Some years ago I was writing a book about life’s changes, and I chanced on a Vogue Magazine article about plastic surgery. At the time, and this was perhaps three or four years ago, I was shocked to realize how many New York socialites had their very young kids - and I’m talking prepubescent - cut, clipped, improved and fixed long before they had ever put on a training bra.
There was a laughing discussion of the Hollywood lollipop look and the fish face. Women so skinny that their heads resembled huge moons on sticks, and the lip filler-fish face which impeded any effort to sip a drink or use a straw.
I sat next to one of those women at a party once. She was a Halloween joke. And had paid a fortune for it.
A recent Medium commenter fired me a link to this New Yorker article by Jia Tolentino about the compulsion to find perfection by looking like someone else. Kardashian is the most popular, but there are others. I struggle to understand why any thinking human being would want to look like one of the most stunningly vapid human beings on the planet but then I pride myself on having a couple of brain cells.
Not enough of them to have skipped the Koolaid that who I was and how I looked wasn’t enough in my youth, but I am convinced we all go through that phase. What’s different is the social media piece, which has put a Certain Look at a premium far higher than simply, looking like yourself.
What the fuck is the matter with looking like yourself, since your skin is the only one that holds you?
I understand the occasional nip and tuck when age tugs at a jawline. We’re all vain, and if funds allow sometimes it’s a bit of a boost. But marching off to celebrity plastic surgeons to fundamentally change your face in order to Be Like, Look Like some asshole influencer?
I realize my values don’t fit this model. That doesn’t make me right and those who do it wrong. I am simply calling this into the fore and questioning why on earth we are so willing to let so many people separate us from our treasure to get a look (Tolentino calls it the single cyborgian face), when perhaps the greater spiritual journey is to learn to live with what we got, come to peace with it, while coming to an understanding that we are not our bodies. Nor our faces. Our looks don’t define us.
Such a statement defiles the fundamentals that much of the economy depends upon, but it’s where I stand. David Foster Wallace said it best: Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing you will die a million deaths before they plant you.
In the meantime you will willingly suffer extreme pain, horrible fears, terrible nights alone while you recover, and the reality that not a fucking thing you EVER do to your face nor all the crimes you commit against your physical person will be enough. Never ever enough. Just take a look at all the psychotic stars who couldn’t stop. You won’t be able to either, any more than the cat lady of New York or Michael Jackson (and family) and and and.
There will always be yet another tweak and yet another trend and yet another pound to be sucked off (which will appear elsewhere).
I struggle to understand how anyone can call that a life, any more than any other addiction to exercise or endurance running or heroin or anything else is a legitimate way to cope with being born and given a body to manage and a life to live. A promise to fulfill, if you will, which we derail by putting so much if not all our attention on the exterior paint job.
I have been partly down that road, and exceedingly lucky to detour off it. I wouldn’t be concerned about this trend if I hadn’t made some of these mistakes. I know the seduction of if only, which for those of us who have been sexually assaulted is appealing because we so desperately want to rewrite history or change what Goddess gave us so that X wouldn’t happen again. In effect, we continue the assault, but this time with knives and scalpels and fat-sucking cannulas. The physical pain never ends, and the psychic pain is never assuaged. Not this way, at least.
But this is our culture. We - most especially women and increasingly men - have handed over agency of our bodies as ourselves, which they are not, to popular culture, ISO of some kind of perfection. Or acceptance. Or, whatever the fuck it is that we want.
I did for a while, too, or else I couldn’t speak to these atrocities at all. I know why. Rape often causes us to hate our bodies as the reason why we were assaulted, and then it becomes an all-out war to punish ourselves for being desirable. Or to try to be more desirable in order to overcome our shame.
I am hardly alone. At least I knew my demons. For those who are not similarly driven, I have no clue what makes us so gullible. Perhaps age has conferred a lick of sense (although I doubt it), but I see folks well past fifty just as susceptible as a GenZ or Millennial to this messaging.
