Saturday, May 10, 2008

And somewhere Barry Bonds is softly weeping. Or maybe buying a gun. Part 2.

To return belatedly to the topic(s) we examined a few posts ago, in Part 1: Long-time readers (with really good memories) may recall that several years ago (April 2006) we used the then-growing controversy over Barry Bonds as a springboard for whimsically contemplating some future moment when "enhancement" might mean "the rewiring of internal circuitry and replacement of whole sets of critical organs and other 'spare parts.' It could mean implanting printed circuits into people's brains to remediate their weak points and/or further augment areas in which they already excel...."

Inevitably, at least in my mind, these sorts of musings lead to questions like: What makes you You? I tend to get funny looks when I ask such things at parties and the like (which is why nowadays I so seldom get invited to parties and the like). Brows furrow, then people smile and say, "Come on, Steve. What kind of question is that? You're always you. By definition. No matter what you do to yourself, you're still you."

Well...I'm not convinced.

Consider something as simple as a nose job. Or maybe better for current purposes, breast augmentation. What I think a woman ends up with in such a case is not truly a "new-and-improved you," but something closer to the generically "ideal" feminine form. As I've argued before, what actually occurs in such a case is that the woman abandons part of her Essential Self in order to embrace (or maybe more literally, be embraced by) the rest of society. Almost all* cosmetic surgery is an attempt to clone an idealized version of something that, in fact, was quite distinctly not you, otherwise you wouldn't have had the surgery. You was what you wanted to change. Yeah, I know: This is beginning to sound like one of those arguments where you want to scream at your monitor, Duh!, because you think I'm belaboring the obvious. But I'm not sure the fallout is that obvious. There are all sorts of wider implications here for identity politics and so forth. Think about it: Any and every aspiration that takes you closer to a group identity—be it "blacks," "whites," "Catholics," "union employees," "women," "big-breasted women"—also takes you farther away from your individuality. Farther away from You, and your Self.

Now, as I've also observed before, wouldn't authentic self-help—instead of trying to mold you into a mirror image of other successful, admired people—help you be more comfortable with the Self you were given, or—at most—help you maximize whatever you were "meant" to be? I think it can be argued that a book, seminar or program that helps make you into a more successful person—if it does so by teaching you how to better accommodate to what "society expects from you," or "go with the flow," or "get with the program"—may have wrought a change that indeed helps you, at least on the surface...but it isn't Self-help.

I don't think we're merely debating semantics here. I concede that I have little formal evidence, or "academic standing," if you will, for saying what follows. I'm basing this on a lifetime of observing and interviewing my fellow Man/Woman, as well as reading I've done about the development and nature of personality. But I think that each of us, somewhere deep inside, is loyal to the qualities we were born with. Whether we really like those qualities or not, whether they've caused us interpersonal difficulties or not, we're protective of them. I think that when we reject those innate qualities—and especially, when we abandon them entirely to strike a pose that repudiates those qualities—we face a certain psychic cost. That process results in varying degrees of self-hatred (and I use that last hyphentate pointedly). To outward appearances we may become a more successful, well-rounded, well-liked person; a person who moves more smoothly in social circles. Inwardly, however, we mourn for what we were born to be. Inwardly we rebel. We don't like the kiss-ass corporate Joe or Jane that we've become. We don't like surrendering our private-label, name-brand Self to a shapeless generic. Because of that, we may find ways of sabotaging our New Me. In extreme cases, we may self-destruct altogether.

It's something to think about, anyway.

* I'm not so sure about a facelift, because even in cases where the results are tragicomic [see Priscilla "the Joker" Presley, above, or the increasingly eye-less "Wayne Newton"] all you're doing is returning your you to what it used to be before you got old.


Elizabeth said...

I'm sure this is another interesting and thought-provoking post from you, Steve. But I *must say* (yep, it's contagious) that I've gotten to the part on breast augmentation -- and got stuck there.

I did not know that my breasts were parts of my Essential Self! Oh my god... And you tell me now?! So I've lived for 44 years in a total oblivion of what was my Essential I/Me and what was not... Sheesh. No wonder I've been so confused. Gosh, what a waste of time...

