When Michelle Obama recently turned 50, People magazine asked her if she would consider cosmetic surgery. That is an oddly indiscreet question to ask the first lady, involving a variety of pernicious assumptions about gender, beauty and age.
Obama said she wouldn’t rule out cosmetic surgery. She added that women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to do to feel good about themselves. There is no doubt that we should have freedom to pursue happiness. And cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries can be therapeutic life-changers for those who have been disfigured.
But our focus on youthful appearance represents an interesting idea about happiness. Instead of learning to accept the changes of our aging bodies, we are encouraged to stay young with Botox and Viagra.
Philosophers have long viewed physical beauty and sexual attraction as minor goods not worthy of serious consideration. Many philosophers were notoriously ugly. Socrates had a snub nose. Crates, the Stoic, was a hunchback whose deformity was mocked in the gymnasium. Epictetus, the Stoic sage, was lame. Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, was reputed to have a twisted back. And Thoreau was described by Nathaniel Hawthorne as being ugly as sin.
Insight and wisdom may develop from the alienation that results from an abnormal visage or a physical deformity. Would Socrates have become a philosopher if he had a nose job? Would Thoreau have spent his time alone in the woods reflecting on the meaning of life, if he were not so ugly?
The philosophical tradition teaches that the source of happiness should be internal, based upon virtue and integrity. The tradition warns that good looks can deceive. And it reminds us that youthful beauty fades as it must with the passage of time.
One cannot blame people for desiring the accolades that come with physical beauty. Our culture rewards good looks. Attractive people tend to make more money. A study, by sociologist Rachel Gordon, seems to indicate that better-looking kids do better in school.
In such a culture, it’s not surprising that people would invest in surgeries and other procedures that enhance their looks. Nor is it surprising that some become unduly obsessed with their appearance, leading to eating disorders and self-mutilation.
Our culture celebrates what some scholars call “morphological freedom” – the freedom to alter our bodies. For some, the body is a canvas to be inked and sculpted as an expression of personality. So long as we don’t create unfair competition or harm anyone else, why not do what you want to your own body?
It is difficult to see where a line could be drawn limiting morphological freedom. We put braces on our teeth, cut our hair, shave, pluck and wax. We dye our hair, paint our nails, wear wigs and so on. From those widely accepted practices, it’s a short step to a culture where tattoos, piercings and cosmetic surgery have become common.
But the philosophical tradition would suggest that excessive focus on the merely cosmetic appearance of the body creates a false dream. Lurking in the background is a narcissistic concern for perpetual youth and external beauty. While the law should leave us alone unless our narcissism harms others, there are better uses of our freedom than gazing in the mirror.
Our obsession with youthful beauty tells us something about our relation to old age and the seasons of life. An ancient Chinese proverb defines filial piety – the virtue of honoring parents and ancestors – in terms of care of one’s body. The Confucian proverb says that since we received our bodies – our very hair and skin – from our parents, we must not presume to injure or damage these gifts.
It is natural and normal to resemble our parents. We honor our parents and represent our heritage in our very bodies. What are we saying about our parents or grandparents when we take radical steps to avoid looking old and wrinkled like them? What if we viewed wrinkles and gray hair with pride appropriate to the season.
It’s easy to understand the desire for cosmetic assistance in a society that rewards youth and good looks. But Socrates would suggest that instead of changing our bodies, we should focus on improving our souls.