Beauty is a $160 billion-a-year global industry. The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become a new religion.
We live in a society that celebrates and iconises youth, where the old, the aesthetically average and the fat seem to have been erased from the pages of our glossy magazines, advertising posters and television screens.
The promise of bodily improvement is fuelled by advertising campaigns and a commercially-driven Western media, reflecting an increasingly narrow palette of beauty. The modern Caucasian beauty ideal has been packaged and exported globally, and just as surgical operations to 'Westernise' oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become increasingly prescriptive. In Africa the use of skin-lightening and hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America women have operations that bring them eerily close to the Barbie doll ideal, and blonde-haired models grace the covers of most magazines. Anorexia is on the increase in Japan, and in China, beauty pageants, once banned as 'spiritual pollution', are now held across the country.
'Westernising' the human body has become a new form of globalisation, with 'Beauty' becoming a homogenous brand. The more rigorously our vision is trained to appreciate the artificial, the more industries benefit. The current standard of beauty feeds the fashion, cosmetics, diet, medical and entertainment industries, with the homogenisation of appearance becoming part of an increasingly globalised consumer culture.
But who creates this culture? However much we may confidently point the finger at certain industries, we can't deny our own tacit, albeit culturally conditioned, involvement. Like it or not, we are judged, and judge, by appearance. Perhaps we are obsessed with the way our own bodies look because we know how instinctively judgemental we are of the bodies that we look at.
A recent scientific study reported that we make decisions about the attractiveness of people we meet in the space of 150 milliseconds. This superficial appraisal has profound implications. Those we consider most beautiful not only find sexual partners more readily but studies also show they get better jobs and more lenient treatment in court.
We have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look. Can any of us honestly say, 'I don't want to be attractive'? Don't we all want to be loved? But have we been brainwashed into believing that in order to be loved we need smaller noses, bigger breasts, tighter skin, longer legs, flatter stomachs and to appear ever youthful? Where does it end?
The body has, in a sense, become just another consumer purchase. Everyone can, in the spirit of our age, go shopping for bodily transformation. Banks now offer loans for plastic surgery. American families with annual incomes under $25,000 account for 30 per cent of all cosmetic surgery patients. Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do on education.
As our role models become ever younger and more idealised, we are so afraid of aging that the quest for youthful preservation generates an almost pathological obsession with our bodies. As we align our sense of self-worth with self-image, the psychological and emotional consequences are tortuous. The one thing we do know for certain is that our body will always, in the end, betray us.