Have you ever wanted to change how you look? Perhaps you’ve admired the way someone else looks – or the way certain types of people in general can look – and it’s something you want to try, or experiment with? Not just in terms of how you dress, but how you might alter your body? For example, a lot of people exercise and work out to make their bodies look and feel healthier, and some argue that tattoos and piercings help people express difficult individual feelings in a uniquely public way. Some people undertake cosmetic surgery in order look different – younger, slimmer, tighter, bigger, or just to adjust certain features of face or body – so they can feel ‘more like the person they were always meant to be’. For them, body modification is an expression of individuality and authenticity.
However, an important question is just how unique are these looks and feelings to us as individuals? Do we work out, tattoo, pierce, or undergo surgery to look more like our real, genuine selves? Or to look more like how we think others want us to look – and will admire us for looking – which often makes us look like everyone else?
Admiration is not the only emotional motive for changing our bodies. Many of us worry about the way our bodies look. Sometimes we feel pressure and anxiety to fit in and look ‘good enough’, and sometimes we might even be driven to copy or look better than someone else through a sense of low status or envy. Gordon Clanton argues that if you find yourself “thinking the other does not deserve the good fortune or wishing that the other would lose his or her advantage or otherwise suffer, that is a measure of your envy”. Have you ever thought that someone you know has it too easy because they are just lucky enough to be good-looking? If you told someone else about your feeling of envy, what would be the most likely response – would they agree, would they tell you off for being ‘too envious,’ or would they encourage to ‘embrace your envy,’ and work harder to look better? Cas Wouters argues that as a society we are becoming increasingly competitive over status, and the management of emotions is a key part of this. Do we modify our bodies to manage our envy?
These ideas raise important sociological questions. Is envy a useful driver towards seeking the higher status that comes with ‘looking better’? Do modified bodies bring us the joy of authenticity, or the thrill of elevated social status (and the relief of reduced envy?) Is there a body-industry out there helping us to conflate authenticity and status? How much is society, the media, and the body-industry telling us – and selling us on – how to look? And how to treat others based on how they look?