May 04, 2009

"Beauty" at the Expense of Aging

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you noticed the plethora of people who have had “something done” cosmetically? Are you one of those people considering such work? I have had a mini-obsession of late in spotting cosmetic alterations and thinking about them sociologically. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying people who have had cosmetic procedures – so much so that a make-up artist friend and I entertained ourselves at a high school reunion by quietly noting who had what done and when. Living in Los Angeles, there is a lot to see.

clip_image003Of course, most cultures socialize people to enhance their beauty and beauty does not come cheap or painless.

I just had a fascinating conversation with a friend who works as an aesthetician. I asked her why some of the people who have had work done look so odd – it’s not just that their features have been altered, their actual skin looks, well, it doesn’t look like normal skin.

She told me about dermabrasion, not to be confused with micro-dermabrasion. Dermabrasion is the more intense process in which the skin is abraded, under anesthesia, after which it grows back. It is this new skin that grows in to replace the removed skin that looks a bit too smooth, a bit too ”new”.

clip_image006The point of this is ostensibly to replace one’s aged wrinkled skin with new smooth skin – but the process is quite extreme, painful, and yields results that one may not expect. My friend mentioned someone who had this done who now has a face like a mask since her neck and ears and scalp have her normal skin while her face has the regenerated skin. She had this done years ago so it doesn’t age like the older skin nor does it eventually blend in.

Other cosmetic procedures include plastic surgery to remove saggy skin or to plump up facial features like the lips with implants. Collagen injections were popular for plumping up lips although the effects don’t last very long since the body works to remove the foreign substance. Moving fat from one area into the lips or injecting Botox or other similar substances also results in bigger lips and the effect may remain for a longer period of time.

clip_image009There are dangers to such procedures. Some people find that they are disfigured after such surgery, including facial muscle damage. My aesthetician friend has a client whose surgery did not go well and half of her face is frozen since those muscles no longer work. Also, even more tragically, are the cases where people have died from cosmetic surgeries. Kanye West's mother and author Olivia Goldsmith did.

What is it about our society that has made these procedures so popular? Even in these trying economic times, cosmetic surgery rates have increased (except among Caucasians).

While certain celebrities are obvious and extreme examples, the rates of augmentation and reconstruction among average people are fascinating to analyze. While there has been an overall decrease in plastic surgery, some procedures have actually risen in popularity; note the 203% increase in pectoral implants!


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How are these procedures different from the practices of other cultures such as foot binding in China, Mayan head shaping, or Thai neck rings? Besides the fact that the first two are no longer practiced, there may be no difference.

Because each culture has its own standards of beauty, the way people choose to enhance their appearance will vary among cultures.

What fascinates me is that typically cultures define beauty with standards related to health, elements related to sexual interest, or cultural markers of status and power. Thus clear skin, full red lips, shiny hair, and teeth signify attractiveness, all of which generate profit for companies that manufacture such products.

I wonder how the results of dermabrasion and extreme cosmetic surgeries can be considered attractive. Of course, the mismatch between the quest for beauty using these procedures and the actual outcome, especially over time, is a common one in any culture. We strive to be attractive yet whether or not we attain attractiveness is really another issue.

The concept of cultural lag can be useful here. Cultural lag holds that we develop technologies before we know how to effectively use them. Thus, the examples of people who over-use cosmetic procedures to such an extent that they don’t achieve the desired effect-- “attractiveness”.

Tattoos are another example of a procedure that can theoretically enhance one’s appearance in the short term but detract from it over time. When my daughters got their first tattoos a few years ago, I asked them what those tattoos would look like when in another 60 years when their skin begins to sag. I think they figure they can always have them removed, but I don’t think they’ve given it much thought. Likewise, I’m not sure people getting plastic surgery think about how their continued aging will affect their outcomes.

Will we continue using plastic surgery to “enhance” our looks? And if so, what does this tell us about the meaning of age and aging?


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I believe that as a society we will continue using plastic surgery to "enhance" our looks; until as a society we learn to accept our bodies. Also in our society we carry with us this notion that we must be perfect, and some people will go to any extreme to get it. In our culture we have become used to instant gratification and using radical measures to attain our goals, be it a wrinkle free face at 50 or a tummy tuck at 40. But i suppose for this premise the end justifies the means. We as a society still strive to find that fountain of youth, that the conquistadors claimed to have found, hundreds of years ago.
This tells us that we as a society have not yet accepted the complete process of aging. I also believe that problem is more prevalant in women than it is in men. It seems that are in this never ending battle with age and the processes of aging. But I believe that we must embrace this process of aging. We must embrace the process of aging as painful and 'ugly' as some may perceive it to because there is really no way around it. As we get older so will our bodies, and thats a part of life that we must deal with.

