, is the story of a young girl learning all about the growth and use of marijuana from her parents (with help from Farmer Bob and Dr. Eden); the second, My Beautiful Mommy, is the story of a young girl learning all about why her mother is going in for a tummy tuck, a nose job, and breast implants (through the efforts of the musclebound and vaguely superheroic Dr. Michael). The upshot of the first book is that marijuana can and is responsibly used by many people to make them feel "happy"; the upshot of the second is that mommy, who really hasn't been entirely happy with her body since she had children, will soon be even "prettier" than before. My friend and I are both generally progressive/liberal/call-it-what-you-will when it comes to everyday politics, but we both have conservative/religious/again-call-it-what-you-will streaks as well...and we both thought--only partly ironically--that the existence of children's books like this is clearly further evidence that the End Times will be upon us soon.

But here's the thing: when you get right down to it, I find the second book, the plastic surgery one, in its content and execution, to be scandalous, insulting and perverse; whereas the first one mainly strikes me as ridiculous, as such an earnestly hippie book as to primarily be an occasion for light-hearted mockery rather than outrage. I figured that the vehemence I felt towards the second book--towards its casual and commercialized assumptions about human nature, notions of beauty, and more--would be shared by numerous crunchy-con-types, and so I sent a link to it over to Rod Dreher, who then put up a post about it, filled with righteous indignation:

What kind of message is this sending to little girls? That if they don't like their bodies, that if their physical appearance doesn't conform to current physical ideals, that they should be willing to go under the knife to make themselves "prettier"? Sick....What this book really does is put even more pressure on girls in this culture to learn to hate themselves for not measuring up to a Barbie doll ideal. If they're being taught to absorb this toxic idea from childhood, what kind of neurotic wrecks are they doing to be as teenagers? And boys too will learn that if females fall short of the physical ideal, well, they ought to go to the medical profession and fix their imperfections via surgery.

I couldn't have summarized my own thoughts better myself, though I never got the chance...because rather than engaging in the long and contentious thread which erupted at Dreher's blog over issues of plastic surgery, standards of beauty, sexism, and raising kids, I was distracted when a friend of mine (from Dallas, coincidentally) challenged me: why are you so much more upset by idea of cosmetic surgery than by the idea of marijuana use? Would I really rather one of my daughters become a pothead than get a nose job? The resulting e-mail discussion ate up much of the weekend, and I'm only getting around now to putting my thoughts down here.

First things first: I'm no crusader for the legalization of marijuana. There are plenty of people who know a great deal more about its use, sale, and effects than I do, and from what I can tell the majority of them seem to acknowledge that, at the very least, it is often a gateway drug to more harmful substances. Hell, I'm a Mormon, and a bit of a health snob too--I don't use and would rather than no one else use any kind of primarily intoxicating, hallucinogenic or addictive substances at all. But then perhaps that's the point; I suppose I would probably see some hypothetical experimentation with pot by one of my children about the same way I would see similar experimentation with cigarettes or snuff or whiskey or wine: as something foolish, possibly dangerous, but mostly just irresponsible and unwise (though of course, under current laws, experimentation with pot could get her a criminal record as well, and that's an additional concern). But I don't think I'd find it especially scandalous, at least not in any fundamental way.

So why do I feel that way about plastic surgery...or at least, the type of surgery, and the mentality behind it, being sold as a positive thing to young children by the book in question? I think primarily because it involves selling something based on images, images which have been shaped by who knows how many years of sexism and male presumption, images which have been manipulated by who knows how many Hollywood agents, Madison Avenue hacks, toy manufacturers, pornographers, fashion designers, and dozens of others that I--as a religious person, as a husband and father, as a communitarian and democrat--instinctively distrust. The fact that a certain body image--the nose job, the boob job, the tummy tuck, all done to "fit into my clothes" and to "feel good about myself"--is being presented to children as an ordinary and, indeed, empowering choice which mothers can (should?) make I find simply disgusting.

