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Appearance standards and modifications

Because of a discussion with wild_irises recently and a similar discussion on a mailing list I read, I've been thinking about all the different opinions I have on various forms of appearance modification, especially surgical. Here's some of what I wrote on the mailing list, with some additions.

I hate pressure from mainstream society that pushes people to have surgery or do other possibly harmful things to their bodies in order to conform to narrow appearance standards. I especially hate that these standards are coming to have so much to do with having a successful career in many fields. (E.g., fat people tend to get paid less and get promoted less regardless of their job performance; fat performers find it harder to get work; I suspect other kinds of plastic surgery are all but necessary for other high profile positions these days.)

I disapprove of individuals' giving in to this pressure because I think it harms other people by increasing the pressure on them. But I try not to judge such people harshly because it's very hard not to give in and sometimes a person has no other options, or thinks they have no other options. (However, I do very deeply disapprove of individuals who make a publicity stunt out of their surgery, because that vastly increases the pressure on others.)

Some people say "I'm doing this [conforming appearance change] for me, not because I feel pressure or want to conform." Some of the time I'm skeptical that appearance standards play little or no part in these people's decisions. I think some people might not be aware of the conformity motives. But I don't have direct data, I only have the circumstantial fact that there are a lot more of these "for me" changes in the direction of conformity than away from it. So here I tend to hold my opinions lightly.

I am neutral on the act of changing one's body more or less permanently for reasons other than conformity to mainstream society (e.g., getting piercings or tattoos).

However, following these positions to their conclusion requires me to to disapprove of people who get reconstructive surgery - for example plastic surgery to fix scarring from an accident or to reconstruct a breast after a mastectomy - because these things usually bring someone's body more into conformity with societal appearance standards. I don't really disapprove of reconstructive surgery though. When I examine why, I discover that I believe "It is OK for people to put their bodies back the way they were if their bodies change suddenly or in an unnatural manner because of trauma or a medical problem they didn't have any control over, but it's not OK for people to 'improve' their bodies." But how do I draw the line between a "sudden or unnatural change" to one's body or a more gradual or natural one? Clearly aging is a gradual and natural change and an injury from a car accident is a sudden and unnatural one, but what about weight gain caused by taking a medication?

Argh. It's so hard trying to keep straight all the things I think other people should do. :-)


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:03 pm (UTC)
Re: "requires you to disapprove"
"requires you to disapprove", unpacked, means "if I want my opinions that have 'moral/ethical' components to be logically consistent, then I should disapprove..." It's mildly important to me to be consistent in that way, and I find it interesting when I discover inconsistencies.

My feelings about most people aren't based on whether they take a single opinion of mine into account.
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:23 pm (UTC)
hehehe... trying to be morally/ethically consistant is tough (or a fun puzzle, depending on how I look at it in the moment).

For me, the one I could never solve is:
A. I could never kill a pig or a cow for food
B. I eat both pork and beef

For a while I was a vegetarian. A couple years later, I only ate animals that I was pretty sure I could kill (fish, turkey, eggs). Finally I gave up and admitted that I loved beef and pork too much to give it up. I'd like to be ethically consistant, but I'm not.
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:30 pm (UTC)
I actually don't care about consistency. I mean, if I am, that's fine, but I don't sweat the contradictions. Life is plumb full of 'em.
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:34 pm (UTC)
I think it's interesting to think about, but I mostly don't sweat it.
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:08 pm (UTC)
That's me, too. I do strive for consistency on a handful of big-for-me issues, but for the most part I'm with Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:13 pm (UTC)
Let me narrow it down, then: I kinda think it's important for me to be consistent on the parts of my ethics that involve moral judgements about what other people should and shouldn't do.
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:32 pm (UTC)
*nod* Makes sense. I think each of us gets to choose where to strive for consistency.

Me, I try hard not to make moral judgments about what other people should do, but even that is a slippery and difficult-to-adhere-to position. I keep wrestling with myself and refining what I believe versus how I behave, trying to tug them into closer alignment (and occasionally accepting that I can't, and that's just the way things are.)

I suspect this is a life-long struggle for people who think deeply about their ethical positions.
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:51 pm (UTC)
I don't make moral judgements about what other people should do lightly, but I don't really hold "making no moral judgements about other people's behavior" as a value. Actually, I do insofar as I think it would be great if I lived in a society where I didn't have to, because most people rarely did anything that caused lasting harm. But I don't.

I agree that complete consistency is impossible and I don't fret about it. I just like to think about it sometimes.
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:33 pm (UTC)
I "get around" that one by knowing I definitely don't want to kill a pig or cow for food, but guessing that I would do it if I had to.

I avoid non-humanely raised beef and I only buy humanely raised pork (but I eat pork in restaurants without checking its provenance). That's about as far as I've been able to go to support my belief in preventing animal abuse in the food industry.
Dec. 12th, 2004 05:33 pm (UTC)
the one I could never solve is:
A. I could never kill a pig or a cow for food
B. I eat both pork and beef

Wow, that one's not even the slightest bit inconsistent to me. There's a huge grey area between thinking killing is *wrong* and being able to do it yourself.

Dec. 12th, 2004 06:33 pm (UTC)
I read an article in one place saying that the carnivore ethics test should be boiling a lobster. If you can't bring yourself to boil a lobster, which doesn't scream "animal" so much as it screams "giant bug!" and which engenders thoughts of "kill it before it does something awful" rather than "Awww... how cute!", then you have no business eating meat (so the argument went).

