Some people claim that standards of beauty have changed radically over the ages. But if we contemplate the 3300 year old bust of Queen Nefertiti, she was as breathtakingly beautiful as any Hollywood star today. What has changed is the concept of how long beauty should last, and this change has accelerated hugely over the past fifty years. Sixty is the new forty. Wanting to look forever beautiful is often berated as a vain, unrealistic pursuit, and inner peace and the beauty of the soul are trumpeted as more important. But most of us know this is only part of the picture. Celebrities resort to extreme measures to stay young and attractive because their looks are the most important thing on their CV, and because they know that the world will gloat if they succumb to the ageing process, proving they were just like the rest of us after all.
Originally plastic surgery was a medical procedure reserved for people with severe burns, injuries due to war or accident, or birth defects. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly acceptable for ordinary people to change features they dislike. No one really wants to look old, despite the facile speeches about inner beauty, and plastic surgery is one way to allow us to get an injection of self-confidence that in some cases can be life-changing. No longer do those with a hooked nose, bat ears or horse teeth have to fear head-and-shoulders photography. There are some uncomfortable developments too – some ethnic features are now also seen as alterable. Some Jewish and African women are having nose jobs or lip reductions. Although many people feel this is caving in to the ideal of the Western beauty (large eyes, pale skin, pointed nose and small chin) it is equally true that these features were sought after in non-white societies well before the mass media got a grip on people’s purses. Pale skin was ever a sign of wealth, suntans being for field workers, Geishas whitened their skin long before white people set foot in Japan and a beautiful woman in one culture is usually seen as beautiful in all others. Symmetrical features and unblemished skin seem to be universal must-haves, perhaps because they indicate robust health and good genes. Nowadays Botox, facelifts and liposuction are so common that no one bats an eyelid.
Speaking of eyelids, recently the plastic surgery craze in the Asian world has hit the headlines. Women with standard Asian eyes (the monolid) have been “selling out” in an attempt to westernise their faces. Blepharoplasty, or double eyelid surgery, is a common practice for many Asian women and indispensable for those wishing to work as actresses or models. Many Asian eyes do not have a fold, and having a double eyelid is said to double a woman’s beauty. South Korea has a disturbing rate of plastic surgery – in Seoul 1 out of 5 women has undergone some kind of procedure, and many men have too. As well as eye enhancing operations, the second most popular form of surgery is chiseling the jaw for a more V-shaped look. ‘Big eyes small chin’ – instead of ‘small eyes big chin’ – is the ideal, so much so that all the characters in the Japanese Manga cartoons have circular eyes and baby faces, which rather worryingly suggests that the innocent look, or looking like a child, is the ultimate standard of desirability.
It is not immoral to wish to be beautiful. Beautiful people have an easier time of it. Cute babies receive extra attention, beautiful children are popular with their peers and teachers alike, and surveys have shown that attractive people – both men and women – earn more money. Like it or not, being beautiful boosts both our confidence and our earning power, especially if we are female. A touch of grey on a man makes him look experienced. Try that on a woman.
With new techniques such as laser technology and cosmetic procedures that require little or no anaesthesia and virtually no recovery time, plastic surgery is safer, cheaper and less painful than before. As more people have skin treatments, boob jobs, laser hair removal and leg vein treatment, “normal” irregularities will inevitably become more unacceptable. ”Ugly” people will find themselves in more of a minority, with all the disturbing psychological consequences that brings. Already older women are expressing shock at the power the porn industry has wielded over the acceptability of pubic hair, whereas less than a century ago even a hairy leg would not induce shock since it was never exposed to public view anyway. Google “touched-up photos” and you will find videos showing the amazing transformations of quite ordinary people. Is it any wonder we feel depressed when we look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning when comparing ourselves to these false images? No one really looks like those models, least of all the models themselves.
No one wants to become a cement-face junkie addicted to plastic surgery either though, which can produce that ‘we come in peace’ look, or change a fresh-looking young girl into a drag queen. The cases of Michael Jackson and the reptilian Jocelyn Wildenstein have entered the collective consciousness. For most of us great hair, great makeup and good lighting make it possible to avoid the knife and the risk of going through our lives looking plastic.
So what to do when looks are our lunch ticket and we are struck down with fear when we contemplate ourselves in a harsh white light? Studies have shown that plastic surgery can decrease the use of anti-depressants and greatly enhance self-esteem. It boosts social skills but obviously is not going to fix traumas, personality disorders and deep psychological problems, nor does it fix our relationships. Things can go wrong on the operating table, and you can’t just grow it out like a bad haircut; there is a booming industry in plastic surgery reversal but some damage is permanent. However these days it’s there if we want it, and more choice is a good thing. Figures from the American Association of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery indicate that there has been a 35 percent rise in cosmetic surgery procedures in the United States since 1990. The bottom line is we age how we want to age, we look how we want to look, and that is just fine.