P.S. Seriously, I'm really stuck on that part now, for that very reason (who knew!); though I'm sure other comments, more agreeable with the view of the breasts' importance to a woman's self will follow.

And when I recover from my shock, then perhaps I can get the gist of your whole post, and not only its parts. :)

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, yanno, I sort of foresaw this, but didn't include mention of it in the post b/c I didn't want to sound defensive (and therefore actually invite comments such as yours). But let me be direct: I'm not the one having breast augmentation surgery, nor, for that matter (though you don't know this about me, nor do you need to know it), I'm not a fan of The Big-Breasted Woman. Never have been, never will be. I was writing that section through the eyes of the women having the surgery, who quite clearly--manifestly, in fact--associate their sense of Self, at least in part, with the size/shape of their boobs.

To deny that that element exists--and in a wider sense, to deny that people associate their sense of Self with their appearance, down to some pretty trivial aspects (e.g. my son's progressive loss of his hair or my daughter's "thunder-thighs")--is to hide one's head in the sand.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think there's a flip side, Steve. While it is our nature to defend what we perceive ourselves to be, that defense is frequently borne of the fear that, without the self-image we hold - good or bad - we might not be anything at all. It's also our nature to want to feel like we're "special" and unique, even if what makes us unique is painful to us or otherwise destructive. Most of the time, those negative "unique" qualities aren't based in our core being, but rather added on - contaminants of the core, if you will - by any number of factors, internal or external. Freeing ourselves from these is, in my opinion, a worthy endeavor.

I think that a lot of the motivation to engage in the self-help world is the desire to make that "special" more palatable to ourselves and others (duh!), and there are plenty of "coaches" who try to establish the ultimate image of what is uniquely good - a product that they will tell you only they can offer. As I see it, these are the true charlatans of SHAMdom.

The flip side (remember? there's a flip side!) is that there are also people who honestly strive to help individuals become more cognizant of their "unique" qualities, while helping them also become comfortable enough in their own skin to not need any form of image enhancement. Kind of like the difference between the surgeon who will correct a deformity, but who also tries to show a client that they aren't really unattractive or "abnormal," versus the surgeon who tells the woman she would be a knockout, if only she had bodacious ta-tas.

I have very little patience for the many "coaches" who knowingly prey upon the insecurities and hungers of people who really don't need fixing, using "techniques" that they know full well are bogus. On the other hand, I deeply respect those whose primary motive is the alleviation of physical or emotional pain, and whose practice is based in proven techniques. And by proven, I mean both by structured studies and extensive, consistent "anecdotal" information. And I'm not referring to a slew of vacuous "endorsements," but rather observable evidence that the individuals have become more productive, socially adept, and happier.

Anonymous said...

Steve, this is worth looking at.

"To outward appearances we may become a more successful, well-rounded, well-liked person; a person who moves more smoothly in social circles. Inwardly, however, we mourn for what we were born to be."

If we emigrate too far from our true natures, so far that we forget our way home, we risk self estrangement, a rootlessness. And for some, this may take the form of feeling empty, or feeling like an imposter.

And in the US, we may face this in an especialy intense form, because millions of of us are recent immigrants, or are descendants of immigrants, many of whom rejected their original cultures in the haste to become 'American.'

My mother told me that she implored her grandmother to teach her to speak Swedish. Great Grandma refused. She was afraid that if her grandaughter learned to speak anything other than English, she wouldnt fit in.

My Dad was taught to speak British English. When he arrived in New York City in the 1920s, he was ridiculed for his accent and forced himself to eradicate it, and adopted a Standard American accent as quickly as he could.

If we are not at home in our true selves, how can we assist others to feel at home?

Much as I enjoyed reading Mens Health magazine, what bugged me was the subtext that to be a Real Guy, you had to buy a lot of stuff--the right clothes, the right gadgets.

Its very different from a 1930s Boy Scout manual that someone passed on to me. Its interesting reading. There are just a few ads in the book, toward the back--Coca Cola, Schwinn Bikes, K-bar knives.

But the emphasis throughout that book was knowing how to do a zillion skillful things with just one knife, a length of rope, a tent, and how to look after both yourself and your troop buddies. You used just a few gadgets but knew many, many ways to use them--and keep those same gadgets in good condition so that they would last you a life time.