Honestly, I think that if you had to kill a cow or pig in order to have beef or pork, you could. You just really don't want to have to, which is fine. There's someone else happy to do it for you, and as long as you don't disapprove of the killer yourself ("what a horrible man the butcher must be! Killing helpless animals and then dismembering them!") I don't see a problem.
Dec. 12th, 2004 06:52 pm (UTC)
I'm a bug-loving vegetarian who winds up boiling crabs for my children, alas. Though now one of my children has just become a vegetarian too -- we'll see if it sticks.
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:04 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't be happy boiling a live lobster but I suppose I would do it. I wouldn't eat it, though, unless I had to. Partly because it looks like a giant bug. (And the flavor of the meat doesn't do much for me - there are cheaper butter delivery mechanisms).

I don't like eating things that are "whole" rather than turned into bits of food that look nothing like the animal they came from. I think that's more of a convenience issue than a "it's cute!" issue, because I will eat a whole chicken or turkey, but I tend to feel whiny about the bones.
Dec. 13th, 2004 12:33 am (UTC)
lobster boiling
i view the lobster issue from a different point of view -- i don't care whether it is "cute" so much as i care whether the killing is humane. boiling does not strike me that way. ergo, when i catch crabs, i kill them before preparing. i'd do the same with a lobster, regardless of whether that makes the meat taste less good. i don't eat veal either, or paté fois gras, and i try to buy from sources where i know the animals have not been mistreated (though i could definitely do a lot more in that regard; as you said, it's hard).

i wasn't able to bring myself to kill a chicken when i worked on an egg farm (i was supposed to do it with a hatchet, and i was not sure enough of doing it right). but i could shoot an animal for food. the method matters to me; i want it to be as quick and painless as possible.

oh, and i'd be just fine with soylent green as a concept. :)
Dec. 12th, 2004 08:57 pm (UTC)
I read an article in one place saying that the carnivore ethics test should be boiling a lobster.

Bad argument, IMHO. Why on earth would I go near a lobster? They're buggy and I don't like the taste ;P. "Go free, little lobster! Back in to the ocean with you". Besides, you don't boil other animals alive (the ones that I eat anyway)! You whack them first.
Dec. 12th, 2004 06:28 pm (UTC)
In fact, I think you just hit the very thing that caused plastic surgery to become a money-making proposition rather than simply being reconstructive. What is the difference between reconstruction, which restores appearance, not function, and appearance enhancement?

It's kind of interesting, because I wonder if reconstructive surgery would be quite as good as it is without techniques to 'improve' appearance being studied.

Me, I don't like appearance-enhancement-surgery, for the very reasons you discuss, but I won't let it be a, well, 'moral' issue (for want of a better word) for the very things you mention later in the entry.

I suppose I'd feel the way I'd feel if I heard a person was taking a low dose of Ritalin, since "it makes you smarter, right?" No, it might help even a non-ADHD person focus a bit better, and it beats coffee all to hell for waking up, but it doesn't make you smarter... but a low dose isn't hurting anyone, really. But, should a person be taking a drug just to feel better? Like, Ritalin, or caffeine or alcohol or marijuana (alcohol and marijuana are equivalent drugs as far as I'm concerned)

It'd be frustrating as all hell, and I'd have to remind myself,over and over ,that it's none of my business, past the obvious expressions of concern over any real dangers that exist.
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah, what about improving your intelligence? Most people think that's perfectly OK. I guess I could come up with an argument along the lines of "Changing someone's brain so they think more like mainstream society is wrong, but making someone more intelligent is OK because they might use that intelligence in ways other than thinking more like mainstream society."
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 12th, 2004 07:01 pm (UTC)
I'd rather too, but it's tricky because individual choices make the social trend. Don't they? Or does something else?
Dec. 13th, 2004 12:59 am (UTC)
I've got mixed feelings about cosmetic surgery. On one hand, it'd be nice if society could accept people as they really are. Unfortunately, the reality of show business is it doesn't -- or at least the folks in charge won't. The problem I have with "The Swan," for example, is all the gals they've made over seem to look alike.

I am very strongly in favor of reconstructive surgery, though, because I see it as "putting things back to where they're supposed to be in the first place."
Dec. 13th, 2004 03:46 am (UTC)
i don't really approve of plastic surgery that is all about "improvement", mostly because i think that most of those "improvements" are really ugly and horrible. ugh.

OTOH, i approve of reconstructive surgery. which is a good thing as i've had it (from my skinhead run-in) and on my finger last year. oh, and the guy i have a crush on at school had reconstructive surgery, after he smashed his face by missing a pool completely as a teenager in college. he's quite handsome, but i would have had *no* idea he'd had the surgery. he says they pretty much made him the way he was, no improvements. he doesn't look plastic in the least.

the way i look at it: the people who get "improvement" PS, are paying for the opportunity to be the guniea pig for the cases where reconstructive surgery is needed.

Dec. 13th, 2004 11:24 am (UTC)

What are your thoughts about things that accord with mainstream values about appearance but which are generally agreed to be healthy and relatively risk free?

For example, giving up alcohol and cigarettes so that one's skin is brighter and younger looking? Is the issue about risk? Or values? Or are they inseparable?

On another tangent, I've always been clear that some forms of self-change are about falling in line. I think the question becomes a similar one to other political questions. Which battles will you fight, and which ones will you not fight to save energy for the ones you want to fight?

Living with someone who has seriously put zir body on the line in lots of political ways [1] has shown me that asking it of others is not a trivial exercise. If someone got upset with the Bear for going on a diet I'd be pointing them PDQ to zir not inconsiderable genderqueer contributions to living outside the mainstream for example.

[1] http://faxon.homemail.com.au/scarebear/
Dec. 13th, 2004 05:12 pm (UTC)
I think it's about a combination of risk, values, permanence, extremity.

Giving up something that isn't necessary for living (alcohol, cigarettes) doesn't bother me; there's no risk, permanence, or extremity. Ditto dying hair, for example.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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