Aug 2, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi

Why you shouldn't fix your imperfect body

For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep and abiding contempt for cosmetic surgery — and for many of those who favour it. Sometimes, I have even said that I regard it as entirely immoral — how can you justify undergoing a surgical procedure only to make your facial skin look tighter?

In recent years, I have moderated my hostility somewhat. I now accept that there are times when self-worth depends so much on looks that plastic surgery may be necessary. Consider a child who is regarded as the ugliest girl in class because she has a nose like Charles De Gaulle’s. It’s hard to argue that her parents are being immoral in getting her nose fixed when the rhinoplasty will probably change her life.
I am less willing to forgive movie stars. Can you really admire Rakhi Sawant for having collagen pumped into her mouth? Was it necessary for so many surgeons to work so long and so hard on Mallika Sherawat’s body? Who knows? I am rethinking that one.
I now accept that for stars, plastic surgery falls into two categories. There are those like Elton John whose careers do not depend on a full head of hair but who choose hair transplants out of vanity. Some of them see the light in later life — Paul Simon has refused to have new hair grafted on to his scalp and has even abandoned the toupee he wore for more than three decades — and some don’t; Art Garfunkel still wears a wig; Frank Sinatra had something like five hair transplants in the 1960s when the technique was still evolving. Doctors made so many mistakes that by the end, his scalp probably looked like a gorilla’s crotch.
But there are those who need the operation to remain in business. These days, nearly everybody in Bollywood has hair surgically inserted into their heads. They do not do this out of any sense of vanity, but simply to keep their careers going. Would we accept Aamir Khan as a romantic hero if he did not pay to get his face and hair done? The likes of Sushmita Sen and Manisha Koirala had their chests enhanced only because producers wanted them to look more oomphy, not because they were vain or insecure (Sushmita was already Miss Universe before the procedure).
Sometimes stars are good-natured about their plastic surgery. Years ago, Shilpa Shetty giggled happily about her two nose jobs (“the first one went wrong so I had to do another”) when I interviewed her on TV. I am sure that Salman Khan does not even pretend that the new Elvis-style bouffant he sports on his head these days is completely natural. And sometimes, they deny it. Either way, I think it’s their right. Amitabh Bachchan jokes about his hair (its colour, its provenance, etc.) but I don’t think we would judge him harshly even if he didn’t.
While the vanity surgery (John, Sinatra, etc.) is no different from the facelifts favoured by elderly socialites, surgery in the line of duty strikes me as being in a different moral category. The moral dilemmas are not about stars. They are about ordinary people. For years, my view has been: How can anybody possibly justify surgery in the pursuit of mere vanity?
But I have had to re-examine this position in the light of recent advancements in medicine.
The basis of my argument was never that vanity has no place in society. If I believed that, I’d have to disapprove of the fashion business, the beauty products industry, modern gymnasiums, hairdressers and God alone knows what else.
My view was that while vanity may be an understandable human emotion, there were limits to how far we should go in the pursuit of good looks. For instance, greed is an acceptable impulse up to a certain level but when it begins to dominate your life, only Ivan Boesky can approve of it. It’s all right to take that extra helping of chocolate cake; quite another thing to be a glutton.
My point was about extremes. Vanity is fine. But when it leads you to go under the knife, then it reaches unacceptable levels.
The problem is that, these days, you don’t have to go under the knife. I treat botox as the moral equivalent of a facelift. But all it can take is a single injection and 15 minutes of a woman’s time. How extreme is that? It’s less trouble than a hair-styling session. So it is with, say, liposuction. There’s now something called “lunch-time lipo” which is exactly what its name suggests. I can’t really put that in the same category as Sinatra’s hair transplants, no matter how hard I try.
What then is the basis of my objection to cosmetic surgery? If I regard botox as worthy of moral condemnation, then shouldn’t I also work myself into a lather over dental braces?
I concede that there is a philosophical problem. My old rule about extreme measures in the pursuit of vanity does not hold in today’s environment.
So, here’s a new moral saw: It’s immoral to use artificial means to permanently alter the bodies God gave us. It’s okay to get your hair done, but a transplant is quite another thing. It’s fine to go on a diet but wrong to get a doctor to suck the fat out of you.
My point is no longer about extremes. It’s about invasive procedures. Use surgery, toxins, fat-extractors, etc., in the pursuit of vanity, and I will still make moral judgements about you. Medicine is for curing diseases. It’s not meant to pander to human vanity. To use surgery for the purpose of beauty is to lose your soul. It may change you on the outside. But it rots you on the inside.
Is that a stronger basis for my disapproval? I hope so. It seems technology-proof.
But who knows? The older I get, the more my own vanity corrodes my morality. So maybe one day I will concede the point entirely.
For now, however, the self-righteousness endures.

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