"Tattoos are another example of a procedure that can theoretically enhance one’s appearance in the short term but detract from it over time."

If I may be a bit gruff, "sez you." Tattoos are an example of something that *you think* detracts from one's appearance over time. They are something that *you* and the dominant culture in which you participate think detract from the preferred standard of human beauty. There are countless cultures--and even a subculture or two--who disagree with you. You seem to acknowledge this elsewhere--"Because each culture has its own standards of beauty, the way people choose to enhance their appearance will vary among cultures"--but you make the blanket statement anyway, disregarding that cultural norms differ (and change) over time and place. Tell the Maori elders that their moko detracts from their appearance as they age. Tell the Masai that their stretched earlobes will look bad when they're older. Tell Berber women that their facial tattoos won't be so flattering in 60 years. And then entertain the possibility that in some small way, American standards of physical appearance (vis a vis inked skin) are changing. I think they are.

"When my daughters got their first tattoos a few years ago, I asked them what those tattoos would look like when in another 60 years when their skin begins to sag."

Many people ask me, often scornfully with a "gotcha" attitude, what my tattoos will look like in 60 years. I tell them to stick around and find out; I'm going to make a smashing 90-year old woman. As Alexis comments above, "As we get older so will our bodies, and thats a part of life that we must deal with." When I made these permanent decisions, I chose to "deal with" aging and change as a part of the natural life of a body and my art. Is this different than altering the body in the name of not dealing with aging? Is it more or less natural? Who gets to say which kinds of physical self-determination are preferred or allowed in societies when some cultures shape their limbs with brass rings and others sculpt their noses, chins, cheeks, breasts, bellies, thighs with knives, chisels, and lasers under anesthesia? These are the questions that interest me. I know that the dominant American culture agrees with you about tattoos--and yes, they seem to find it acceptable to power-sand their faces off in the name of youth--but I find myself asking why *that* kind of "built body," as I call it, is seen as preferable, and my kind is seen as deviant?

I'm enjoying the blog consistently and look forward to being in the conversation.

In our society people think they have to look perfect in order to feel good about themselves. This could be because so many people in our society judge each other by our looks instead of what is inside. People change what they look like using these procedures because they think it will make them look younger, they don't do the research needed to see what may occur afterwards, such that of muscle damage. I agree with Nora Rocket's comment about getting tattoos. People get tattoos to make themselves look "cool", this could also be true for piercings of all sorts as well.

While in theory cosmetic surgery might fall into the category of binding feet, neck rings, and head shaping, I think in reality or in practice there is a big difference. The former things are practices that don't seem to strive to seem natural. No one is born with rings around their neck or a disc in their lip. Feet were bound into not only an abnormally small size, but a deformed shape that everyone knew was not a normal human foot shape. And Mayans shaped heads in a manner that made them distinctly different than a normal skull. Likewise with tattoos - no one is born with intricate artwork on their body (although it would be cool if that were the case!)

Cosmetic surgery, on the other hand, with some exceptions here and there, are designed to deceive. It frequently fails, as you've obviously seen, but the intent is there. The fact is, plenty of people do have naturally huge breasts, naturally perky breasts, full lips, high cheekbones, big calves, slim waists, no cellulite, good skin, good pectorals, delicate noses, etc. Most people who go for cosmetic enhancement want to look like they naturally have those things.

As for when those people get older, though, you and your commenters are right that people haven't accepted the fact that all bodies age. And this is the problem that I think a lot of women run into when they no longer look naturally youthful. Our brains are wired to pick out abnormalities in others. It helps us choose mates and surely a host of other things. A human who has gone through the natural process of aging, at the age of 70, does not have super-tight skin and swollen lips. When we see this, we immediately know that it's unnatural, and for many of us, it rubs us the wrong way.

This is also about Cultural Capital. Beauty is often defined by elite standards. To look beautiful means conforming and accepting these standards. It also means that the beautiful person has the resources to achieve these standards, whether it is cosmetic surgery, a personal trainer, personal hair stylist, etc. In other words, from the elite point of view, the beautiful person is "one of us." Hence, beautiful people have a leg up at getting access to elite level resources.