Does this mean that I think books like this should be illegal? No (but mocked: yes). More importantly, does it mean I think plastic surgery itself should be illegal, or even something that in principle ought to be condemned outright? Again, definitely not: there are too many fine lines that would have to be worked out and defended in advance to be worth it. But that doesn't change the fact that perhaps 90% of all cosmetic and optional (that is, not called for by burns or other medical needs) plastic surgery is, in my judgment, wasteful, depressingly shaped by social forces which ought not have the power they do over the thinking of too many women, and ultimately wrong. That leaves a gray area, sure; and to be fair, that gray area exists on both sides of the hypothetical question: I suppose I would rather Megan (our oldest daughter; she'll be twelve this year) get a nose job then become a marijuana addict and junkie. But would I rather her get a nose job than be an occasional user of marijuana? Of course my preference would be neither, but given this stark and crazy choice...I don’t think so; I think I would rather learn she's smoked a joint or two than see her shell out her own money to get a new nose (or tummy, or breasts). Why? Because her marijuana use at least wouldn't necessarily indicate that she's likely been convinced by the media machines or her peer groups or her own (no doubt socially manipulated!) insecurities that she needs to improve herself to be more "beautiful"--and defending her against such machines, peers, and insecurities I see as one of my primary responsibilities as a parent.

My friend picked up on the idea of "improving oneself," and asked: why are you presumably comfortable with all sorts of (sometimes expensive, sometimes fairly time-consuming) cosmetic acts that my daughter's may engage in at the appropriate age--anything from dieting to shaving their legs--but I draw such a firm line at plastic surgery? Well, I'm not comfortable with all of them--though my wife and I are more comfortable with more of them than is perhaps typical of most white American Mormons like ourselves; decorating one's body through ear or nose piercings, for example, if done in moderation, don't seem to us to be problematic. We do have some difficulty with tattoos, though--basically because of the long-term effects (and consequently the long-term "investment" they demand up front) they have on one's body...and again, I'm operating under the firm belief that, at least in a great majority of these cases, the bodily "improvements" which so many women and girls so often feel pressured to embrace begin with corporate profit calculations, not authentically cultural decisions.

Perhaps we can put these things on a continuum: some methods of making oneself over to fit a pleasing image (hopefully pleasing to oneself or to some community one is a member of, one with its own organic, aesthetic sense, as opposed to one which simply reflects and amplifies whatever Cosmopolitan magazine tells it to value) are invasive and essentially permanent, whereas others are not. Some involve major investments of one's "self" in the broadest sense, and others do not. Some are somewhere in the middle, perhaps easing in one direction or another. These are not the sort of hard-and-fast distinctions that would make me comfortable with getting the law involved, but yes: I believe I can reasonably say that it is unnatural, unusual, and often a little disgusting to allow one’s looks and, to a not-insignificant degree, one's bodily "self" to be guided in an invasive and permanent way by a thinking that is not your own, whereas allowing it to be guided in a merely superficial, experimental, temporary way would be, to my mind, at worst something foolish. Moreover, some image-driven manipulations and improvements, like dieting and exercise, can sometimes have pretty significant positive benefits in terms of health and well-being, while others, like the great majority of plastic surgery operations (i.e., those alternations that do not involve addressing deformities or serious or at least legitimate health and functionality concerns), are not. Some manipulations, like make-up or dying your hair, are (probably) temporary and changeable; others, like plastic surgery, are not. In the end, when all is said and done, I think you can (and should) make distinctions about those ways of aspiring to conform oneself to an ideal which are responsible and reasonable, and those which are not.

My friend wasn't convinced, and he made a few thoughtful challenges to my position. Primarily, he wondered about my distinction between temporary alterations and permanent, invasive ones--does the distinction hole water? I think it does. The body isn't fundamentally altered by something that you can wipe off or take off. Permanent alternations are more than decoration, which is all wearing an earing; rather it's essentially making the claim that something you have, something you are, some age you are, just doesn't fit--that you need to draw upon some other resource, some other image, to accomplish whatever it is you desire, and that means handing your own conception of yourself over to someone or something else. And since the types of plastic surgery I'm actually concerned with, the types sold as ordinary and worthy of celebration by the aforementioned book, are the types which I believe are mostly introduced to the thinking of the women of America as "needed" primarily by men engaged in sexual objectification, by chatty and judgmental and competitive peers, by fashion magazines, by pornographic videos, by repellent talk-show hosts and insufferable aerobic instructors, I'm consequently deeply bothered by such practices, because I don't think anyone should--"freely" or otherwise--hand over the shape of their bodies and lives so willingly to such a pack of self-gratifying vultures and reprobates. And no, I don't think I'm being overly simplistic here: for the record, I don't think human agency is a slave to the environmental or cultural influences which surround all of us. But I think such influences are a huge factor in shaping the people we are and the choices we make, nonetheless. The media is what selectively reinforces upon all of us certain assumptions and preferences that are probably there in our community anyway, but without the benefit of a whole contradictory world of influences to moderate and/or contextualize them. The media can warp our thinking, in other words. As such, I worry about it, even if it isn't the ultimate causal factor in our actions, and I especially worry about it when it seems to me that people are internalizing some of that warping into their bodies in expensive, invasive, permanent ways.

