"Tell me what don’t you like about yourself?" -- This is how lead surgeons Sean McNamara and Christian Troy of Nip/Tuck begin each of their consultation appointments. Even if we don’t hire a plastic surgeon, we’ve likely asked ourselves this question while gazing in the mirror. But what about our virtual bodies? Do they need a little nip/tuck, too?
Virginia Blum, in Flesh Wounds, uses the phrase "body landscape" to refer to the body’s ever-changing surface -- the point at which the “inner experiences of ‘self’ intersect with the outer body image...the individual’s sense of where one’s body begins and ends.” Marshall McLuhan famously argued that media are an extension of the human body. And in an age of omnipresent technology, our “bodies” (and thus, our identities) are less about tactility and 3D motion and more about a hyper-perfected veneer. How is our “body landscape” disrupted by traditional techniques of the body -- like plastic surgery -- and new "procedures," like virtual aesthetic manipulation? And how does this process of erasing, editing, and “correcting” transform our personal narratives? What story is your body landscape telling?
Plastic surgery didn’t start as a beautification technique. Rather, it found its roots as early as 2000 B.C. in Egypt and India. In ancient Rome, doctors would perform surgical procedures on gladiators whose bodies and faces had suffered severe damage in the ring. Throughout history, the practice of plastic surgery was merely a way to alter the appearances of those who had been severely injured to the point of disfigurement. In 1998, Bill Clinton signed a law that required that post-mastectomy breast reconstruction surgery be covered by insurance companies. By the mid-2000s, plastic surgery became just as prevalent for aesthetic purposes as it had been for medicinal purposes. The largest spike for plastic surgery procedures in the U.S. occurred between 2010 and 2011, with a total of over 18 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), these two years also saw an over 171.6% increase in Facebook usage in the United States. 2010 also marked the year of the release of Instagram, a social networking app that allows you to edit and upload photos with a variety of filters that gives them a vintage, old film quality and alters the way they look to all of your "friends" on the app. Through Instagram and Facebook (now, fittingly, one in the same), anyone can be a photo editor, every person a cover model, and every picture can look like it was professionally retouched and remade.
Today, social media is a tool we use to create an online world or persona for ourselves that is arguably just as important as who we are in the real world. Employers regularly check social media platforms to observe your activity and see how you present yourself to an online audience. And that’s part of what makes it so enticing: our ability to curate and manipulate our virtual image. When we answer, “What don’t you like about yourself?” online, we can simply change our pictures and edit our profiles -- a sort of virtual facelift. With a nip here or a tuck there, our social media personas operate as digital, cosmetically altered versions of ourselves. Versions that, unfortunately, our “real” bodies can likely never live up to.
Think our ability to edit our digital bodies will lower the demand for plastic surgery? Quite the opposite: Many patients are approaching plastic surgeons for procedures precisely because they don’t like how they look online. (And, of course, there’s even a name for that: “FaceTime Facelifts.”) Looking good in person is only half the battle. We are also asked to check -- and correct -- ourselves in the Facebook mirror. The point where our real bodies and our virtual bodies end and begin is largely indiscernible.
Worried that the lighting online is unflattering to your image? Feeling ambivalent about editing your body landscape? Here are some tips to help you cope, correct, and find acceptance: