Has beauty become our beast?

It seems that almost every TV network has some sort of reality "makeover" show. Three of these involve serious plastic surgery and one even requires the participants to take part in a "beauty" contest after their transformations.

During a recent workshop for teenagers, I brought up the issue of appearance in their world. They reacted in a sort of resigned anger regarding the power of media images over how they should look and what they should own.

I asked if they thought we would ever reach the point where qualities that were not visible would matter more than appearance. Would that human tendency to aspire to what is rare or difficult to attain trump the obsession with "beauty"?

For example, in times of deprivation, it was beautiful to be a little plump. In times when only peasants were tan, it was beautiful to be as pale as possible - or to powder oneself to appear so.

Now, it is easy to be plump - very easy. And so, the sought-after appearance is slender - very slender.

I suggested that perhaps, now that medicine and technology make it possible to appear almost any way one wants - at least any way one is willing or able to pay for - could it be that positive internal qualities will become sought after? Could qualities such as perseverance, honesty, and compassion be things that people strive to develop? Will they come to qualify as the "rare things"?

The teenagers were not optimistic. I'm afraid I'm not, either, but I continue to hope.

I wonder if the maturing majority will help change the values of our society. Aging baby-boomers make up a huge market. Will what they value affect this trend?

It's a long shot.

Advertisers, whose revenues support most media, focus mainly on the young, considered a more malleable market. Perhaps more important, there is no sector of the economy that can profit by selling honesty, compassion, or perseverance as a commodity or product. So such values are not heavily promoted.

And, unfortunately, media images are the pool in which our cultural values are reflected and reinforced. What is valued in this pool is appearance - the material and the superficial.

How can a child who grows up in American culture not believe that billboards are altars to what is important?

I grew up hearing phrases such as "Beauty is as beauty does," "He has a beautiful heart," and "Don't judge a book by its cover." We were cautioned not to try to keep up with the Joneses. It was considered bad form to focus too much on appearance and possessions.

But now, as one wise old gentleman once said, "These youngsters are living in the kingdom of thingdom."

The trend to reshape oneself through plastic surgery is perhaps just another example of how our society often confuses the possible with the necessary. Still, one of those invisible qualities that my parents valued and instilled in me causes me to look for some positive implication in our current trend of transformation to meet a narrow standard of "beauty."

And so, I hope, as we search for the next rare thing, we start to look inside.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

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