My friend also wondered (and out of our e-mail audiences, he wasn't alone) what the real cause of my vehemence was, and whether one could describe it a "chivalrous" or "condescending" towards women. He has a point, of course: at what point would my condemnation of my daughter's hypothetic choice to get a boob job so she'd have a better chance at landing a contract with Girls Gone Wild be essentially a claim that she's been duped, that she doesn't know what she wants, that she doesn't know what's best for her? My only response, I suppose, would be to fall back on my basic motivations here: my huge distrust of modern commercial and consumer norms. My wife Melissa has greatly influenced me here; her particular kind of Mormon feminism has merged with my own weird traditionalist-Marxist perspective on things over the years, with one result being that one of the few things we fully agree on--and in fact can make each other more and more impassioned and extreme about, just by talking with each other--is the commodification and corporatizing and selling and sexualizing of our sense of self, particularly women and girls' senses of themselves as individuals and as children of God. Plastic surgery, or at least many types of and justifications for it, is just a symptom of a deeper problem. (There are many teachings and influences I could cite here--Neil Postman, Juliet Schor, Catherine MacKinnon, etc.--but the ur-text for Melissa at least was probably Jean Kilbourne's terrific, challenging broadside against sexualized advertising, Deadly Persuasion.)

Let me finish this rant with an e-mail from another friend, who observed this back-and-forth and then had this story to tell:

I love my daughter (who is 8, by the way) for many reasons. I love many aspects of who she is. But one of the things I appreciate most about her is her sense of self. She is who she is; she knows who she is. She has enough self confidence to not care what most other people think of her. She also happens to be beautiful, intelligent, and athletic (although maybe I just think that because I'm her daddy).

Then I think about her, at some point in her life, having a nose job. And I try to work my way back through the state of mind she would have to have to make that decision. The conclusion that I come to is that she would have to start paying attention to what other people think of her--and not just that, but people who would think differently of her if she had a different nose. Not how she treats other people, or her sense of humor or her problem solving ability, but her nose. In other words, she wouldn't be herself anymore. She would have to have become a different, less wonderful person. This is especially personal to me because my daughter is starting to make comments about being fat (which she isn't). But I can tell the social pressure has started, and I worry about her.

I should say that my wife actually has had a nose job. She broke her nose riding a horse when she was 15, and it wasn't set correctly, and healed quite crooked. She had it straightened because she was starting to have trouble breathing. Obviously I have no problem with that. And if someone in general isn't satisfied with their body and wants to have it surgically changed, I don't have any problem with that in a generic sense either. The difficulty I have with this is very personal. I hate the fact that our society places has such strong social pressures about how a woman should look to be accepted that a beautiful, strong eight-year-old-girl would even be exposed to the idea that she is fat.



Anonymous said...

Since when has it been considered a given that to be seen as glamourous is to possess the secret to all happiness?

Eg the media today tends to portray devout Muslim women who wear religious covering as obviously leading more drab and unglamourous of lives. Even the HBO show Big Love (which I haven't seen but have read about), the lives of the plural married who live on a compound (said to be based on the real-life FLDS) are portrayed as drearily spending all their days gardening while wearing long dresses and no makeup, while the the show's plurally married suburban protagonists (said to be based in part on the more moderate lifestyle of the group closely reltated to the FLDS who live in Centennial Park, Arizona) are portrayed as more happy, and dressed more seductively.

