Thursday, May 12, 2005

Sign of the Apocalypse #5: Will that be saline or silicone with your existential crisis?

This one was suggested to me by friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Vivek Krishnamurthy (see link, right). It's my first non-celebrity Sign, but like celebrity-worship and media sensationalism it's a symptom of the degradation of our civilization, with its obsessive focus on the body (and the material) as the defining quality of the human being. They're all different sides of the same phenomenon. This one's much more serious than the other four, however.

Here are the key passages from an article in today's Times:

Such is life for shoppers who have faced the double-edge scalpel of plastic surgery, which has allowed hundreds of thousands of American women to have the cleavage they deem ideal, though they no longer fit the svelte silhouette dictated by many fashion houses.

In regions where breast augmentation is most popular, like Southern California, Texas and Florida, the wave of implants is skewing the selection of designer clothes sold at some stores, favoring sizes and styles more ample on top and creating a new market for alterations...

Surgery for breast enlargement (including breast lifts) has grown by 257 percent since 1997, reaching 432,403 patients last year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Saline implants, filled with salt water, have largely replaced silicone in the United States. Last month a committee of medical experts advised the Food and Drug Administration to allow the return of silicone, which was never conclusively linked to health problems. The federal agency has not yet decided whether to follow that advice.

In total surgeons have performed about of 1.3 million augmentations in the last decade (including repeat customers), not enough to have a broad impact on the American clothing market in a population of 149 million women. But the implant trend has affected the styles sold in designer boutiques in certain cities and regions where surgeries are most popular. For example a woman who was a standard Size 6 before surgery - a 34.5-inch bust, 26-inch waist and 36.5-inch hips - and whose implants increase her bust by two cup sizes, would need a Size 10 dress. But because she remains slim through the waist and hips, the dress would have to be altered.

So. It boils down to this: More and more women are getting breast implants, but many of those implants so distort the body that designer clothes no longer fit properly. So those same women often need to send their designer clothes for alteration. One woman quoted in the story, a 30-year old Houston marketing executive who shops at Prada, had a a breast augmentation that increased her cup size to 34F, and now she needs to have her clothes tailored accordingly. "I'm bigger around the top, but I'm small everywhere else," she says.

Where to begin with this madness? Breast implants? Well, it's unfortunate that so many women feel that they need to have implants. That itself is sad, but it says something about our society. No, not just that men look for women with big breasts (some do, some don't) and that women must respond accordingly if they hope to attract attention. As much as women feel pressure to look a certain way, and as much as there is more pressure on women than on men to look that way, I would argue that many men are similarly obsessive about their bodies and that this obsession is increasing. Anyone who's been to a gym lately knows what I'm talking about.

What it says to me is more existential: Pardon the gross generalization, but many men and women have nothing but their bodies to provide them with any sort of meaning. It all comes down to the death of God (as Nietzsche understood it), to which I would add the pursuit of perfection. Human beings seem to desire perfection. Some seek perfection in a god (God), and the continuing power of religion, especially in the United States, the most materialistic of all societies, seems to reflect some sort of response to rampant materialism. But religion has lost its hold in the modern (and postmodern) world, with the result that many people have been left without any alternative source of meaning. And when perfection can no longer be found in the divine, given its absence, it can only be found in either the social or the individual. Which is why the two most powerful political forces of modernity have been liberalism (the primacy of the individual) and nationalism (the primacy of the nation). One is liberal, the other collectivist, but both are this-worldly pursuits of perfection: the perfection of the individual self or the perfection of the nation (which is why nationalism often assumes the form of racism/ethnocentrism, with its division between perfect "us" and imperfect "them"). Where the latter may lead to war and genocide in the name of perfecting the nation (Nazi Germany, Serbia, etc.), the former, far less noxious, may lead to the pursuit of bodily perfection through obsessive dieting, exercising, plastic surgery, and the like. The modern world may have been a battleground upon which the forces of liberty and the forces of collectivism clashed (and continue to clash), but both liberal individualism and national collectivism are responses to the absence of God.

Those 432,403 patients are just looking for a way out of their existential crisis. It's just a shame some of them think they have to look like porn stars.

(34F?????!!!!!)

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