[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Image by cheekycrows3 via Flickr"][/caption]
When my daughter was turning 8, she decided that there was something dreadful about aging. Getting older just meant more responsibilities, more chores, more work. She refused to turn 8. We had to pretend we were planning her 7th birthday for the second time. When the big day finally came, she insisted everyone pretend as if she were turning seven: seven candles, happy seventh birthday in pink frosting, and a sinking suspicion that I was somehow transmitting my own fear of aging to my daughters.
Fast forward seven years. My daughter seems pretty content with aging, so far, and yet all around her are young women who are so anxious about aging that the teenaged years seem like a good time to start a lifetime commitment to cosmetic surgery.
Take the case of Ambah Young, an 18-year-old who is planning a tummy tuck, breast implants, and a vaginoplasty so that she can feel younger. I'd like to tell you that this is a highly unusual case, but Louise Kogan, the director of the cosmetic tourism travel agency that is arranging for Ms. Young's trip, says that she is aware of at least a few other 18 year olds (although most clients remain 30-60 years of age).
Teens already make up 2% of cosmetic surgery patients in the US and their numbers are growing. Teens are obviously under a tremendous amount of pressure to look "good" and reality shows like MTV's "I Want a Famous Face" serve to normalize cosmetic surgery, as if lipo is part of a teen's average beauty regimen.
Parents too are increasingly told that if they care about their child and their child's success, then they'll consider cosmetic intervention in the form of nose jobs, liposuction, and even boob jobs. There are cosmetic surgeon websites that tell parents that cosmetic surgery is like getting braces- if you wouldn't deny your kid straight teeth, why would you deny her a straight nose? And there are plenty of news stories normalizing cosmetic surgery for teens.
But whether teens want cosmetic surgery to "look young again" or to make their bodies or faces "normal," we're talking about the same basic impulse to look like "everyone else," or if not everyone else, at least the people with the most power around us.
This nearly universal human drive to imitate those with the most prestige (what anthropologists call prestigious imitation) is used within consumer capitalism to sell us bodies that we can never be, not even with surgery. The bodies we want don't exist in real space, but the imaginary space of computer-generated or at least highly-altered images.
It is unfair to demand that teens strive for the "perfect" (and standardized) body and then deny them access to the surgical interventions that would be required for such a body. It is also deeply troubling to see a willingness to go under the knife, to risk their lives for perfection, among people as young as 14.
But the way out is not just better regulation of cosmetic procedures and advertising, but a revolution of spirit and body where we insist that who we are and our worth as humans has nothing to do with surfaces. I just hope the revolution happens soon so that my daughter can face turning 15 and we don't have to pretend she's 14 forever.