I'm just rambling here.

But I'm also reminded somehow of the many ladies' magazine's "before and after" layouts from the early seventies wherein there would always be a naturally quite beautiful model sporting a "hippy chick" look with no makeup and unstyled hair who would be transformed into something more standardly glamourous, somewhere on the continuum between an average contemporary suburban woman's frou-frouness and that of a cocktail waitress. However, I would chuckle to myself since I always preferred the "before" pics. (And indeed isn't it a generally less polished of a look that's become the trend among the generations who have come of age since then? Albeit a more naked of a look, too, of course.....)

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone should--"freely" or otherwise--hand over the shape of their bodies and lives so willingly to such a pack of self-gratifying vultures and reprobates.

You said it.

Rob Perkins said...

So... here's the thing:

I blame Disney. They start kids on a road to consumerism very, very young, merely by putting things like Little Einstein toys in the Target.

And because they are masterful at entertaining the very young, and the young, and the "tweens", and finally the teens and adults, we can have a generation of kids who...


who follow Britney Spears into certain self destruction.

No, that doesn't happen for all or even most children, who sensibly stop at following a few Hannah Montana trends and maybe pestering a parent for a trip to a theme park or some very expensive concert tickets...

But those Disney things are sanitized versions of things that I see as very problematic. And now we see Miley Cyrus being taken advantage of by mavens like Annie Liebowitz, with her handlers so starstruck that they didn't advise her to refuse to pose partially nude for one of the most provocative American photographers working today.

Parents all over the country, maybe the world, encouraged consuming Hannah Montana because she was so harmless and childlike. And while Cyrus' choices so far have certainly been better than Spears, I see her on that road, leading people away from non-addictive behaviors.

My kids don't watch a lot of Disney, anymore. And we talk about the stuff they do watch, though you can bet that I'll be right along with them when "Wall-E" is released next month. Just because it's possible for them to do evil with the secondary markets doesn't mean the movie will itself be bad to watch at full price, once.

Anonymous said...

What's so wrong with someone wanting to look good?

Rob Perkins said...

Begs the question, because my complaint has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of looking good, it questions the importance of looking good the way Miley Cyrus looks good. The former is a nearly universal human want. The latter is manufactured by a boardroom of men in order to win money from children.

Anonymous said...

But isn't "looking good" always culturally conditioned, Rob? Before modern media, weren't there conventions and ideals of appearance?

Rob Perkins said...

No, you're still missing my point, it seems. It isn't at all about the people who want to look good. It's about the motives of the people who name what is attractive. You're still begging the question.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous #1--I like your ramblings. I particularly like your point that the media tends to assume that happiness = sexual permissiveness = a-seductive-and-expertly-put-together (and probably expensive!) wardrobe in the way it encourages actresses (and, by extension, whoever allows themselves to be influenced by them) to dress accordingly.

Anonymous #2--I'm glad you agree; thanks for the comment.

Rob, first comment--I'm not quite as down on Disney and its perfect princesses as you appear to be, but I take your point that it's a beginning for much of this kind of warping for too-many girls.

Anonymous #3, first comment--This was at the crux of my argument with my friend in the main post: he concluded from my arguments that I must have some sort of hostility to the very idea of attempting to look one's best--to "manipulate your appearance," if you want to put it that way--whereas I don't see myself attacking that at all. I'm attacking one particular way (or at most one particular set of ways) by which many people attempt to manipulate their appearance, and I attack it because it involves a commercialization of the body and its image, because of its invasiveness and permanence, and most of all because of the corrupt and corporate motivations which I believe lays behind a good percentage of such practices.

Rob, second comment--"manufactured by a boardroom of men in order to win money from children"...yes, what you said.

Anonymous #3, second comment--But I would argue (and we get into socio-economic critiques of the social power of the mass media at this point if you'd like) that the "conventions and ideals of appearance" which existed in the past were rarely, if ever, so stringent, so frequently unnatural, and so commonly targeted a specific population.

Rob, third comment--Again, what you said.

Rob Perkins said...

Perhaps I could widen my condemnations and blame Viacom at the same time, but Disney was first with the over-the-top brand leveraging.