Tolentino flew out to Los Angeles to do her research. At the end of one meeting, she walked out with a set of proposals to “fix” her perfectly lovely, normal face, adding up to around thirty thousand.
From her article:
I felt that I was being listened to very carefully. I thanked him, sincerely, and then a medical assistant came in to show me the recommendations and prices: injectables in my cheeks ($5,500 to $6,900), injectables in my chin (same price), an ultrasound “lipofreeze” to fix the asymmetry in my jawline ($8,900 to $18,900), or Botox in the TMJ region ($2,500). I walked out of the clinic into the Beverly Hills sunshine, laughing a little, imagining what it’d be like to have a spare thirty thousand dollars on hand. I texted photos of my FaceTuned jaw to my friends and then touched my actual jaw, a suddenly optional assemblage of flesh and bone.
That’s just for starters. I have an acquaintance who does Botox for life.
That acquaintance is in her mid-seventies, and she looks ludicrous. I care about her, but her hands and body give away her Kewpie doll face. She is forever poor, can’t make the rent, but by god she has her Botox injections. She is also completely alone. She hates her aging face so much she is difficult to be around.
In some ways I am genuinely fortunate to have gone through that lengthy period of self-loathing long before social media. I can’t even imagine the monsters that drive so many to waste so much on something so meaningless. These days, because of my lifestyle, a lifestyle that many say they wish they could live, I might wear makeup twice a year. The rest of the time I am slathering moisturizer on my face to deal with whipping winds, searing sun and blasting breezes on the ocean. Makeup gets in my fucking way. If I have on mascara, invariably I will end up with raccoon eyes. Do I like how I look made up?
Sure. But it’s impractical. Besides, nothing that I slather on my face (other than really good moisturizers and SPF which help my skin feel better) will make me a better person. Smarter. A good companion or friend. Lovable. Gracious. Kind. The older I get the more I value those things as opposed to a perfect pout, which on my mug would look pretty ridiculous anyway.
Besides, if to make myself acceptable I have to go under the knife for some asshole, then said asshole can go fuck himself.
Looking like Kim Kardashian isn’t a recommendation. What that tells me is that a person is so bereft of self-respect, so hollow that they would forfeit any individuality gifted them for some kind of implicit approval. Usually online.
I’ve skated too close to the edge of that precipice.
Perhaps the part about Tolentino’s article that troubles me the most is that which goes against our fundamental humanity: that there is one single face that is perfect, that there is one perfect look that is right, and that we all, ALL of us should look like that.
This is Stepford Wives on steroids.
That you and I could be convinced of such a thing, then act on it, spend what money we have to align with such a thing, speaks volumes not only to our monumental gullibility but to the extraordinary lie that our sole worth is in our external looks. And that worth is tied up with a particular, manufactured, utterly false face that on the outside, promises acceptance, but in truth delivers nothing more than continued self-hatred and a lifetime of expensive, painful tweaking.
Again, cat lady. My acquaintance is dangerously close to just that, perpetually unhappy with her face and body, imprisoned by the idea of “just one more shot and….”
There will never be just one more shot. The economy counts on it.
When People Magazine puts out its most beautiful people issues, male or female, we are being fed toxic bullshit as to what determines beauty. I once saw a piece that described how Leonardo de Caprio and Gisele (who were a couple at the time) went to the Amazon rain forest. The article discussed how they were received, two people who, in their own worlds, were considered the height of attractiveness. Here in the rainforest they were freaks. Ugly.
That’s the point precisely. The whole. Fucking. Point.
The very beauty of humanity is in our vast diversity, not only of our outer skins, but also our inner variations. How we think, process, believe, love and express ourselves. The trend towards cyborgian faces speaks to the horror that such diversity is unacceptable.
What’s unacceptable is that any of us buys into this bullshit.
Are we so narcissistic that ultimately, after enough procedures, we prefer to see ourselves coming and going, look into another’s eyes and see the same face reflected, to the tune of billions? That’s the logical end point to this nonsense.
