Angelina Jolie’s disclosure of her recent preventive double mastectomy and breast reconstruction was rightly hailed as a sensible public health message to women “living under the shadow of cancer.” But the gesture may signal something else: a growing tolerance for altered bodies, and even a new standard in which beauty and disfigurement are no longer mutually exclusive.
In her article, Jolie described post-operative drain tubes, tissue expanders and nipple preservation and admitted to feeling, “like a scene out of a science-fiction film.” But it’s not science fiction at all. Millions of Americans, including scores of celebrities, have undergone similarly invasive surgeries and are living successfully with all kinds of artificial and altered body parts, eroding the distinction between the real and unreal. Some are reconstructions, like the groundbreaking artificial windpipe recently created for a two year-old girl from a mix of plastic fibers and her own stem cells. Others, such as breast augmentation, are more strictly cosmetic.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates that more than 300,000 breast augmentations were done in 2011 alone, a 45 percent increase since 2001 and the most common form of cosmetic surgery in the United States. Combined with breast lifts (100,000 per year) and reconstructions like Jolie’s (another 100,000), that’s a lot of surgically transformed breasts. This altered reality has become the ‘new normal’ to such an extent that casting directors now despair of finding actresses who look natural enough for period films.
It’s hard to remember that not long ago there was such deep aversion to body tampering that even tatoos and piercings were considered mutilations reserved for people on the margins of society, such as pirates and prostitutes. An infamous “Mad Men” episode winked at that bygone era when an ad executive was fired because he had lost a foot to a rogue lawnmower.
Fortunately, we are more enlightened these days and amputations no longer have the stigma they once carried. With the advent of sophisticated prosthetics, many amputee victims of the Boston bombing last month can expect to resume their previous level of mobility. Their recoveries are already being tracked by the media and they will likely remain in the public eye, prosthetics and all. Before Olympian double amputee Oscar Pistorius was charged with murder, he’d garnered a spot on People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list despite, or because of, his carbon-fiber prosthetic blades. In last year’s Rust and Bone, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard played a plausibly breathtaking woman with missing lower limbs. Filmed with unusual frankness, Cotillard’s impossibly buff boyfriend calls her “Robocop,” admiringly, in one pivotal scene.
The human body’s vulnerability, and mutability, has been normalized and even, in some instances, made beautiful. We often worry about the debasing impact of technology. It’s unusual, and perhaps even unnerving, to think that it might actually make us feel more, not less, human. The irony of course is that the same technological advances that have given hope to millions who want to feel attractive and whole also raise the aesthetic bar for the rest of us to punishing new heights. No cellulite, no body hair, no turkey wattle.
It’s hard to say how far this will go. The cells in our bodies are continuously replaced; so too, increasingly, our damaged or undesired body parts. We may not see limb growing in our lifetimes, but Harvard scientists are already hunting for the salamander genes that might one day make regeneration possible. But if history is our guide, we’ll likely need help in managing this new android world. As James Hughes argues in Citizen Cyborg, without a thoughtful, democratic process, enhanced body parts might become one more battle zone between the haves and the have-nots.