I was recently interviewed by the Marin Independent Journal regarding a documentary called America the Beautiful: Is America Obsessed with Beauty? You can check out the website at http://www.americathebeautifuldoc.com. Although the movie is not yet out, based on the press and trailer, it seems to be a thoughtful look at the impact of media and popular culture on our perceptions of beauty and self-image. The piece questions if we as a society have an obsession about beauty. I was asked several questions about my take on this idea, how it impacts my approach as a surgeon, and a variety of other related issues. I thought it might be interesting to paraphrase some of the discussion.
1) Has the media affected our perception of beauty?
Absolutely. For most people, the media affects our perceptions about many things, no matter how independently minded we may try to be. But I think that the media and our perception of beauty represents a “chicken and the egg” conundrum. Which came first? Does the media just reflect back to us our views or does it create them? Probably both. However, long before media existed there have been strong views about beauty going back to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and every civilization since. Beauty has been in the pot for a long time, though the media spices it up and gives it a good stir.
2) Is it shallow to be concerned about beauty?
To some degree we are all aware of our appearance. We all take measures to make ourselves look a certain way. This may range from basic grooming like combing our hair on one end of the spectrum to things that are more involved like cosmetic surgery. But to say that this concern is shallow for any given person is judgmental and a bit arbitrary. Every person has his or her own motivations. I can say though that there are numerous studies in sociology and anthropology, which confirms that appearance and beauty have a huge impact on life outcomes related to happiness, financial success and even longevity. So whether we like it or not, beauty is a pervasive and powerful influence on our individual consciousness and collective society.
3) Do we have an unhealthy obsession?
I think some of us do and some of us do not. I think the concern for appearance becomes an unhealthy obsession when it starts to interfere with our ability to maintain our life routines, our relationships with others, and damages our feelings about ourselves.
4) What else affects our perceptions about beauty besides the Media?
Lots of things. It is a nurture versus nature thing. On the nurture side there are our peers, our parents, family values, ethnic or nationality considerations. And then on the nature side there is growing evidence that much of our sense of beauty comes hard-wired into us…from our DNA! The theory goes that we are equipped with an innate sense of what is attractive because as a species, a sense of aesthetic beauty helps us find a suitable mate with whom we will have a greater likelihood of creating offspring and expanding the species. The scientists believe that beauty is a trait that signifies health and reproductive viability. But “what is beautiful” is different in each individual culture. This idea is supported by research I have conducted on modern preferences of facial beauty.