Seeing is deceiving

Is plastic surgery screwing with sexual selection?

Published August 5, 2009 2:06PM (EDT)

If you thought altering your nose or augmenting your breasts was a private, individual decision, think again. In a paper published in the July issue of the Journal of Evolution & Technology and discussed yesterday on the New York Times "Idea of the Day" blog, doctoral candidate Kristi Scott argues that undergoing cosmetic plastic surgery -- nose jobs, boob jobs, chin augmentation and the like -- allows us to "cheat our naturally predetermined appearances." This is to say, "what we see on the outside is not necessary what we are going to get on the inside, genetically speaking." The problem with this kind of genetic subterfuge boils down, as Social Darwinism always does, to the question of survival of the fittest (or unfittest, as the case may be): "Without these self-identified unwanted physical attributes," Scott writes, "people who otherwise might not have been perceived as desirable mates for procreation" -- the genetic untouchables -- "allow themselves to be perceived as desirable enough to pass on their genes." The genetically flawed but surgically corrected person may mate and reproduce, passing on an "undesirable' attribute" -- small breasts, say, or enormous ears, drooping eyelids or a crooked nose. Without surgery, this person may have been too ugly to attract a partner, and the altered attribute would likely not have been replicated.

For Scott, this sort of cosmetic bait-and-switch creates an ethical dilemma. When one undergoes cosmetic surgery, "an illusion is created, in the sense that what one sees is not necessarily what one will get." (When is it ever?) The unsuspecting mate of the surgically enhanced may thus end up procreating with someone who looks pretty good on the outside but whose genes are flawed. Scott urges the cosmetic surgery candidate (or victim, if the deed has been done) to hold a plastic surgery summit of sorts, informing friends, parents ("changing a characteristic that was inherited should be discussed with the person it was inherited from"), children, and especially potential mates. When it comes to the latter, one should "give a visual reference so the mate/potential mate is aware of what genetic predisposition they are getting into" -- yearbook pictures, perhaps, or an old driver's license. The cosmetic surgery candidate might also want to send out a memo or holiday circular with accompanying before and after photos.

Now, without ignoring the real issues here -- that unnecessary cosmetic surgery is far too rampant, that our culture does not encourage anyone, but especially young women, to accept physical imperfections, that it's probably a good idea to discuss plastic surgery when children, or potential children, are involved, and that, true, it would be kind of creepy to discover your partner once looked different -- can I just say that not only is Scott's paper unintentionally hilarious for its deadly serious tone (what is going to happen if you pass on your recessed chin or pre-lipo thighs?), she also fails to follow her argument through to its logical conclusions. Wouldn't cosmetic enhancement or alteration of any sort -- makeup, hair coloring or removal, exercise, exfoliation, LASIK, a tan -- all need to be disclosed? After all, pores are not naturally this tight, skin this smooth, bodies this thin. Aren't these changes "cheating Darwin" too? (Aren't we all trying to cheat Darwin, anyway? Isn't romance always, to some degree, an act of deception?) And what about the sorts of bodily problems we alter for which the underlying genes don't code for some superficial attribute, but a physical weakness or predisposition that could cause serious problems -- for depression, maybe, or obesity or high cholesterol? Must we be required to disclose to potential mates our use of antidepressants or Lipitor, our years and years of therapy? If a pre-surgery nose is an issue, it would seem pre-Prozac moods should be, too.

Among the oddest threads of Scott's paper is her invocation of Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth." Scott channeling Wolf remarks that not only "the beauty industries" but "the mass media in general" are involved in "perpetuating the belief in an ideal form of beauty to which women should aspire." I would hazard a guess, however, that the notion that you are in possession of a genetically "undesirable" trait, one that, left unchanged, might prevent you from mating, does a lot more to damage self-esteem than the "expectations of ‘beauty' put out there by the media and beauty industries." How can the attributes in question merely be "perceived external flaws" or "self-identified unwanted physical attributes" and yet also be coded for by genes that are "least desirable and potentially least fit for the environment"? Is the flaw a subjective or an objective one? Finally, in a weird terminal moment, Scott notes that the issue of which she writes would not exist "if the genes themselves could be modified to reflect the CPS [cosmetic plastic surgery] that was undergone." What? Here, there might be "a problem with"-- eugenics, anyone? -- "perpetuating what society happens to find most desirable."

Despite the far-fetched and reductive nature of her argument, Scott may, at root, have something like a point. Throughout history, our visual faculty has of course been one tool at our disposal for ensuring our safety and reproductive success, for identifying friends and enemies and lovers; with cosmetic surgery, that instrument has been at least partly disabled. That this might create a kind of free-floating anxiety -- it's scary to think all may not be as it appears -- is understandable. That it would create the perpetuation of seriously unfit genes, and numerous ethical dilemmas as a result, seems an exaggeration.

By Amanda Fortini

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