The Cult of Eternal Youth

Writing in The New Yorker Rebecca Mead discusses the ‘cult’ of cosmetic surgery:

Like certain strains of Christian mysticism, cosmetic surgery is founded on a notion of human perfectibility, although the means of achieving perfection, and the rewards thereof, are the opposite of those in a Christian theology. If for St. Teresa perfection required transcending the allures of the material and the sensual, adherents of the cult of plastic surgery undergo surgical mortification of the flesh in order to embrace the sensual life more fully. Ultimately, Kuczynski argues, what the beauty junkie is pursuing, and what our culture values most, is not simply aesthetic improvement but the preservation of apparent youthfulness at any cost. One of her interviewees is a Bel Air matron who—having already had liposuction, a tummy tuck, a brow-lift, two face-lifts, two eye-lifts, and two successive sets of breast implants—has recently undergone labiaplasty, an operation to rejuvenate the vagina. A culture that insists on the appearance of nubile availability among women old enough to be grandmothers may be as tyrannical as one that requires the syphilitic to wander noseless forever, reviled by all. Kuczynski’s book vividly documents such a culture; it also conforms in every measure to that culture’s catechism.

The idea that the ongoing and, it seems, growing fascination with cosmetic surgery is driven by a pursuit of apparent youthfulness is an interesting one. Certainly, one can only agree with Mead’s conclusions as to the tyranny of such a culture but one wonders whether the interest in cosmetic surgery doesn’t reflect a deeper malaise.

There is, as any viewer of tabloid television will attest, an almost obsessive fixation with two competing themes: miracle cures and elixirs of eternal life or youthfulness; and existential threats from an increasingly imaginative range of sources. On one day, a program will feature ‘killer germs’, the threat of radiation from power lines or something similar; and on the following day, the program will feature miracle diets, anti-aging herbal compounds, and so on. This oscillation seems to have, at its heart, a tremendous fear of death.

One might therefore wonder if all this isn’t a symptom of a spiritual vacuum: for people that don’t believe in an afterlife, this world is all they have. Therefore anything that seems to threaten that life — killer bees, strange diseases, bird flu, cancer-causing radiation from powerlines, or carcinogenic everything — receives far more attention and elicits far more panic that it should. Conversely, this obsession leads one to search out anything that might promise to prevent it or, at least, temporarily impede man’s slow but certain march towards death.