Totally different from today's use-and-dispose/buy a lot of crap so you can be sure you're cool.

Steve, you could do a damn interesting series of articles just reading successive editions of the Boy Scout manual and tracking the changes.

Must mention that 1930s manual had a lot to say about heroes. Its all very un-PC but the heroes the kids were encouraged to look to as role models were not dope using, party hardy celebrites, but men who had risked thier lives to protect and care for others.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, honestly, I am genuinely stuck on that thought, never actually considering the possibility that this is an essential part of a woman's self (I know, I know -- for the readers who roll their eyes here, yes, I've lived in a self-constructed cave for most of my life -- not quite "with it," you know, when it comes to social graces and mores -- but not too concerned about it either).

My first comment has *absolutely nothing* to do with any implications of your personal preferences (god forbid). I am really amazed at my own oblivion (though also laughing at it -- I will go on, somehow, I think...)

I also think that the surgical changes (in outward appearance) have to do with enhancing or preserving one's sexual attractiveness more so (though not exclusively, of course) than changing one's self (or Self). Those individuals who set out to accomplish a deeper and more lasting change in their personality through surgical procedures done on their bodies ultimately end up disappointed, I imagine. There is a study out there (will try to look it up) on the unusually high rates of suicide among women with breast implants. While it was not clear what the relationship between implants and suicide was about, the possibility that this procedure is not helpful in cases of depression and lack of self-acceptance is worth considering.

I will come back to it later (I hope -- if I can keep my head above the sand long enough :).

Elizabeth said...

I am still stuck on the appendages, Steve. What would you say about (brace yourself -- but then you had to expect this too:) penile implants* (and NO, I am NOT asking for your personal opinion/preference)?

This would appear to be one issue of bodily dissatisfaction/enhancement that is more intimately involved in a person (man's, in this case) self-image and self-worth than breast augmentation for women. Judging by the common/pop wisdom, at least.

What do you -- and I'm using a generic you -- think about it in the context of authentic vs. improved Self?

*I'm getting several spam messages a day advertising those with such an urgency that I'm beginning to think the issue must be really important.

Steve Salerno said...

I fail to grasp why we're spending so much time at the rim of my argument, or at least its primary thrust. But since you inserted penile implants into the discussion, I guess I'll simply say that if a guy feels like he got shafted by life (or genetics), I see nothing wrong with him trying to improve his pole position, as it were. Just as I see nothing wrong with silicon-enhanced breasts. As long as we recognize that we're being disloyal to our selves in going that route.

As I recall, we descended into this sub-basement of lowbrow humor once before. And it was pretty lame then, too. ;)

Elizabeth said...

"As long as we recognize that we're being disloyal to our selves in going that route."

But this is at the center of the appendage/body enhancement of any kind issue -- are we really being disloyal? If our image is so intimately related to the size of various body parts, why not enhance/change it if we can? You know, I'm not quite grasping that "disloyalty" here (although other points you make -- on the nature of a genuine personality transformation are much clear to me). Neither I'm trying for lowbrow humor (really not) -- I think these are legit issues, all, when it comes to body image, including the size of the whole thing and its various parts.

Will wait to hear what others have to say.

Anonymous said...


What if the "real me" is a supeficial, "dedicated follower of fashion" (as The Kinks put it 42 years ago.) Not all of us can be deep thinkers; wrestling with the weighty problems of the day. Some of us just get swept up in the currents of popular culture and ride the crest of popularity. Bell bottom pants; earth shoes; polyester leisure suits; macrame "art" on the wall... I'm sure you've got some of this cultural detritus in your history.

A big chunk of humanity is here not to proclaim our unique, individuality, but to blend in and get along on that path of least resistance: popularity. So women get implants and Botox and their tummies tucked in an effort to not look their true age.

I submit that these people are being authentic to themselves: deep down inside they are shallow and easily intimidated by whatever is deemed popular.

Yekaterina said...

Bravo anonymous 5:33! I was raised by the shallow woman of your post. She exists! And it is her true Self.

