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…”
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.
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 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.
Let’s be brutally honest: body modification is not for everyone. First, it’s just not how everyone wants to express themselves and explore the world. Second, it’s difficult — if you decide to look different, you are going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far. You will be treated like crap, and you won’t have equal opportunities in mainstream life. Jeanene started to hit this wall, saying, “I’m kind of stuck where I am, working factories, because they don’t question your appearance as long as you show up for work every day.”
Her supervisor described her as “about the best operator” she had working under her and spoke of her in glowing terms. Jeanene continued though, “I’m getting older and I need to do things that are better for myself. I need to better my life. You just really can’t do that looking the way that I do.”
The show’s narrator chipped in at this point, adding, “in business, ‘goth’ and ‘body piercing’ are not your ‘dress for success.’”
It makes me angry to even quote that — but there is some truth to it. Whether you want to interpret it as a tough consequence or whether it reads closer to “you colored folk need to stay at the back of the bus” is a separate debate… Either way, it is mostly true. Public body modification can force you to trade one life for another — it’s very rare to be able to have it all (but it can happen with effort). Looking like yourself will force you to work much, much harder than people who all look the same. Being free requires a lot more work than being a slave. Running your own business is more effort than working for someone else. Being an actor is more difficult than watching a movie. Cooking a meal is more difficult than buying a cheeseburger at a fast food joint… But, there are still people left in this world who believe that sometimes the difficult — but free — path is the more rewarding.
The fundamental question in becoming publicly modified is a question of finding a balance between how free you want to be and how hard you want to work. The more free you are, the more responsibility you have to take for yourself. The more you blend back into the crowd, the less freedom you have, but the “easier” your life gets. But is it really your life if you’re not controlling it? The new Jeanene is certainly pretty in the mainstream sense of the word, but she could be just as beautiful (or more so) with her piercings — her decision to have cosmetic surgery could easily be totally disconnected from the modification annullification decision.
Jeanene looks good with the “defects” corrected. However, there’s also something vacant and empty about her without her bright red dreads, her slightly crooked septum piercing, and the 3/4″ lobes — Dr. Garth Fisher closed these lobes so they’d finally look — as he put it, dripping with vitriol — nice. Her sister says of her, “before [the surgery] everyone would look at her and think she’s some kind of freak, and now she’s beautiful… it’s amazing.”
Jeanene, I’m glad you’re starting to see yourself as pretty. I hope everyone can learn that. But don’t think you can’t be pretty and a “freak” at the same time… and, if the freak part is you (rather than a mask), it’s far more important that you hold onto that than concern yourself endlessly with whether you look like everyone else. The people in this world who matter care more about you than your ability to hit the bullseye of the mundane.
I told this exact story in an earlier column as well, but one of my favorite movies, Harold and Maude, contains a scene where they are walking through a flower greenhouse near a giant field of white daisies. Maude, an eccentric and full-of-life old woman says to her much younger boyfriend Harold, “I like to watch things grow. They grow, and bloom, and fade, and die, and change into something else! Ah, life!” She then tells Harold how she would like to be a sunflower, on account of them being “so tall and simple”, and then asks him what sort of flower he’d like to be.
Harold (an oddball who, much like Jeanene I think, longs to be “normal”) gestures at the wide field of daisies, which from a distance look uniform in nature, and says to her, “I don’t know… one of these maybe. They’re all alike.”
Maude replies, “Oh, but they’re not! Look, see, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some grow to the right, some have even lost some petals… all kinds of observable differences! You see Harold; I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people that are this, yet allow themselves to be treated as that,” pointing from the single flower to the giant field of daisies which then transitions into a field of thousands of white gravestones.
There are people who want to be average and there are people who want to be above average. So, make yourself better if you want to — lose that weight, get your nose redone, whatever… but don’t think that it’s these things that define who you are, and don’t think that getting — or getting rid of — modifications will change the way anyone but the most shallow individuals treat you. And certainly don’t make the mistake Jeanene seems to have made, and think that atypical body modifications and beauty are incompatible. Jeanene, you’re beautiful now, but I’m pretty sure you’d be even more beautiful if you stretched those ears back up! Below this article are pictures of many modified people from the BME galleries whose alterations all enhance their natural beauty. Be the best you can be. In the end, who you are is all you have. Never mask it, and never give up on it.