The End of Natural Beauty?
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This article is reprinted from American Sexuality magazine.
Sixteen was a particularly hard year for me. And not because I was still almost five feet tall, stuck in an Elita, my mouth paying eerie homage to a small cityscape during the industrial revolution. It was because sixteen was the year my mother's daily suggestion to remove the make-up off my moustache, the unkind effect of stale Covergirl foundation atop adolescent peach fuzz, finally got to me. So began our monthly mother-daughter appointments at the aesthetician's house, my upper lip swathed in Emla and Saran Wrap (an unlikely pairing only for the most naÃ¯ve and hairless) to rid via electrocution every single follicle comprising my hateful orange stache.
A decade later, I couldn't be more thankful. Nor can I help but speculate the impact whiskers might have had on my life thus far. Would I be as successful? As happy? What about my love life? Would my husband have fallen in love with the original, mustached me?
Not a freakin' chance.
Which makes me wonder: Have our standards become too high? Is natural beauty a thing of the past?
"We are beginning to expect to see bodies that have been modified in significant ways, and we are less surprised by bodies that look explicitly manufactured," said Dr. Victoria Pitts-Taylor, associate professor of sociology at City University of New York and author of Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture . According to Pitts-Taylor, over the past twenty odd years, Western notions of beauty have made a decisive shift toward a new "technological aesthetic."
"What counts as natural changes in every culture and epoch," she explained. "I believe we are now undergoing a transformation in our conception of the natural to accommodate high-tech surgery and continual, life-long regimens of cosmetic surgery (and beauty procedures)."
In other words, my husband is either blissfully unaware of my Sasquatch past, or merrily saving for the day we have a daughter of our own.
This prickly dose of reality should come as no surprise; altering our physical appearances to fit the style of the day, or more tellingly, to attract a mate, is a hallmark of Western beauty. Add a slew of plastic surgery makeover shows to the fray ( The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210 ), and it's a wonder women haven't all shorn their labia yet.
The advent of cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery, while raising our standards of what is (and is not) considered attractive, certainly didn't create them in the first place. Birmingham-based plastic surgeon and blogger Dr. Rob Oliver is quick to point out that "Baywatch Breasts" are not necessarily a new look.
"The 'mature' ptotic female breast (read: droopy boobs) has never been really celebrated ... Corsets and bras dating back to the French courts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were all designed to push up and augment the breast the same way a Wonderbra or implants do now."
To be sure, certain physical qualities in women -- rounded breasts, ample bottoms, small feet, and pouting lips -- have been consistently prized over the centuries. From an evolutionary perspective, such essentially female traits serve as markers of gender, differentiating the sexes and providing a mechanism to allure potential mates. Ergo, by exaggerating what is essentially feminine (or decidedly unmasculine) women can up their attractiveness ante.
Consider the ante officially upped. Today, women across the country (and to a lesser degree men) are approaching their beauty goals with a manic fervor once reserved for Tom Cruise, a couch, and Oprah.
"People judge you by the way you look, and looking well put together gives the impression that you know what you are doing," said *Lesley Jacobs, a fashion merchandiser from Montreal who is seemingly bent on erasing every last hirsute trace of Israeli ancestry from her lithe, twenty-seven-year-old frame. "Plus, guys talk to beautiful girls more."
Apparently for Jacobs, "beautiful girls" loosely translates to "girls without pit hair."
"I was so embarrassed of my underarms that I would never lift my arms up. Even if I shaved, you could still see the black under my arms."
With a salary falling well beneath $50K a year, and approximately nineteen rounds of laser treatments averaging around $500 per treatment, Jacobs is a conspicuous example of just how much women sacrifice to achieve what Pitts-Taylor calls the "technological asthetic." And while it may be hard for some to imagine spending a quarter of their annual income on "bettering" themselves, for many it's a logical choice.
"Once it was necessary to feel stigmatized, ugly, or abnormal to justify getting cosmetic surgery," explained Pitts-Taylor. "Now in the United States there is a rhetoric of empowerment surrounding surgeries. One does it to 'improve' oneself, for example. People express an interest in using cosmetic surgery as a way to take care of themselves."
Take *Amanda Scott, a sales rep from Houston. "I lost a lot of weight years ago and ended up with extremely droopy, small boobs," said Scott, who despite earning less than $50K a year recently had her breasts done to "even out" her proportions.
Tall, fit, and perpetually bronze, Scott, twenty-eight, said her maintenance routine also includes regular mani/pedis, monthly waxes, hair cuts and color as needed, and frequent splurges at the cosmetic counter, a regimen she considers fundamental to her life and career. "As a single woman approaching thirty, I definitely feel a lot of pressure to look a certain way. But I've always known that being attractive helps out career wise as well as romantically."
Whether cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery can actually level the playing field is hard to say. For years, only the wealthiest could afford the hefty costs and downtime demanded by pealing skin, draining tubes, and compression garments. Remarked Pitts-Taylor, "Plastic surgery stratifies our bodies in economic and class-based ways; those who can afford it will wear their financial resources on their bodies."
Could it be that American society is on the cusp of a new class of sorts? One comprised solely of "beautiful" people who have the money to sustain their youth or become "beautiful" in the first place? Forget about the dwindling middle-income earners and the burgeoning, stratospheric division between the rich and poor. There's a new kid in town, and she looks a lot like LA. Call her Class Fab.
And she could be you: "I really don't think there's a danger of have and have-nots," said Oliver.
"Cosmetic surgery has really been 'democratized' between classes as compared to say, twenty, thirty years ago, because it's much easier to find a way to borrow money for it. The financing industry has gone heavy into cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and laser corrective vision surgery.
"All the major banks like Capital One have divisions that are in on this market. It has really made cosmetic surgery and nonsurgical things like laser hair removal available to the masses."
And regarding the long recuperation time once required by traditional surgery, well, that's gone by the wayside too. The emergence of Botox, longer acting injectables (Restylane, Juvederm, Scultptura), and nonablative skin rejuvenation (intense pulsed light, radiofrequency devices, a number of lasers) has enabled a number of treatments to be performed without the traditional downtime of surgery.
How this bodes for women is anyone's guess.
"It was easier to look good ten years ago," said *Daphne Mayfield, a physiotherapist who, despite promised anonymity, still does not want her whereabouts known.
Mayfield has yet to undergo any permanent surgeries or procedures but doesn't rule them out in the future. "Even if I don't agree with it, I want to age as gracefully as possible." Lucky for Mayfield, her husband assures her that by the time her looks fade, so will have his eye sight.
Even so, at fifty-five, it's taking an increasing amount of time each morning for her to paint on that youthful glow. A permanent solution might not be far behind.
*Names have been changed.