Affluence that Hurts and Numbs

Maura Moynihan’s article on the recent decline in breast implants offers some fascinating perspectives on the diversity of ways an affluent economy can “solve” problems of anxiety or low-self-esteem:

In the 1980s . . . model and talent agencies advised hopeful ingénues to get implants, to achieve the “Barbie Body.” The solution to female physical inadequacy provided by the medical/scientific/engineering establishment, the supreme authority in our industrial society, was achieved by surgical alteration as a means to salvation, by the omnipotent, omniscient man in the white coat wielding a knife, who would to transform the flesh to deliver the soul to safety and power, and, yes, yes, yes, love.

I’ve watched in puzzlement as friends and neighbors, women with advanced degrees, stock portfolios, great legs and hair, women one assumed had transcended much anxiety and fear about sexual appeal and self-esteem, using discretionary income or taking out bank loans to get breast implants, tummy tucks, and eye lifts. After enduring the excruciating pain of surgery and a long and perilous recovery period, the results are often strange and painful, and too often there are complications, illness, and even disfigurement.

Pervasive sexism explains a lot here, as does a medical system ever-more-tilted to put profit before patient care. Culture pushes economic productivity in both productive and destructive directions. A recession may cut out some of the surplus that has been deployed for self-alteration, but an underlying culture of self-objectification will keep demand at the ready if resources reappear.

Turning from the physical to the mental, the new hype over a potential “anti-love drug” exemplifies this trend to optimize humanity mechanically and chemically, rather than developing a society capable of accepting humans as they are:

In the new issue of Nature, the neuroscientist Larry Young offers a grand unified theory of love. After analyzing the brain chemistry of mammalian pair bonding — and, not incidentally, explaining humans’ peculiar erotic fascination with breasts — Dr. Young predicts that it won’t be long before an unscrupulous suitor could sneak a pharmaceutical love potion into your drink. . . [and we] might reverse-engineer an anti-love potion, a vaccine preventing you from making an infatuated ass of yourself.

[T]here could soon be drugs that increase people’s urge to fall in love. “It would be completely unethical to give the drug to someone else,” he said, “but if you’re in a marriage and want to maintain that relationship, you might take a little booster shot yourself every now and then. Even now it’s not such a far-out possibility that you could use drugs in conjunction with marital therapy.”

Nature has also recently hosted an editorial in favor of cognition-enhancing drugs for the healthy. I wonder if somebody slipped the editors a technophilia-inducing mickey?

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