Nearly 7 million cosmetic procedures took place in the United States in 2002. More women than men have plastic surgery, but lots of men do too. Men account for over 12% of all procedures, and the percentage is rising. It is tempting to think that if people were responsible for their own self-worth, cosmetic surgery would not be the growth industry it has become. In fact, it is likely that at least some of you who are reading this posting have either had or are contemplating plastic surgery, are dissatisfied with your appearance for any of a number of reasons and want the advantage of an improved appearance that plastic surgery both promises and usually delivers.
Let me say at the outset that cosmetic surgery is not bad. I do not mean to imply either medical or moral judgment about cosmetic surgery and those who participate in it. The interesting question is why it has become so popular and pervasive across such a wide demographic, not just the aging and middle-aged but increasingly among the young, and not just women but increasing numbers of men as well.
Human beauty is a powerful means of eliciting worth from others
Human beauty is a powerful means of eliciting worth from others. Physical beauty is something that is and can be readily and immediately noticed. Our cultures are filled with tales of beautiful men and women who, not without adventure, live happily ever after because of their beauty, like Snow White, Cleopatra, Liz Taylor, Adonis, George Clooney – the list goes on and on. Our reverence for Hollywood stardom and the world of entertainment in general has much to do with our recognition of beauty as a robust measure of worth, of the worth of the self who owns those attributes. That is, how we look – our appearance – has always been and remains a powerful means whereby some of us earn our self-worth from others. To be beautiful means that you are more likely than someone who is less beautiful to be recognized by others as being worthwhile. Physical beauty correlates directly with self-worth: the more beautiful you are, the more recognition you will receive as being worthy.
With this in mind, let’s look at some of the psychological underpinnings for the popularity of plastic surgery.
Beauty and handsomeness correlate with reproductive or genetic health, and therefore with reproductive and survival fitness. At a glance humans gauge the prospects of successful reproduction and survival by noticing the physical attributes of others. We make rapid assumptions about people’s suitability as potential partners by noticing their physical attributes, which are invariably the first qualities to be noticed. We usually go beyond first impressions to make a more detailed assessment of others and their prospects for being suitable partners. Societies have evolved complex ways of choosing partners, and looks, while not necessarily the most important determinant, remain an important component of this selection process.
As we grow older and become less reproductively viable, our appearance changes and, at a glance, signals our declining value as potential mates. Despite all our other attractive qualities – our experience, worldliness, intelligence and sophistication – we understand these physical changes to mean that we are less desirable to others, especially to the opposite sex, and are therefore less worthy. Losing worth and being worth less – or worthless – is intolerable to us. We are powerfully and instinctively driven to be worthwhile to others and to restore the conditions that previously made us worthwhile to others.
If you become less interested in me, or when I fear you will become less interested in me because I develop signs of age, signs that tell you at a mere glance that I am a less viable reproductive proposition, then I instinctively respond by trying to restore your interest in and validation of me, and one of the ways I can try to do this is by enhancing my appearance.
Humans have always used various beauty products to enhance their appearance and desirability
Humans have always used various beauty products to enhance their physical appearance and desirability. The age of safe anesthesia and delicate surgical techniques has stretched our ability to artificially enhance our appearance so as to either retain or restore the esteem we earn from others. It does not always work, of course, and there are many examples of failed beautification in our world. Mr. Trump’s hairstyle is but one of many tragic examples of this.
Today people can go beyond creams and poultices to remove or hide the blemishes that signify diminishing value and therefore declining self-worth. As long as we continue to rely on others for our self-worth, we can use botox, chemical peel procedures, collagen injections, microdermabrasion, blepharoplasty and many other techniques to enhance our looks, preserve our beauty and appeal to others. Is this what inspires more and more people nowadays to tattoo themselves? Have tattoos become the poor man’s version of cosmetic surgery?
It is interesting that more and more young people, even teenagers, are turning to plastic surgery to enhance their looks and therefore their appeal to others. The lengths to which this is going is extraordinary. Cosmetic surgery to the genitalia is becoming increasingly common, with various forms of vaginal and labial cosmetic surgeries and breast and penile enhancements. No prizes for noticing the close connection between genital glamour, desirability and personal worth.
As increasing numbers of young people turn to plastic surgery to enhance their appearance and maximize their appeal to others, the competition for potential partners is heating up, not cooling down. Although the objective conditions for finding a suitable partner have become much more favorable, given that there are so many more people in the world to choose from and that there are so many other appealing qualities to attract us, genital enhancement surgery is a growth industry.
We can rely on our own selves rather than on others for positive self-worth
There is an alternative to all of this, however, and it’s not about dissing the industry and those who use it. It’s not about a holier-than-thou trashing of these activities as pandering to the vanity of the spoilt and overindulged. It is about understanding how our reliance on others for self-worth drives our behaviours and our decisions and, based on a clear appreciation of these dynamics, how we can become our own source of self-worth and rely on our own selves rather than on others for positive self-worth and healthy self-esteem. In the free space that self-reliance brings, it is possible to hold many more options and alternatives than are possible when we depend on others and their approval for our sense of self-worth. We may still choose to go under the knife, but we will discover the freedom to make different decisions if we choose. In learning to love ourselves, warts and all, we may even choose to keep them.
See the article by Kathy Bayer entitled “The Anti-Aging Trend: Capitalism, Cosmetics and Mirroring the Spectacle in Communication, Culture and Technology Program,” Georgetown University, 15 November 2004, for more stats about the cosmetic industry in the US.
In three weeks I will put up a post about the problem with the pills so many of us take to ease our broken hearts.