Authenticity Arms Race

I’ve been concerned about America’s burgeoning culture of cosmetic surgery, and bloggers across the ideological spectrum have commented on the issue (see, e.g., here and here). Meanwhile, the great American forces of libertarianism and self-assertion are steamrollering ahead:

Not only have cosmetic procedures become more acceptable, but they’re being promoted in less sensationalized ways to whole new markets. Increasingly, reality TV’s Cinderella tale of surgical transformation is being replaced with a smart woman’s narrative of enlightened self-maintenance. . . . [M]edia sources now compliment potential customers as mature women who are “smart,” “talented” and “wise.” Such women are supposedly savvy enough to appreciate their own wisdom — but, then again, they should want to soften the telltale marks of how many years it took them to acquire it. “I am not using these injectables to look 25,” Madsen insists. “I don’t want to be 25. I just want to look like me.”

Carl Elliott’s book Better than Well documents a range of people who believe that their “true selves” are most truly expressed in some change of appearance–usually for the younger, slimmer, and stronger (which may be why almost everyone’s avatar on Second Life is so . . . robust).

The aspirations of the people Elliott writes about end up sounding like second-hand dreams (for a mass-produced individuality). Thomas Frank’s Commodify Your Dissent captured the worry well a decade ago:

Consumerism is no longer about “conformity” but about “difference.” Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism.

Thus the latest co-optation of “left” culture by the beauty industry: its “repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed ‘consumer feminism.'”

As Jennifer Cognard-Black notes,

[M]uch of the media covering cosmetic surgery centers on the idea of choice. Parallel to Madsen’s insistence that using Botox is just another lifestyle choice with little difference from working out and eating well, Cosmetic Surgery for Dummies (For Dummies, 2005) promises that the reader will discover how to “find a qualified surgeon,” “set realistic expectations,” “evaluate the cons,” “make the surgical environment safe” . . . . Yet one choice goes completely unmentioned: The choice not to consider cosmetic surgery at all.

That shouldn’t be a surprise in a market-driven society–no one stands to make a profit off the decision not to have surgery.

I suppose in the grand scheme of things, vanity may seem like a pretty minor issue to worry about. But my ultimate concern here is not necessarily about the modifications individuals pursue for their own bodies, but those imposed on their children. Consider this provocative piece on the specter of eugenics, which notes:

[I]ndividual choices can have larger social consequences. Princeton professor Lee Silver has outlined a nightmarish scenario in which an essentially new species evolves: “The GenRich class and the Natural class will become entirely separate species with no ability to crossbreed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.” Others, such as bioethicist George Annas, have worried that such a scenario could undermine the notion of human rights, which is based on a concept of our shared humanity. On a less existentially threatening but disturbing note, Annas and others have also predicted an “arms race” among relatively affluent parents: added to pressure to enroll kids in the most prestigious preschools will be pressure to provide them with the best genes. The result could be an increased tendency to see children as commodities and status markers; on the other hand, parents who choose to forgo these measures could be seen as negligent.

The new culture of self-aggrandizing authenticity projects that bleak scenario into the self, spreading the meme that one is negligent to some future self by failing to undergo some painful investment in its appearance now.

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