Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Beauty" - at what price?

Wrinkles are bad.
So are small breasts.
Also crow's feet and age spots.
Jiggly arms and muffin tops.
Don't forget untrimmed pubic hair.

This tirade isn't limited to women.
Guys, are your muscles ripped?
Chest gleamingly hair-free?
Male member sufficiently enhanced?

On a regular basis, I see 9 to 11 year-old girls who tell me that they're cutting back on what they eat because they're "fat."  While I'm examining them, they will point to the normal pubertal fat deposit just below the belly button and bemoan this unwelcome detraction from a perfectly flat abdomen.  Although some of these girls are overweight, most are not.  What have we done, as a society, when preteen girls are this unhappy with their bodies?

Why are we allowing advertisers and mass media to define beauty? Since when did aging become a condition or disease to be treated?  How did 18-year-old Barbie doll figures become the standard of beauty?  Mass media and the beauty industry - admittedly only pandering to what consumers respond to - have picked up on our insecurities.  We are assaulted on a daily basis by advertisers' impossibly airbrushed and retouched models selling everything from stilettos to vitamins.*  These companies succeed at convincing us of our "flaws" that their products can "fix."

As physicians, we must beware of being caught up in this over-emphasis on appearance. We contribute Botox for wrinkles, silicone for sagging breasts, and the diet pills to lose 10 pounds.  In so doing, though, are we contributing to the problem?

Beauty treatments and the desire to look attractive are not, in and of themselves, fundamentally bad, and neither are the health care providers who assist with them.  The danger lies in allowing our focus on those treatments' goals to pervade our internal sense of self-worth.  As physicians, we have a sacred trust with our patients; we treat each person, regardless of appearance, with dignity and respect.  We must be cautious against contributing to the fallacy of perfect appearance with our skills and prescription pads.

Our intrinsic value as human beings has nothing to do with our skin and breasts and muscles.  Each of us can help to push back against these social pressures by teaching that the altered pictures of people in magazines make us long for what is unattainable.  We can compliment each other as often on our internal qualities as we do on new hairstyles or clothing.  My patients' resilience, patience, and thoughtfulness, often in the face of great struggles, are what is truly beautiful about them.

Let's shift the conversation toward that definition of beauty.

* A new movement is committed to exposing the excesses of retouching in the beauty industry:

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