We are always being ourselves...reacting from our level of maturity at any given time to the different circumstances that befall us. I've had perky breasts and I'll have saggy breasts one day in the future. In both instances I am (will be) being my true Self...with more or less attractive breasts. Or we can use the nose example for those who get stuck on the breast thing. I was born with one nose and had to have reconstuctive surgery after a car accident. I was me then and I am me now.

I am me when being selfish. I am me when being selfless. I am me when being social. I am me when being withdrawn. I would still be me with breat implants and/or a penis implant too...albeit a very freakish me.

Cosmic Connie said...

First, Steve, let me applaud you for your excellent application of sub-basement humor. My kind of blog! :-)

But seriously now… I have nothing against cosmetic surgery but, obviously, some folks go to ridiculous extremes. (And the prospect of parents giving breast augmentation surgery to their eighteen-year-old daughters as a high school grad present is worse than absurd.)

More importantly, this post was a great reminder to me of how silly, superficial and vain our culture is becoming. While it seems that the bar has been greatly lowered for many of the things that really matter – literacy, critical thinking, etc. – it has been raised to increasingly unrealistic heights for more superficial aspects such as physical appearance.

We live in an era where “40 is the new 20,” where the average man is being encouraged to agonize over whether or not he has hairs sprouting from his back (or whether there’s a hint of gray in the hair on his head), and where even women in labor now have to worry about looking lovely for the camera in their most intimate, primal moments.

That’s right, gals – pregnancy glam isn’t just for the uber-famous any more. The ladies on “The View” were talking the other day about a New York Post article regarding “the pre-delivery primp – the new must.”

Here’s a snippet:

== begin snippet==
…With friends and family anxiously awaiting the digital transmission of photos within hours of labor, New York women are preparing for the big D-Day with the grooming gusto once reserved for their wedding nights.

That means manis/pedis, pre-labor blowouts and even Brazilian bikini waxes administered days - if not hours - before giving birth.

Pre-delivery primping might sound superficial, but it also makes sense. After all, women feel more vulnerable if they're not looking their best. And when you're lying on a delivery table in excruciating pain while your nether regions are examined by a doctor you may have never met, well, that's about as vulnerable as it gets.

A few weeks ago, Jonice Padilha - co-owner of the waxing emporium J. Sisters - gave a Brazilian bikini wax to a woman who was already in labor.

"She was dilating, but not too much," says Padilha. "But she knew that she was going straight to the hospital afterward."
==end snippet==

Here’s a link:

Really, now… a BRAZILIAN BIKINI WAX to a woman in labor?!?

Rolling my eyes…

As to Elizabeth's citing of the higher suicide rates in women with breast implants: I wonder if at least part of that could be related to the very real physical health problems these implants have caused many, many women. Ron and I did a lot of research on this matter for a book project a few years ago. It was pretty eye-opening, and not in a good way.

Anonymous said...

I find it amazing that people are cheap when it comes to plastic surgery. The former Mrs. Elvis, who you pictured, was cheap and it shows. Jennifer Lopez was not and her plastic surgery is/was flawless.

If a person does get plastic surgery, they shouldn't be cutting corners (pardon the expression) and going to unqualified surgeons.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I don't buy your premise. And I don't buy the bashing of popular culture by those who equate following popular culture with being "shallow" and not "true to yourself".

Popular culture is all about adapting to the environment. Breast augmentation and other cosmetic procedures oftentimes improves one's lot in life: a better job; more income (especially in sales-related fields); and more desirable mating opportunities. Being popular is an indicator of success; of maximizing one's financial, professional and social standing.

Simply adapting to one's environment and maximizing the chances of success is not the same as abandoning one's "Essential Self". If removing the family hook nose or adding more oomph to your bosom increasing the odds of attracting a more desirable spouse, then those changes are understandable. And not a sign of shallowness.

Elizabeth said...

Connie, what a gift for a Mother's Day -- that image of a bikini wax during labor... (The more you know! This proves to be a very educational thread.)

OTOH, perhaps labor is a perfect time for it; you won't care about the pain involved, since, well, you are in so much of it already that a b-wax would barely register, if at all.

[All in keeping with our sub-basement theme, Steve. :)]

Steve Salerno said...