And, I have a perspective that comes from having been within a company which produces entertainment content, as well. It is not all that tangential to our discussion here.

Do you know why "Basic Cable" costs $50/month? Why you can't choose your four favorite channels and not pay for the remaining 36 you don't want?

The answer, fundamentally, is, "Disney", which was the earliest of the production companies to sell to cablecos. The contract stipulates a per-subscriber price. So if you want HBO, but you don't want Disney, well, tough, because no cableco or digital satellite provider is allowed to not charge you for the Disney Channel. Or, for that matter, for MTV and Nickelodeon.

They do what Microsoft once did with Windows, with their "per machine" pricing to OEM's. And they've gotten away with it for over 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Corporations say what looks good. So women that try to "look good" are being manipulated by corporations. Women suffer from a form of false consciousness about what "looking good" entails. Men also suffer from a corresponding false consciousness. We're all deluded. Deeply, deeply deluded.

Isn't that more or less what you and Russell are saying, Rob?

Russell Arben Fox said...

We're all deluded. Deeply, deeply deluded.

I don't think that what I'm saying about sexism, about the media, about corporate power, about a dozen different things in this post, can be "more or less" boiled down to any one statement, whether this one or any other. But, if a one-line summary is what you insist upon...then, yeah, I suppose this works. No, I don't hold to a Platonic notion of truth which posits us all as slaves chained inside the cave; nor am I an old-school Catholic natural law theorist, asserting that anything which deviates from an unchanging state of nature is a sin. Yes, I actually do believe in the manifold varieties of culture, subjectivity, and interpretation. But in today's late-capitalist, media-saturated, frequently misogynistic world? Yep, I think false consciousness abounds. It's everywhere. I mean, look at all those small-town residents, clinging to their religion and guns as their obvious economic interests go down the toliet...oh, wait, I've already covered that.

Rob Perkins said...

It's not a good rephrase to say we are deeply deluded. Such a statement implies a contempt for the masses I don't actually have anymore.

False conciousness? That's an idea as old as civilization: "strait gate, narrow way, few find it."

*My* claim is that there are "evils and designs which... exist in the hearts of consipiring men," and that the ability of the wealthiest or widest federated of those conspirators to teach a message far outstrips a family's ability to form its own sense of self-worth, if it is not vigilant.

Russell should recognize that quote, which I'll leave as a homework exercise for the friends of Google, while also dropping the hint that this sort of thinking drops a whole new angle on certain words of wisdom.

Don't you agree, Russell? ;-)

Anonymous said...

If you are saying that we are deluded and operating under a false consciousness about what makes a person beautiful or desirable, where are we being led astray? What really does make a person beautiful and desirable, and how do you know it?

Russell Arben Fox said...


Don't you agree, Russell?

About the "evil designs" bit? Absolutely. As for the "deeply deluded" thing...well, I was assuming--perhaps incorrectly--that Anonymous #3 was using "false consciousness" in the Marxist sense, describing a state of affairs in which people because convinced of the truth of something because it conforms with an ideology which inundates them and which they do not question, not because it actually conforms with reality. In my view, millions of women (and men) do in fact "freely" choose to do something to themselves (often in the name of "self-expression" or "being themselves") that doesn't actually do a damn thing for them in terms of health or happiness, but which does a lot of make them feel (whether they would articulate it this way or not) a better fit for what Cosmopolitan magazine tells them they should look like. Giving that interactive process a simple name like "delusion" or "false consciousness" isn't quite right...but I'm willing to admit that there's a truth to that description as well. I'm a populist, but hardly means I think that the majority is always right.

(Incidentally, Anonymous #3, do you want to give yourself a name? It feels silly to write it all the way out.)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous #3,

Where are we being led astray? What really does make a person beautiful and desirable, and how do you know it?

As for the first question, I think the post and my comments have adequately addressed what I think the hows and whereofs of this warping of notions of beauty. As for the second question, fortunately, I don't have to answer it. I'm not positing any particular standard of beauty; I'm simply condemning one possible way in which people (too many people, in my view) might aspire to one such possible standard.

Rob Perkins said...

I hadn't thought of the Marxist/ideological approach.

Have you ever read Ayn Rand's We, the Living?

Anonymous said...

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