A ‘Necessary Vanity’ [New York Times]I assumed that the popularity of cosmetic surgery in a developing nation was one more example of Brazil’s gaping inequalities. But Pitanguy had long maintained that plastic surgery was not only for the rich: “The poor have the right to be beautiful, too,” he has said. ... Pitanguy’s remark raises yet another issue: Is beauty a right, which, like education or health care, should be realized with the help of public institutions and expertise?
[Pitanguy] argues that the real object of healing is not the body, but the mind. A plastic surgeon is a “psychologist with a scalpel in his hand.” This idea led Pitanguy to argue for the “union” of cosmetic and reconstructive procedures. In both types of surgery beauty and mental healing subtly mingle, he claims, and both benefit health. ... We might ask: if you’re psychologically suffering, why not have psychological treatment? One doctor had this response: “What is the difference between a plastic surgeon and a psychoanalyst? The psychoanalyst knows everything but changes nothing. The plastic surgeon knows nothing but changes everything.”
Beauty is unfair: the attractive enjoy privileges and powers gained without merit. As such it can offend egalitarian values. Yet while attractiveness is a quality “awarded” to those who don’t morally deserve it, it can also grant power to those excluded from other systems of privilege. It is a kind of “double negative”: a form of power that is unfairly distributed but which can disturb other unfair hierarchies. For this reason it may have democratic appeal. In poor urban areas beauty often has a similar importance for girls as soccer (or basketball) does for boys: it promises an almost magical attainment of recognition, wealth or power.
In Brazil’s favelas many dreams for social mobility center on the body. N.G.O.’s offer free lessons in fashion modeling. Marriage is often seen as an out-of-reach luxury; seduction a means of escaping poverty. Powerful attractions that cross class lines are a favorite theme in telenovelas. And working class women face long lines at public hospitals to have cosmetic surgery. These social facts stem from the lack of other opportunities for many women. Yet, they also reflect an accurate, not deluded, perception of the role of physical attractiveness in consumer capitalism.
For many consumers attractiveness is essential to economic and sexual competition, social visibility, and mental well being. This “value” of appearance may be especially clear for those excluded from other means of social ascent. For the poor beauty is often a form of capital that can be exchanged for other benefits, however small, transient, or unconducive to collective change.
Much of the "plastic surgery philosophy" discussed in the article is applicable to Korea, the world's leader in plastic surgery. As the Korean discussed previously, the most important philosophy to understand modern Korean society is not Confucianism or any Eastern philosophy, but what might be termed "survivalism" -- the ruthless mindset required to ensure the survival over the next person in the continuously harsh conditions under war and poverty. Everything Koreans do, they do with a tinge of desperation, because war and poverty are really that scary.
As the article correctly notes, beauty promises near-magical attainment of recognition, wealth and power, especially when opportunities for women are limited in other areas. Korea, more so than Brazil, is a rising economy in which people have the money to change the unfair circumstances in which they are born. So Koreans do everything they can do better their stations -- they desperately throw their children into more education, and they spend gobs of money in plastic surgery. If you ever wondered why there is so much plastic surgery in Korea, this is why.
-EDIT 8/27/2011- Sure enough, the Economist has an article that explains exactly how much beneficial it is to be more attractive:
The line of beauty [The Economist]
A Chinese study confirms that the husbands of unappealing women earn about 10% less than those of their dishier counterparts. Attractive people also have an easier time getting a loan than plain folks, even as they are less likely to pay it back. They receive milder prison sentences and higher damages in simulated legal proceedings. In America more people say they have felt discriminated against for their appearance than because of their age, race or ethnicity.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.