People, let's remember here that I'm not equating breast augmentation (or any kind of augmentation, including what you get from a Robbins or a Covey) with "being shallow." The question at hand is simply this: Once you decide to make adaptations to yourself in order to more closely mimic the mentalities and attitudes (and, yes, physical appearances) you see around you...are you still You? And I continue to insist that it's a valid question.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, there are two (actually, more, but that's beside the point) issues on the table here: the mental and physical "augmentation" are not the same, IMO. But even so, I do not see how enhancements to our bodies and/or minds would alienate us from our self (whatever that is). I follow your reasoning, Steve (at least I think I do), but I do not see that danger you describe. I agree with Yekaterina here, who sums it up for me (especially in her last paragraph).

I think that if any particular aspect of one's appearance (or behavior, as it may be) is so problematic, and if there are ways to improve it as to increase the person's self-satisfaction, confidence and self-worth, as much as it depends on outward appearance, why not? One could argue that such enhancements, if effective, would facilitate the emergence of that "true self" that was, possibly, hidden under various complexes and inhibitions. As long as people keep their hopes within realistic bounds (especially in case of bodily enhancements, i.e. the bigger boobs/larger penis/etc. will make me more noticeable and possibly attractive, but will not make me a happier person, or a better lover, or result in a happy relationship with another, etc.) I do not necessarily see this as "betrayal" of one's true self.

And what is that true self, anyway? I do not think we can ever say for certain, at any given moment of our lives; much less speculate on the self's potential and its chances to be realized in one's lifetime. It is an elusive concept -- and *concept* is the key word here, because our experience defies such categorization and goes beyond the concepts we create to describe it. And if one cannot define self, which I would argue is really the true state of our human existence, then how can we talk about its "betrayal" or such?

Steve Salerno said...

OK. Let me back up.

First of all, I am not contending that if you're some kind of maladroit outcast, you're supposed to remain that way forever, ultimately dying alone and miserable, in order to "be true to your Self!" I'm not arguing against plastic surgery--per se--or even "psychic surgery" (though I hate that nomenclature, now in common usage, because it implies a degree of medical precision and a certitude about outcome that I don't think exist, when we're discussing the mental-healing arts). Let's try to keep in mind that this began as a discussion of (a) Self, (b) the actual mechanism of what we popularly call "self-help," and (c) whether the label (i.e. "self-help") really applies in the case of what takes place during most instances of (b).

I could probably drone on and on here, but maybe I'm best-served by offering up a scenario: Let's suppose that right now, we're all somewhat happy Individuals. Which is to say, we're all unique people with lots of personal quirks, wildly differing tastes, etc. Then we become aware of a course taught by, oh, I don't know, we'll call him Bony Bobbins. We all take the course. At the end of the course, we all talk alike, think alike, wear the exact same clothes, listen to the exact same music, etc. We even look more alike (a fair number of us via the magic of cosmetic surgery). And you know what? We're all happier that way, too! We like our lives better (even though we're all living exactly the same life, now).

One could say we've been "helped." I'm not arguing that point. But was it "self"-help? No. It was total and utter self-abandonment. We all surrendered our formerly somewhat-happy selves in order to embrace a collective personality that now leaves us happier, but wherein, also, everyone is indistinguishable from his neighbor.

I'm not necessarily arguing with the process so much as with the label. It isn't self-help, folks. It's self-denial; self-abdication.

And then at least in some cases, I'm not sure that's where it would end. I think there are going to be inner/unknown costs involved in surrendering/denying one's Self (alienating quirks and all).

roger o'keefe said...

You know what's funny? I just left a congratulatory comment about your post today (red state etc.), and as good as I think that one is, that's how far off the mark I think you are here.

WHAT'S THE DAMN DIFFERENCE? Why are we even worrying about this? It doesn't matter what you call something or how you get from A to B as long as you get from A to B and the results are beneficial! Furthermore, I really haven't the foggiest clue why you'd want to take some noble stand on the sanctity of the "Self" as you call it, if that "Self" is creating all kinds of problems for the person it belongs to. People want to succeed at life and find happiness and friendship. Is that really so hard to understand? To me, this whole issue is a major case of over-thinking things.

