I was marvelling earlier at this piece of news that Salon had picked up, of the Miss Plastic Surgery beauty contest. Are the women even the competitors here? It seems like each plastic surgeon should have his or her own entry, someone who exemplifies their work. The woman is incidental to the surgery, after all. These contests can judge their artistry and their imagination; their craft and their artistic vision. Unless the patient had a serious hand in designing her future body, I don’t see how she should be rewarded.
But then, the women in more conventional beauty contests are incidental to their own beauty, which is largely out of their control and is probably something they occasionally feel to be an alien force that tyrranizes them. The fake-beauty contest is a purification of the natural-beauty contest, revealing much more clearly the underlying premises, while making it a real competition, one in which will and determination are more obviously in play. Instead of God being the artist, a human is; this seems like an improvement, a leveling of the playing field, a removal of the arbitary quality of natural beauty. Natural-beauty contests are just glamorized lotteries.
Beauty has the tendency of making the woman who bears it irrelevant, objectifying her against her will, determining the course of her personality’s development by so definitively shaping how people respond to her. The typical thinking on plastic surgery is that it makes beauty more tyrannical, as one has no real excuse (poverty, morality, dignity are not good enough) for not being beautiful once you can choose to be through elective surgeries. Staying beautiful along the (always repressive) lines dictated by current fashion becomes a cultural duty, an evolution of the traditional patriarchal strategies for keeping women subservient.
But plastic surgery demystifies beauty to a degree, reducing from an inexplicable quasi-holy blessing to a far less ambiguous signifier of wealth and privilege. Beauty’s meaning, it’s significance becomes simple, obvious. As beauty becomes a choice, it becomes measurable in dollar terms, becomes a commodity like any other, and thus just one fetish among many rather than culture’s master fetish.
Just as automakers have their concept cars that they preview at auto shows to generate interst, surgeons can have their floor model women who exemplify the latest surgery techniques. The contest can drive the technological advances, while letting those advances shape new asthetics. What is beautiful can be separated from the natural all together, and we can start to appreciate as normal, as ideal, as beautiful, women with three breasts or with legs that are four feet long or with necks that are eight inches. What this might ultimately do is undermine any universal notion of beauty, and free everyone to feel beautiful in their own imagination. Somehow, I don’t think this is how it will work out . . .