Retouched Bodies

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Two stories in the New York Times this morning caught my eye, or rather, their juxtaposition did. The first concerns efforts of a French lawmaker to have retouched photographs used in advertising labeled as retouched. The second reports that the American Society of Plastic Surgeons has revised its policy about a technique for breast augmentation that uses fat suctioned from the hips or thighs.

The French lawmaker, Valérie Boyer, has two teenage daughters. Reflecting on the way they respond to images of idealized beauty has made her want to show them just how fake the ideal is. As the article notes, almost all advertising photos are digitally altered. Her proposal, if it becomes law, would require advertising photographs displayed or published in France to carry a label saying that they are retouched. The debate has expanded to include what constitutes beauty and whether advertising photos should be considered art.

Retouched photos falsify something, but what? And let’s face it: we are talking mostly about photos that make women look thinner, younger, and more sexually appealing. In fact, why stop at altering photos? Why not alter women’s bodies to make them more attractive?

That’s where the second article comes in. Some plastic surgeons have been doing it for years, but the procedure was frowned upon by their professional society. Now the society has revised its policy. The procedure involves liposuctioning fat cells from the hips or thighs and injecting them into the breasts to make them larger. It’s easy to see the benefits. No artificial implants; the injected material comes from your own body. You can make your breasts bigger and your thighs smaller just by shifting some of your own fat.

We not only retouch photos of women to make them more attractive, now we can retouch the women themselves, and in a way that merely involves redistributing their fat. Aren’t both processes driven by the same discontents? Which should I prefer—and which do I prefer—the artificial beauty of airbrushed perfection and impossible proportions? Or the natural beauty of an open countenance and a sincere heart?

Judging only by bumper stickers, more tourists travel to South Dakota to see Wall Drug than go to see the Badlands or the Black Hills. I’m not sure what this says about people, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels like the same sort of thing that drives some of us to prize artificial beauty.

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