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger - Rather than recite a lesson that I learned some years ago and risk being derided for it, I'll offer a more modern analogy. If you're going on a trip and ultimately hope to get from point A to point B, you've got to have a pretty clear idea of where point A is, before you head out. And the best way we can get a good handle on where we are (point A) is to look at it, discuss it, and compare our own perspective against others'.

We find where we are on the map, evaluate the available routes to point B, and choose the best. That "overthinking" is akin to checking our chosen route against unforseen road conditions along the way and making adjustments. Kinda like the country's getting a better feel for the potholes inherent in a wholly red (or blue) US would look like, and making the necessary corrections in the last (and likely, the next) election. :-)

Sorry... couldn't resist.

Anonymous said...

"I submit that these people are being authentic to themselves: deep down inside they are shallow and easily intimidated by whatever is deemed popular."

This is very true. I would make the swimming pool comparison between shallow and deep people. There are some people who will only swim and stay in 3 ft of water and others who will go into the deep end and stay there. I fall into the latter catagory, but I know shallow swimmers.

Anonymous said...

Since mate selection came up in the thread, might I suggest being a false self leads to divorce? How many times have I heard about a man or woman who did an activity they despised to win the affections of someone they wanted only to moan the activity later?

My ex-husband said he “loved” animals and cultural pursuits before we married, but once the deal was done, he hated cats, art was boring, and I was too intellectual. Now this from a man who cooed at my cats, waltzed through museums with me, and went to literary awards regularly. Can you see why we didn’t last? It’s called false advertising.

The second time I went looking for a husband, my mother, who loves baseball, told me to go to baseball games with her. She said there were tons of single cute guys there for my taking. No offense Steve, but I have to be drunk, doing drugs, and having sex to endure a baseball game. I find them beyond boring to watch and am not eager to participate in one either. My mother’s premise was right though. I joined clubs that were aimed at the subjects I loved and met my husband!

So do ever think these people who are not true to themselves are part of the high divorce rate?

Steve Salerno said...

So do [you] ever think these people who are not true to themselves are part of the high divorce rate?

Yes. That wasn't exactly what I meant in talking about "being true to your Self," but it certainly applies.

I have to be drunk, doing drugs, and having sex to endure a baseball game...

You mean the sex alone isn't enough? Wow. Either you really hate baseball, or you're not doing the sex right...

RevRon's Rants said...

"I have to be drunk, doing drugs, and having sex to endure a baseball game..."

WOW! I never thought of getting loaded and doing it at a baseball game! I could actually become a fan!

Connie??... :-)

Anonymous said...

"You mean the sex alone isn't enough? Wow. Either you really hate baseball, or you're not doing the sex right..."

Oh, you're going make me tell you my dirty ball joke and I was trying to keep it clean.

I don't see anything loving about being unauthentic to get a mate. The truth always comes out.

Jim said...

Breast enhancement is painful, gruesome surgery, and I would never encourage someone to go through with it. I once saw photos of a woman 1 day after the surgery, and she looked like her torso had been beaten repeatedly with a baseball bat. If more women saw those and not the appealing "after" photos I think the surgery would be less popular.

That being said, we live in a vain, superficial society. And women who get breast enhancements are easy targets for criticizism. And it is even easier for guys to criticize, who never have to experience judgment on the size of their breasts. But just about everyone is vain to some degree, and I think too often people demonize women with boob jobs, then jump on a high horse. I, for one, have no right to cast the first stone here.

I will also point out that if there was a reasonable way for short men to surgically enhance their height, men would be signing up for that in droves. Men can't express their vanity as blatantly as women can do with breast surgery.

But focusing on the main topic of the post, the loss of self...I think it is worth asking what the "self" is to begin with. I suspect many people feel like their body is some kind of a "shell" or "machine" the self travels around in, that is "owned" by the self but somehow separate. I once heard someone argue that if a woman is getting breast enhancement because she is "decorating the temple of her soul," then it is OK. That sounds reasonable but also implies that the "self" is somehow separate from the body, and the surgery has the emotional equivalent of putting on a pretty necklace or getting one's hair done. And if people have that mindset, then they can easily go get the surgery done or do anything else without risking a loss of self. Because the body is irrelevant.

Jim said...

If Tolle can teach people that "you are not your ego" then it isn't unthinkable for people to say "you are not your body" either.