Putting Your Best Face Forward

Cosmetic surgery promises the ultimate validation: a chance for the world to see us as we see ourselves.

By Carl Elliott, published on May 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

If a team of alien anthropologists were looking for clues to understand the habits and sensibilities of 21st-century Americans, it could start with the Fox reality show, The Swan. Like Extreme Makeover, its predecessor on ABC, The Swan invited guests to undergo dramatic self-transformations with the help of fitness trainers, hair stylists, makeup consultants and cosmetic surgeons. Unlike the guests on Extreme Makeover, however, contestants on The Swan were prevented from seeing how their cosmetic surgery had turned out until the season finale. In that episode, called "The Ultimate Swan Pageant," 18 surgically altered finalists competed against one another in a televised, two-hour beauty contest. For the anthropologist, here is an artifact that promises to combine some of the most significant aspects of contemporary American life: grueling competition, the possibility of extreme social humiliation, and plenty of women in bathing suits.

The fact that so many people eagerly undergo such dramatic procedures (and that millions of people watch them do it) suggests that something deeper is at work here. In fact, the desire for self-transformation has been a part of American life since the earliest days of the republic. How many other countries can count a best-selling self-help author such as Benjamin Franklin among their founding fathers? Cosmetic surgery, once a slightly shameful activity, is now performed at elite medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins University.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sociologist Charles Cooley described the American identity as a "looking-glass self." Our sense of ourselves, wrote Cooley, is formed by our imagination of the way we appear in the eyes of others. Other people are a looking glass in which we see not merely our own reflection but a judgment about the value of that reflection. ("Each to each a looking glass/Reflects the other that doth pass," he wrote.) If we are lucky, we feel pride in that imagined self; if not, we feel mortification.

The metaphor of the looking glass suggests Narcissus, bewitched by his own image, but Cooley did not think that we are entirely self-centered. As he pointed out, we are often keenly aware of the characteristics of the people in whose minds we imagine ourselves. We are more self-conscious about our looks in the presence of people who are exceptionally beautiful, and more ashamed of being cowardly in the presence of the brave. But in the end, when we gaze into the looking glass, we are interested in the reflections mainly because they are ours. "Enough about me," as the old joke goes. "What do you think about me?"

In fact, there is a sense in which Cooley's looking-glass self is built right into our moral system. The moral ideal at work here is "recognition." As the philosopher Charles Taylor has written, today we feel that it is crucially important to be recognized and respected for who we are. This has not always been the case. The desire for recognition is not as important in times or places in which identity is considered immutable and predetermined—where it is part of the natural order, for example, or part of a social hierarchy. We find recognition so important today precisely because so many aspects of our identities are neither immutable nor predetermined. We are not simply born into a caste or social role. We are expected to build an individual identity for ourselves by virtue of how we live and the way we present ourselves to others. Manners, accent, clothes, hair, job, home, even personality: All are now seen as objects of individual control that express something important about who we are.

But building a successful identity cannot be done in isolation. It depends on the recognition of others. And that recognition can be withheld. (You can insist you are a woman, for example, while others insist you are really a man.) Sometimes recognition can be given, yet given in a way that demeans the person being recognized. It's no surprise that from its inception, cosmetic surgery has been enthusiastically employed to efface markers of ethnicity, such as the "Jewish nose" or "Asian eyes." Recognition is necessary for self-respect, and if it is denied, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously put it, one is placed in the position of "measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." Many Americans have given up on changing the world and have decided to change themselves instead.

Some people see shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan as a kind of institutionalized cruelty. After all, they searched for contestants whose special psychological vulnerability was an abiding shame about their physical appearance, and then offered them the chance for redemption only if they agreed to appear on national television in their underwear. (A Fox vice president, sounding eerily like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, added that contestants would be put through "rigorous emotional and physical reconditioning.")

Yet there is something weirdly appropriate about cosmetic surgery winding up on television. This may be the logical end point of the looking-glass self. It is not just that people on television are on average much better-looking than the rest of us, though that is certainly true. It is also that the average American spends four hours a day watching television. It would be surprising if all that viewing time did not make us more self-conscious. As the novelist David Foster Wallace puts it, four hours a day spent watching television means four hours a day of unconscious reinforcement that genuine human worth dwells in the phenomenon of being watched. No wonder we can't turn away.