Hopeful Monsters

MelanieGriffith.jpgEvolutionary theory playfully calls bearers of major mutations “hopeful monsters.” I couldn’t help but think of the term when I read this item about recent developments in cosmetic surgery:

There are . . . recent examples of women who have made themselves unrecognizable as the star we once knew: Melanie Griffith, Faye Dunaway, and [Cher] [pictured at right] come to mind. They were a few of the unfortunate evolutionary steps on the way to the New New Face. . . .

[Despite such mishaps, a publicist is] practical about the cosmetic needs of her clients. “Improve the product!” she shouts. “I know they’re humans with beating hearts, but, you know, these people, they are commodities, and improving on your product is the business they’re in.”

A recent commentary on the controversy over lip-synching at the Olympics opening ceremonies brings to mind other ways in which the market appears to be driving physical change. . . .

Good looks are not only valued [in China]; they are a key to getting ahead in life, especially for women. Just read the want ads in any Chinese newspaper. Ads for secretaries routinely demand good looks and often good figures, down to exact measurements. . . . Ads for male-dominated jobs routinely have height and weight requirements as well. Legislation to stop discrimination against the handicapped or the asymmetrical? Not happening.

China’s obsession with looks has been probed by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas, who has studied the relationship between beauty and pay . . . [He] first studied this phenomenon in the United States and Canada and showed that ugly people earn less than average incomes, while beautiful people earn more. In North America, the ugliness “tax” for men was -9% while the beauty bonus was +5%. For women, the ugliness tax was -6% while the beauty premium was +4%.But in China? Hamermesh found that that ugliness is penalised more in women, but beauty is more rewarded. The figures for men in one city, Shanghai, were -25% and +3%; for women they are -31% and +10%.

This summer I attended a health law conference and saw a fascinating presentation on parents in the US who pressure their normal-looking children to get cosmetic surgery. Luckily that particular madness doesn’t appear to be taking hold in China . . . yet. But no one should be surprised if a hypermarketized society makes such interventions seem increasingly irresistible to those to those hoping for social mobility.

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