“We all wear some disguise, make some professions, use some artifice, to set ourselves off as being better than we are; and yet it is not denied that we have some good intentions and praiseworthy qualities at bottom.”– William Hazlitt
Last night on ABC’s hit show Extreme Makeover, Jeanene, a “punk rocker” got what they called an extreme makeunder, promising that with the aid of their surgeons “even a punk can be hot”. The show painted a very sad picture of a woman who’s spent the last half decade pathologically getting body modifications in order to cover up her unhappiness with her body. “This is like my mask,” she says. “Look at my hair not at my chest, look at my ears not at the hair on my chin…”
Jeanene, the “freak” sister, wearing no makeup and, unbeknown to her, showing off her natural beauty and charming smile.
Erica, her “pretty” sister, wearing plenty of makeup and, unbeknown to her, barely hiding her deeply judgemental nature.
Now, don’t get me wrong — first, I have no problems with cosmetic surgery. I’ve even had cosmetic surgery myself, as have many people I know. If you’ve got something about your body you don’t like, change it so you do! That’s the wonderful and empowering thing about body modification — including plastic surgery — it lets you be who you want to be; it lets you seek out the ideal you and express yourself as publicly as you want to. Second, if Jeanene is now happy with her new look, she looks great and I’m glad she’s where she wants to be.
“We are so accustomed to wearing a disguise before others that eventually we are unable to recognize ourselves.”– Francois De La Rochefoucauld
But this show really rubbed me the wrong way, because as well as being generally condescending and playing up stereotypes, it showcased a very unfortunate undercurrent that certainly exists among pierced and tattooed people — people who, like Jeanene, got piercings and tattoos and make fashion decisions not because they like them, but because by ostracizing themselves first, they eliminate anyone else’s ability to do it for them, and by making themselves “ugly”, they diffuse outsiders’ ability to level that accusation.
But here’s the problem: stretching your ears doesn’t make you ugly any more than listening to rap music makes you a criminal. Stupid closed-minded outsider bigots might decide you’re a criminal if you listen to rap music, and stupid closed-minded outsider bigots will deny your beauty if you stretch your ears, but the fact is that neither of their false assumptions alters reality. If you’re a white dude wearing a suit driving a minivan to work from the suburbs, listening to rap music isn’t going to hide the fact that you’re Mr. No-Risk Joe Normal. And, like it or not, if there are shortcomings in your appearance, stretching your ears isn’t going to mask them in the public’s eye — it’s going to compound them and make it worse by giving them an easy excuse to kickstart their insults. That said, modifications can just as easily enhance your natural beauty if they’re applied honestly and in a complimentary fashion.
Atypical body modification is a personality amplifier.
“Normal people” say very little in and of themselves. Thus, we initially judge them on their innate characteristics — their weight, the symmetry of their face, their teeth, their facial hair, their fitness, their breasts, and so on. While those are certainly relevant if our sole goal is to become aroused, rape them, and deposit our seed — our biological imperative — the fact is that these characteristics are sorely lacking when it comes to actually describing the character or personality of the individual, or for providing enough information to even base a relationship on.
Jeanene is right when she say that there’s a communications element to modifications; “if people are going to judge me, I want people to judge me on my terms.” A person with body modifications has the opportunity to wear their personality far more “on the outside” than a person who sticks with being a plainskin. However, it’s wrong to think of it as a “mask”… Thinking of body modification as something that can cover up things you’re unhappy with is a mistake, and it won’t work any more than you can hide the fact that you’re listening to bad music by turning it up really, really loud.
Jeanene shortly before the surgery: by some people’s rules freakish, unattractive, and unfit for a happy life. Personally I think she looked great, but I’ve never claimed to love blandness.
Jeanene suffered from — or at least believed she suffered from — a hook nose, a slight weight problem, asymmetrical breasts, and excess facial hair. Modified or plainskin, these are issues that would bother most people. Jeanene had it worse because her sister — referred to throughout the show as “the pretty sister” — escaped most of these problems. Jeanene said of her, “[we] are night and day with our appearance. My sister is a very beautiful girl and I wouldn’t mind looking like her. It would be cool if I got the same kind of attention as she does.”
Jeanene though was never able to gain the confidence she needed to appreciate that attention, fearing that if she looked “normal”, people might notice her hairy chin or other shortcomings. Gesturing at her bright hair and stretched ears, with her eyes tearing up, she tells the camera, “it’s easier to have a… you know… sorry…” and has to stop there. The problem came when she saw body modification as her escape, when in fact it just allowed her to temporarily avoid facing the things that were upsetting her. At the same time, it lead to a whole new set of problems and hardships which eventually all escalated to a breaking point where she had no choice but to reject body modification publicly, needlessly slandering people with honest and uplifting modification drives. While it’s not Jeanene’s fault that she was pushed to this — the public can be truly brutal — it does unfairly affect others.
“Pretty” Erica talks about how it upsets her to go out in public with her sister because of people’s reactions.
Jeanene is brought to tears while talking about the abuse she’s afraid to get from the public because of her looks.