After reading this article I was not surprised that women in great numbers are lining up to get their bodies altered in some way. Beauty is fleeting and the face seen in the mirror is always changing. Women are socialized from youth to live up to a standard of perfect that is unachievable. Magazines airbrush the women’s figure to convey a perfect shape. Young eyes read these magazines and wish to fulfill the worlds pleasure. Also, the standard for women to be successful in their professions is a huge ladder to climb. Most women feel obligated to keep a youthful appearance in order to stay successful once they finally reach a desired destination in a job field. Most careers encourage a youthful and energetic presence from a woman causing her to feel compelled to stay youthful for as long as she can. Thus, the older a woman gets, the more she feels invaluable in a career causing her to try new ways to keep her appearance as young-looking as possible. I agree with Sally that the most adherent defining qualities of beauty in the outward appearance for most cultures is “health”, “sexual interest”, or “status and power”. These defining qualities leave women with no other option than to change to fit the mold that society has mercilessly placed. The pressure that women face is dramatic and leads to unhealthy choices. All women struggle with the same things, the emptiness inside, the struggle for perfect, the yearning to be noticed, and the quest for beauty no matter what the cost. But beauty does not come from the outward appearance alone. If we rely on the outward appearance we will be forever disappointed. If we let the world define our value, then we will never be valued. So let us look into the unchanging eyes of God to determine our value through how He sees us. His workmanship, made so beautiful it’s scary, David exclaims in (Psalms 139:13-16)(
“13 For you created my inmost being;
       you knit me together in my mother's womb.
 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
       your works are wonderful,
       I know that full well.
 15 My frame was not hidden from you
       when I was made in the secret place.
       When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
 16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
       All the days ordained for me
       were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.”

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is a very popular saying. No matter who you are, I would like to think that we do not judge people automatically by what they look like, but in reality this is not true. We see some one, and just by looking at the clothing they are wearing, we classify them into a group in society and make comments about them. Being physically attractive is also a huge concern in society. People want to look healthier and younger for longer. But this process is not normal.Many procedures are not healthy for the human body and can have worse affects over time. Another thing is tattoos. Many people get them as a "personal meaning" or to grieve a lost loved one. Many people that get them consider that it may not look the same in twenty years, but they often do not care. I think people should let their bodies age as natural process. Surgery to cure a disease or fight cancer is much different, but making your lips look more plump to give off the look that you are ten years younger seems very rediculous.

It seems that, especially in America, the idea of being beautiful is becoming a dangerously strong desire. Because of the amount we are constantly being bombarded with media, we are constantly being fed images of how we are "supposed" to look and act. Celebrities seem perfect and people want to be like them. Therefore, they go to a surgeon and ask for the "angelina lips" or a "J-Lo butt". What many do not realize, however, is that many of the celebrities they are trying to emulate or fakes themselves. They have all the money they want to spend on cosmetic procedures, and they do. So what are people really trying to look like. If you're trying to look different or better, it's likely that you'll only end up looking fake.
What people need to start concerning themselves with is not how they can improve themselves, but with how they can improve how they feel about themselves. We should put more value on appreciating the things that make us unique individuals rather than a bunch of carbon copies.
I agree with the idea that cultural lag is present when it comes to cosmetic surgery. I feel that the best way to deal with this dangerous trend is to try and find other more effective uses for cosmetic surgery.

Many people in today's society believe that to be beautiful you have to look like the models and famous people you see on T.V. It is so apparent because in these days a lot of people choose to get cosmetic surgery. I think that is because many people rely on first impressions. If one does not look perfect at first meeting, an individual might be judged. So many people are worried that they aren't up to societies standards. Media has put in into societies head that looks are extremely important. Magazines and Ads tell people that they need to follow their gender norms and not stray from it. That's why we see the increase in bust sizes and tummy tucks, nose jobs and face lifts. Youth is golden and looking older is a fading fashion.

