Magazine Features

Beyond Appearances

In a time of digital technology, miraculous drugs, plastic surgery and genetic engineering, human beings have the power to redefine themselves. But what we see could be just a credible resemblance of reality. By Lina Vaz

In the prenatal-genetic diagnostics, scientists take a cell from each embryo to test if they have any specific diseases. For instance, parents can have defective chromosomes and scientists can select the normal chromosomes and implement the healthy embryo back into the uterus.

 

PGD can bring significant benefits by allowing parents to have children unburdened by serious genetic diseases and allowing women to avoid abortion. ‘Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis represents the first fusion of genomics and assisted reproduction and the first reproductive technology that allows would-be parents to screen and select the genetic characteristics of their potential offspring.’

 

This statement is an excerpt from the 2004 report, ‘Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies’ by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

In the UK, the plan of Tony Blair’s cabinet, ‘Our Heritage Our Future’ aims to investigate diseases through genetic tests carried out to all babies from the moment they are born, to create a database with genetic data of all the population. Genetic advances were explored in the film Gattaca with Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, directed by Andrew Niccol in 1997.

Nowadays, we live in a world where plastic surgery is ordinary, where fashion and advertising promote a beauty ideal often artificial. As technology advances, photographers construct their own representation of the human face and body.

 

The endless digital retouching enables to transform body features, not only covering up skin’s imperfections, but also allowing young people to become old and men to become women. Tibor Kalman uses technology to question our perception of identity by transforming white public figures such as the Queen into black people.

 

Lawick Müller materialises characters that seem to personify Greek gods. Perfect faces and bodies are the backdrop of fashion and advertising. At present, the power to manipulate the image is celebrated.

 

More and more celebrities spend hours with their personal trainer and turn their attention to plastic surgery in order to mould their own bodies. Dr. Ivo Pitanguy is considered the father of plastic surgery in Brazil, home to the best surgeons in the world and where thousands of people travel each year to do the desired aesthetic surgery.


Dr. Pitanguy comments ‘the manipulation of the face doesn’t involve just the technique but also the perception of the dissatisfaction of the individual with his own image.’

But what interferes with the way we perceive ourselves? Dr. Nicola Diamond teaches at the Regents University in London. To him, ‘culture defines beauty and we see ourselves through cultural eyes, we define ourselves in relation to cultural ideals.’


Dr. Diamond quotes Luís Althusser who defends ideology attracts us like the first war poster of Lord Kitchens, which illustrates a man pointing his finger at us with the subtitle 'I Want You'.

 

To Dr. Diamond, ‘media images work the same way, they show us a beauty ideal which performs as an image reflected in a mirror. It draws our attention and creates a perception of what we could be – and we assume this as our own ideal to which we compare ourselves.’

 

Dr. Pitanguy agrees media affect us. ‘It’s our job to advise patients by letting them know fashion is brief and scars are permanent.’

Charles d’Augier considered vanity as one of the most secure and profitable weaknesses of humanity. But is it vanity the leitmotif of plastic surgery?

 

Dr. Pitanguy says the common trace of people who search him is a sense of inadaptability. ‘People focus their attention obsessively in the body part they want to change and have the fantasy that once that body part is transformed they will feel perfect. Of course, then there’s another imperfection to be removed and so on.’

Michael Jackson is probably the most well known example of someone who keeps returning to plastic surgery. To Dr. Diamond, ‘he has a damaged notion of himself and is constantly trying to improve himself through surgery in order to compensate for his sense of inadequacy with an idealisation of his image.’

Dr. Linda Papadopoulos works at the London Metropolitan University. She wrote a book about body image, which focuses on the relationship disfigured people have with their body (Mirror Mirror, published by Hodder & Stington General).

 

She adds that ‘Michael Jackson became famous at a very young age and this made him much more aware of his body. To each one of us, when we’re growing up, we only have our families and friends watching us, he had the whole world. His image became inherent to the way he saw himself and that has contributed partially to how he became obsessed in redefining who he is through his image.’

We do need to be aware of plastic surgery’s limitations. Dr. Pitanguy says ‘a surgery must be done in complete harmony with the specificity of the face and the age of the patient. A successful surgery is the one you cannot notice.’

 

Regarding plastic surgery he considers the problem is not the surgery itself. ‘I think it’s terrible when people don’t ask themselves the right questions before rushing to surgery.’

But how much our image affects the way we see ourselves? We may suppose the more beautiful we are the happier we feel. Nonetheless, Dr. Papadoupolos comments ‘actresses and supermodels can be more obsessed with their image than some of my patients who are severely burned or disfigured. There is no correlation between our appearance and the way we feel towards ourselves.’

We shouldn’t let ourselves be intimidated by the panoptical aesthetics that surrounds us in our everyday life. It’s like a talented actor who may change the looks but the magnitude of his charisma is still incredibly evident and appealing, such as Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects and Nicole Kidman in The Hours.

Maybe the future will bring an evolution of the human species and we will be able to add genes responsible for character traits such as predisposition to happiness and intelligence as well as physical characteristics such as hair and eye colour.

 

Perhaps parents will be able to reject their own genetic heritage, and instead plump for beautiful, clever or sporty genes to be implanted into their embryonic children... Today, we’re already developing technologies that enable us to make our babies healthier.

 

The BBC's science programme Horizon predicted the power to change the shape and destiny of the human species will be within the grasp of genetic scientists in just a couple of decades. More power to you definitely translates the zeitgeist. Individuals are getting more control over their body and the way they appear to others.

Published by Elle Portugal in September 2005. All rights reserved.

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© 2018 Lina Vaz, London.