Character, personality, and cosmetic surgery

IntegrityI am not a blogger. I know what Andrew Sullivan and the Huffington Post people say about how one should blog: Think of it as a conversation and just write what you would say to a friend. I can do that in a comment, but not in a post. It doesn’t suit my “personality” – and personality is a topic in this post.

But … I wrote a comment that got so long, it seemed like it should be a post. It’s a reply to something Roberta said in a comment on Wang Bei and cosmetic surgery.

[T]here is a personality or psychological need within some people that drives them to have plastic surgery to fill a hole inside them. I think people who seek fame and want to go into the entertainment industry, like Wang Bei, by and large have a certain personality type. And it is largely based on a need for constantly being in the spotlight, and a need for constant applause or approval. The roots of these needs would be many and complex, but could include genetics and parenting style.

Here’s my reply.

Personality is a recent development

Yes, personality. That’s an important element in the history of cosmetic surgery. But I think of it in a different way.

The idea of personality is a recent development. In the 19th century people didn’t have personalities. They had character. Character was associated with qualities like reputation, honor, morals, manners, integrity, a work ethic.

In the course of the 19th century, America gradually became a much more secular society. Religion ceased to be the most dominant influence in how people thought of themselves. And religion had supplied and promoted many essential qualities of character.

By the early 20th century, personality had begun to replace the idea of character. Not totally replace, of course. We still appraise people for their character. (I think Obama was elected, for example, because people liked his character. Now he gets criticized for his personality.)

But personality — which is associated with qualities like attractive, magnetic, glowing, fascinating, stunning, forceful — became much more important. Personality emphasizes the presentation of the self in public. As America became much more crowded and highly competitive, personality allowed an individual to stand out in a crowd. It gave you a competitive advantage in getting a good job or finding a desirable marriage partner.

Character is something you possess even if you live alone on Walden Pond. Personality implies an audience. You can see where this is going: The importance of appearance, celebrity culture, cosmetic surgery. The desire to have a winning, attractive personality was a prerequisite for the initial acceptance of cosmetic surgery.

Appearance is what counts

Personality was a gold mine for the marketers of self-improvement strategies, from how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people to all manner of products and services that promised to improve superficial appearance. As personality gained in importance, the line was blurred between what was a mental (moral) quality and what was simply physical appearance.

An example of this is a recent study that showed lack of sleep (‘beauty sleep’) makes people less attractive to others. The report went on to say that this has “potential implications for social and clinical judgments.” That is, you’re less likely to get the job or the girl/boy if your appearance is degraded by lack of sleep.

The importance of having an attractive personality — something that can be judged by appearance in the first five seconds — led Americans to turn to cosmetic surgery for self-improvement. (Along with other things, of course, like the desire to appear less ethnic — Jewish, Italian — and fear of aging and death.)

Who decides what’s normal?

A society needs to control the behavior of its citizens if we want to live together as civilized beings. One way this control happens is by making people feel guilty about not being normal. But who gets to decide what’s normal?

Society, culture, religion – social, political, and economic institutions in general — would like us to believe that many things are unquestionable (or not normal) when in fact they are quite arbitrary. Traditionally these have been things like sexual behavior and the status of women.

There have always been unquestioned assumptions about how men and women should behave. Now that we’ve lived through the 20th century, we’ve seen those assumptions change. We know now that certain ironclad attitudes — like women shouldn’t be allowed to vote — were in fact arbitrary.

Today many unquestioned assumptions about how we should live our lives stem from economic considerations: The health, fitness, and beauty industries don’t want us to question the value of currently favored body types and appearance in general. Increasingly over the past half century it’s the medical profession — and the pharmaceutical industry especially — that decides what’s normal. If you’re a short male child or an overactive one, medicine wants to make you normal.

It’s inherently liberating to realize there’s nothing actually wrong with you if you’re a short man or gay or overweight or a person of color. You’ve been receiving negative messages all your life that turn out to be arbitrary — arbitrary in the sense that the message is simply an opinion or judgment that changes over time and differs from one culture to another.

It’s difficult to see the arbitrary nature of the things we’re not supposed to question. But it’s highly liberating to understand where the conditions of modern life come from – things like personality, body types, healthy lifestyles, and the compulsive pursuit of self-improvement. Understanding provides an opportunity to step outside the system, question the way things are, and make a choice about how you would live your life if you could somehow escape the arbitrary prevailing influences of your society.

That’s not an easy thing to do. In fact it’s incredibly difficult. An individual can’t all of a sudden choose not to place a high value on personality, for example. Sexual orientation and a genetic predisposition to gain weight are better examples of where an individual – with the support of like-minded peers – can choose to reject prevailing social attitudes.

Seeing what’s in our best interests

“You cannot simply opt out of the system and expect nobody to notice how much you weigh.” One of the reasons I like that Carl Elliott quotation so much is that it captures the difficulty of liberating yourself from the prejudices of the society you live in. How do you feel good about yourself when you live in a culture that decides you’re of lower worth because of the way you look?

Perhaps that’s where the old-fashioned virtue of a strong character would come in handy. Unfortunately, the message we get today is to value personality and appearance more than character. High school students and highly publicized elements of the corporate world – tobacco, pharmaceuticals, the behavior behind the recent financial crisis — appear to see nothing wrong with cheating or unethical behavior as long as they don’t get caught.

The upshot of all this when it comes to Wang Bei — whether she had a personality type that needed the spotlight, applause, or approval — is that we imbibe those needs from the culture and society we live in. Wang Bei wasn’t free to escape the attraction of celebrity – to choose a different personality — unless she realized she was living in a society that uses the cult of celebrity to support a certain economic way of life. It’s hard to see that when you’re young and vulnerable to peer pressure.

I think cosmetic surgery – with its emphasis on appearance and enhancement — is an opportunity to explore the larger subject of unquestioned assumptions. This subject is very personal for me. All my life I’ve been trying to understand how the world works and how I can make peace with the feeling of being “outside of society.”

Sometimes it’s very hard to recognize the things that are actually contrary to our best interests. This is what interests me. Seeing those things.

Do you like the world around you?
Are you ready to behave?

Outside of society, they’re waitin’ for me.
Outside of society, that’s where I want to be. …

I was lost, and the cost,
and the cost didn’t matter to me.
I was lost, and the cost
was to be outside society.

Related posts:
The death of Wang Bei: Cosmetic surgery as a moral choice
Blogging: Time to get over it
My personal odyssey through the health culture
The Health Culture: Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Resources:

Image source: Ani Demirjian

Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery

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