The Democratization of Beauty
Mention plastic surgery and the more judgmental among us immediately rattle off a list of traits its devotees probably share: vanity, frivolousness, narcissism, low self-esteem. We imagine shallow socialites or vain movie stars desperately trying to forestall the ravages of time. But in fact, cosmetic surgery is not an industry built on vanity alone, but also on two much more powerful emotions: denial and envy. Cosmetic surgery thrives on our collective denial of aging and on our refusal to accept physiological limits. It feeds our envy of those who embody nature’s most powerful but fleeting charms—youth, strength, beauty, and fertility. Its supporters praise its ability to change lives and its critics denounce it as the expression of our society’s worst impulses. It is a useful fathometer for assessing the state of our democracy and a Rorschach test for people’s views about much broader social currents: the glorification of youth, the tenor of popular culture, the peculiar but strenuous American anxiety about identity. It is also a wildly successful industry—one based on ingenuity and an array of constantly evolving techniques and products, overseen by an army of trained professionals eager to protect and enhance their market prestige.
In recent years, a peculiar species of thought has emerged—call it Vanitus Democratus—that doesn’t merely tolerate, but embraces cosmetic surgery as evidence of our country’s commitment to equality, prosperity, and individual autonomy. “Envy is the basis of democracy,” as Bertrand Russell observed, but since beauty is a valuable commodity that is unfairly distributed (what political theorists call “the injustice of the given”) it can prompt extremes of envy about its undemocratic effects. Americans loathe such unfairness, but ours is not a society that would tolerate—à la “Harrison Bergeron”—a beauty handicapper who would force-feed the svelte and inflict male pattern baldness on those with thick tresses. Our solution is to democratize beauty, to make it something that, fueled by envy and with enough money and effort, anyone can attain.
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