Alexander Edmonds has a thoroughly engrossing piece on the pursuit of “beauty” and the culture of vanity as commodity. And the role of plastic surgeon as both enabler and arbiter comes under a very necessary microscope.
While living in Rio de Janeiro in 1999, I saw something that caught my attention: a television broadcast of a Carnival parade that paid homage to a plastic surgeon, Dr. Ivo Pitanguy. The doctor led the procession surrounded by samba dancers in feathers and bikinis. Over a thundering drum section and anarchic screech of a cuica, the singer praised Pitanguy for “awakening the self-esteem in each ego” with a “scalpel guided by heaven.”
It was the height of Rio’s sticky summer and the city had almost slowed to a standstill, as had progress on my anthropology doctorate research on Afro-Brazilian syncretism. After seeing the parade, I began to notice that Rio’s plastic surgery clinics were almost as numerous as beauty parlors (and there are a lot of those). Newsstands sold magazines with titles like Plástica & Beauty, next to Marie Claire. I assumed that the popularity of cosmetic surgery in a developing nation was one more example of Brazil’s gaping inequalities. But Pitanguy had long maintained that plastic surgery was not only for the rich: “The poor have the right to be beautiful, too,” he has said.
The beauty of the human body has raised distinct ethical issues for different epochs. The literary scholar Elaine Scarry pointed out that in the classical world a glimpse of a beautiful person could imperil an observer. In his “Phaedrus” Plato describes a man who after beholding a beautiful youth begins to spin, shudder, shiver and sweat. With the rise of mass consumption, ethical discussions have focused on images of female beauty. Beauty ideals are blamed for eating disorders and body alienation. But Pitanguy’s remark raises yet another issue: Is beauty a right, which, like education or health care, should be realized with the help of public institutions and expertise?
The question might seem absurd. Pitanguy’s talk of rights echoes the slogans of make-up marketing (L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it.”). Yet his vision of plastic surgery reflects a clinical reality that he helped create. For years he has performed charity surgeries for the poor. More radically, some of his students offer free cosmetic operations in the nation’s public health system.