If tucking a little there, injecting here, implanting that, makes someone feel better about themselves then i see no problem in plastic surgery. Some people take it to the extreme and are never happy with themselves. Other cultures see beauty completely difference then we do, the media has something to do with this. Constantly seeing models and beautiful people on t.v and magazines and living the good life. People then associate beauty with success and fame, not even considering that these images and staged, faked with makeup and airbrushed to look perfect. No one can achieve perfection, even with plastic surgery. Many people who have plastic surgery end up looking like that, plastic. There is nothing wrong with someone doing a procedure correcting something they have been unhappy about for many years, but where do we draw the line, when does it start turning in to self mutilation

Plastic Surgery will be common in our society until there is a process developed to take its place. More often than not the results of plastic surgery look odd, unnatural, and sometimes just plain freaky. it is a wonder why people are still lining up out the door to have the procedures done. My theory is that these people who go to the extent of surgically altering their appearences have self esteem issues and unsatisfied views of themselves that will probably never be fixed. Plastic surgery is just another attempt to try to heal their insecurities. As long as we push the fantasies of the perfect face, hair, and body that our beloved celebrities hold, plastic surgery is here to stay!

We are a part of a capitalist society and we are being influenced to "capitalize" on our bodies. In a way when we spend so much money on these products and procedures we are becoming our ultimately commodified selves. I find it interesting that while our nation is in reality getting older all we want is to halt the aging process more than ever before and the image we are after is younger and younger. I do not see so much honoring and valueing the old and the wise unless it is your own grandma. The ideal image set for us on TV and other media really motivates and sets our standards for us and it seems like people really expect to attain all that we see on tv in our actual lives more than in the past. We watch the show, and then watch the ad for that makeup, hair product, weight loss drug, that will make us just like our favorite star. I do not know if this is right or wrong, self image and esteem have a huge impact on our psychological happiness. Eventually (no matter how perfectly constructed) the body will begin to decay and at that time I hope there is more "to" us and being happy than big boobs because, as they say, you can't take 'em with you.

There are definitely a lot of cosmetic surgeries out there that have gone wrong. That's why you need to talk to an experienced professional before getting anything done. A doctor that has experience will know what the effects of each procedure could be, and which procedure a person really needs.

Sadly enough, I do believe more people will turn to plastic surgery as the ultimate “fountain of youth”. There is so much pressure in society (especially by way of the media i.e. commercials, popular magazines, and celebrities) to appear young and fresh – our natural ideal factors that promise beauty. But we need to realize that aging is just as natural and is a process that should not cause fear and denial.

We should always know the things that we need to consider before going through this. It's serious. It's scary. The article is just reminding us that whatever we did, it's our decision, we can definitely think twice.

I love your article. Well for me, I dont care about aging, it doesn't matter at all, people will definitely grow old, I dont mind looking old. As long as I did my part to put care of my skin, that's enough. I enjoyed my life when I was young. I should be happy to see those wrinkles on my face that shows that I've been through to lots of things in this world.

Aging, we all will go through it. It can't be stopped and won't be stopped. The best you can do is delay it, or just try to age gracefully. A simple nip or tuck can be an option, and when done right, may prove to be effective for slowing down the aging process.

Going back to its true purpose - well, plastic surgery was actually used for fixing deformed body parts, but now, in addition to this, it's also used to enhance one's features. But it should always be guided with discipline and contentment to have better results. Too much is always bad, especially with cosmetic surgery; that's why upright surgeons conduct tests scrupulously.

Some great examples of these are the people featured on Adam Sandler's movie, "Just go with it". He was a plastic surgeon in the movie, the best one on the field. He always warns his patients about the bad effects of excessive cosmetic surgery. And the people they featured in the movie were really pretty odd. There was this old man who had too much Botox that the nerves on his face stopped functioning. The lesson of the movie is simple: know the limits of your body. We cannot defy aging, but if we want to look younger, we can try some cosmetics. In my opinion, healthy living is still the best way to achieve a young-looking aura.

I just had a intriguing dialogue with a companion who operates as an aesthetician. I requested them why some of the individuals who have had operate done look so odd. It’s not just that their functions have been changed.

I love your article. Well for me, I dont care about aging, it doesn't matter at all, people will definitely grow old, I dont mind looking old. As long as I did my part to put care of my skin, that's enough.

Aging, we all will go through it. It can't be stopped and won't be stopped. The best you can do is delay it, or just try to age gracefully. A simple nip or tuck can be an option, and when done right, may prove to be effective for slowing down the aging process.

Sadly, I think this is just the way the world is going right now. Superficiality has become more important than substance, and this attitude towards beauty reflects that. Thanks for the article.

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