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Painful Illusions

How much is too much to suffer in the pursuit of beauty?

British photographer Phillip Toledano’s new work,A New Kind of Beauty,focuses on images of extreme plastic surgery. “I wanted to make beautiful and distinguished portraits of these people. … I wanted to represent a particular part of beauty from our time,” he has said. His subjects have swollen lips,pert noses,full breasts,symmetrical features,but they unsettle,rather than please the eye. The features,while individually perfect,just don’t seem to get along with each other.

What is it about plastic surgery that fascinates and repels people? Look at the attention to subtle “work done”,in celebrity blogs and magazines and TV shows. “Nip and tuck” is the kind of cute language that hides the bloody horror of the procedure. Cosmetic surgery gone wrong is even more eye-catching. Once-lovely movie stars have given themselves puffy,immobile faces and strange mouths,far worse than anything the ravages of time would produce. Those who watch them usually come away with moral lessons about staying natural,graceful,accepting the body you were born with and its inevitable crumpling.

But that’s easier said than accepted. After all,we make over landscapes with great force. We rely on science to ease and improve many aspects of our lives. We are open to heavy medical intervention to assist and improve the functioning of our bodies. So what explains the strong disapproval of cosmetic makeovers,usually expressed in terms of nature and interference?

Naomi Wolf,author of the ’90s blockbuster The Beauty Myth,suggested a simple rule: when it comes to your own appearance,pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Paint,don’t dent. Experiment with make-up,colours and textures,but do you really need needles and knives tormenting your flesh? When you pierce and tattoo and undergo surgery to improve your appearance,it isn’t a matter of mere adornment. It is mutilation,and you should think harder about what’s going on.

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But even before modern surgery,women have often inflicted great pain upon themselves,genuinely believing it is a choice. Foot-binding and neck lengthening might look like faraway practices,but we have our own versions. In Kerala,girls in my grandmother’s generation would prod their earlobes with a thorn,suspend weights on them,till they ended up with dangling loops of flesh that had to be cut and stitched back when the fashion changed. At the tamer end of the continuum,many of us seek out delicate torture with a thread,to “groom” our eyebrows. A great part of what goes on in a beauty salon is actively painful,whether it is ripping out hair with hot wax or poking out blackheads from tender facial skin.

In other words,humans labour to be beautiful. Technology only makes it that much easier to take control,and paint in the features you want. Toledano,writing about his photographic project,invites attention to the amalgam of surgery,art and popular culture,wondering whether people erase themselves or actively fashion themselves when they go under the knife.

The anthropologist Michael Taussig has explored the relationship between beauty,excess and violence,in his book Beauty and the Beast. The drama of the domination of nature,he says,has always been with us. Unlike the judgmental Beauty Myth approach — which says surgery is a symptom,a reminder that women are taught to be mere tenants in their bodies and on this planet — Taussig says that we have always sought out the aesthetic,often to excessive lengths. He writes of cosmetic surgery in Colombia,from the dreamlife of working class women to the disguises of the drug mafia. This kind of appearance obsession is not confined to Miami or LA,says Taussig,but also places like Beirut or Cali,“notorious for their mix of poverty,violence,liposuction,breast enlargement.” The social conditions that produce a culture of cosmetic surgery bear greater investigation. The variations between places are interesting too; America favours breast augmentation,Brazilians opt for breast and butt implants,China,Japan and South Korea are big on the eyelid and nose job.

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The artifice of cosmetic surgery has also inspired art. French performance artist Orlan has made herself over with surgical interventions,several times over. In her Reincarnation project,her entire body has been a canvas for the Western art — she has forced herself to resemble the Mona Lisa,Botticelli’s Venus,Boucher’s Europa and other famous works. Orlan’s “carnal art” melds body and technology in extreme ways. Her surgery is a comment on the plasticity of femininity.

But even if you withhold moral and feminist judgment about these procedures,there is something still new,still unresolved about their effects. Even those who make a fetish of their surgery,the so-called “body-mod” individuals,seem to disagree on its limits. Recently,the Human Barbie,Valeria Lukyanova,and the human Ken,Justin Jedlica,had a big fight over who did surgery in the right spirit. If these individuals are,in Phillip Toledano’s grand words,“the vanguard of human evolution”,we should think carefully about where we’re headed.

First published on: 05-05-2013 at 05:33:23 am
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