Make realistic the unrealistic ideal body imageTuesday, 4 May, 2010
Humans have been enhancing our appearance since we worked out how to use tools. Archeological evidence suggests cosmetics date at least 6000 years and cosmetic surgery over 4000 years. In modern times, cosmetic surgery is one of the most common forms of human enhancement. It is also one of the most accepted, with cosmetic surgery being legal in almost all countries, even when going beyond ‘restoring normalcy’ and into unequivocal enhancement territory.
Enhancement of appearance is not limited to our physical bodies, but also extends into the digital representations of those bodies. Digital manipulations, known as ‘Photoshopping’ after the popular program used to alter photographs, are commonplace for most published images of human beings. But it’s much easier to manipulate a photograph than it is to manipulate a live human being so accordingly photoshopped images are generally much closer to any ideal of beauty (though both cosmetic surgery and photoshopping sometimes result in something that few would call beautiful). Photoshopped images therefore unattainable portrayals of the human body, which unfortunately causes self-esteem and body image issues, even body dismorphic disorders, in too many people.
In my opinion, the oft-toted solutions, such outlawing unrealistic portrayals or legislating that all retouched images carry a warning label, are missing the point. The images are being retouched for a reason: to look better. And though our standards of beauty are by no means unanimous, the vast majority of ideals of body image are mostly innate. We have evolved to look for potential mates by seeking traits like symmetry and signs of healthiness or status (though specific signs vary – a tanned, visibly-muscled man in one culture would imply low class, whereas in another he would personify physical fitness). As these are innate preferences, they can’t be completely changed by altering how bodies are portrayed. This is a problem that can only be solved by changing these innate ideals about body image.
Basically, the problem isn’t anything to do with how our images are changed for public display. The problem is the very real difference between what we want to look like, and what we actually do look like. This difference could be removed by changing our wants or our bodies, or both. But realistically, being able to competently engineer the human mind is a very formidable task. I predict that, long before any personality enhancements come along, we will be able to effectively and freely alter our appearance.
Therefore, best solution is to allow all humans to attain the ideal body. Or, more precisely, to be able to attain a body they feel is ideal. This isn’t really any different from what we already do. After all, some people already spend a lot of time shaving, working out, applying makeup or undergoing painful surgeries. Except future techniques would be much safer. Instead of burning ourselves with sunlight to cause the protective response to skin damage that we call a suntan, we could genetically alter our base level of melanin expression. Instead of cutting each hair, or pulling them out, or destroying hair cells with electricity or lasers, we could genetically alter the hormone responses of hair cells, so that any given patch of hair doesn’t develop into the thicker and darker terminal hairs in response to hormone levels, but those hairs remain fine, vellus hairs (like the hairs on your forehead or nose). In the extreme, we might even be able to have a completely prosthetic body, that can easily be maintained (or exchanged).
I suppose the question to ask is – is there anything wrong with being our own fairy-godmother and making ourselves beautiful for the ball? It’s not like beauty was ever an achievement anyway, as a majority of features considered beautiful depend on uncontrollable factors of development and age. And even in a society where everyone considers themselves beautiful, others will likely disagree, due to differences in our innate preferences and to the non-innate social influences on our standard of beauty. A girl could consider herself beautiful if she had the enormous limpid eyes and short slim body of an anime-like bishōjo, but others could (and would) disagree.
There cannot be a society where everyone is beautiful, unless everyone changed both their minds and their bodies in unison. But the achievable goal, of a society where everyone sees themselves as beautiful, would in every other way not be too different to today’s society. People would just be happy in their own body, because no ideal body image would be unrealistic.