If that isn’t appealing, then someone explain to me this trend towards trying to look like, be like, have a face like Someone Who Isn’t Us.
As someone who travels all over the world regularly, I see beauty in that diversity. The broad-hipped and large-lipped women of African tribes, the diamond-cheekboned, almond Asian eyes of Mongolians, the broad flat noses and leathered skin of Amazonian peoples. The National Geographic gallery of people whose food I’ve shared, whose hugs I’ve returned and whose stories I’ve told is comprised of works of art, of individuality.
Those places are being invaded with images of Western beauty. People who travel see what I see: the ads for cosmetics and beauty products in darkest Africa and farthest Asia and downtown Ulaan Bataar feature white Western models.
Which is of course why Asian women have surgery to change their eyelids, and use whiteners to get rid of their naturally brown skin. The same companies sell us products to get brown skin.
You see my point. We are being skinned alive, our quality of life and our wallets flayed for the sake of an ideal that insults the beauty of our humanity.
Look, if paying tens of thousands of dollars trying to look like some popular shitheel works for you, have at it. I can’t help but think that in a few decades, you might wish you had not only your money but your own face back. After all, both were a gift of enormous proportions. But I am quite sure that the plastic surgeons and product manufacturers will be delighted to hoover your bank account while you chase a chimera that will forever be out of reach.
That’s the whole point. An impossible goal, a ridiculous ideal, unreachable, but millions if not billions determined to go after it, while the 1% enjoys the walk to the bank with our money.
I like this simple article by Jade Yap, who speaks to the universal desire for all of us to be accepted and at peace. I’m not going to insult you by listing the Ten Things You Should to Love Yourself. Folks, that’s your journey. I’ve done that already in my life, and how I got there- or am still working on it, more honestly - is NOT something I’d wish on anyone else. I would, however, wish for you to find a level of peace with your person. If you can’t you will be at the mercy of any and all peddlers of implied perfection with all the associated costs.
I will tease this out of Yap’s piece: she points out that if you find yourself feeling ugly and inadequate as the result of social media (or in my case fashion mags) limit or stop your access to them. I cancelled every subscription to Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, the whole lot of them. Not surprisingly, I stopped compulsively buying shit I didn’t need, clothing for events I never attended, purchasing endless things for a lifestyle I didn’t and would never live, and worrying constantly that my hips didn’t jut out like dresser drawers.
I then learned to concentrate on being my best self, whatever that looked like, free of the confines of someone else’s (fake) version of what (fake) beauty should look like.
You and I pay enough of a price just to show up. Learning to live comfortably in this body, which deserves our respect, to care for and benefit from the very differences that make us who we are, and to ultimately realize that our outer appearances do not define us are all part of evolution. Some of us never get there. To this I would point out the behavior of many thoughtless, evil women who had a goddamned hissy fit when Nike rolled out their plus-sized mannequins. Such people are in the thrall of What Others Define as beauty. It turned them into raging bitches, attacking their sisters for not being slim. The very definition of being manipulated by outside forces.
I’m not going to tell you that social media is evil per se. I will say that aspects of it are, especially if Instagram or any other app has the temerity to imply to you or communicate directly to you that what and who you are right here, right now, are ugly and inadequate. Oh and by the way, buy this, inject that, and all will be well.
Follow the money. Then Turn. The. Fucking. Thing. Off.
But that’s just me. What do I know? I’m just living a life that apparently a great many folks envy.
Funny thing. I have a vastly-underused Linked In account, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Pinterest. The only reason that I have a Twitter account is because Medium posts my articles there. I have yet to read someone else’s tweets. I don’t give a flying fuck.
And like three of my happiest, most well-adjusted friends, I spend very little time on social media. I’m way too busy out living, adventuring, hugging people who are very different from me, and keeping SPF and little else on my lips. There’s no reason a great many more folks can’t do precisely the same on their own terms, in their own unique, deliciously different and diverse ways. Which is of course what makes them interesting.