[Outlook]Body worship

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[Outlook]Body worship

Beginning this year, people who have plastic surgery for aesthetic purposes, can report the medical bill to be factored in next year’s tax deduction. Tax deduction policies are formulated to be considerate of taxpayers, and the new policy reflects the fact that plastic surgery is commonplace these days.
Even those who are not interested in improving their appearance know what kinds of plastic surgery people receive to have better-looking faces and to look fit, proving that almost everybody is familiar with the operations.
What can we learn from the phenomenon of people being drawn to plastic surgery in the hope of becoming more beautiful? From the perspective of Korea’s traditional ethics, plastic surgery is truly regretful. Traditional thought teaches people to treasure all parts of their body, even their skin and hair, because they were given to them by their ancestors. But even without mentioning traditional values, we can say that more people disapprove than approve of getting surgery in the hope of becoming more beautiful.
We can look at all of society rather than only individuals when examining the phenomenon. The media and consumerism are in part responsible for widespread use of plastic surgery. Today’s mass consumerism and media outlets such as TV, Internet portals and magazines set norms and standards for beauty and commercialize them. They create the illusion that people can easily become beautiful if they want to.
Many people may agree that plastic surgery is so widespread because of illusions about beauty and that the mass media encourages consumerism. But it is difficult to accept that idea fully. Strictly speaking, there are no aesthetic grounds for condemning plastic surgery as an abnormal and pathological custom.
On what grounds can we say an operation for a cleft palate is good while a surgery to make a crease on an eyelid is bad? Is it right that we accept make-up or dyeing one’s hair while we think liposuction and a breast job are bad? We think some operations are reasonable while others are not but that is an arbitrary standard. All these surgeries are in essence the same because they are aimed at making people more beautiful.
Plastic surgery is a glimpse at shows people’s understanding of and attitude about their bodies. One of the traits of modern society is that people are deeply interested in their bodies and they treat them with great care.
This is called the “body worship” phenomenon, and it is easy to guess what the term means. Such words as well-being, diet, fitness and jogging have become everyday terms, and that shows people value healthy and beautiful bodies.
This phenomenon is based on people’s changing perceptions about their bodies. People now believe that a body is not something that they are born into and have to accept like destiny. Rather, they think they can choose and change their bodies. A body has become a project that people need to plan and carry out.
People do not spare any effort for this project’s success and even endure intolerable pain such as hunger or risk their lives, such as when they become anorexic. They do so because they believe that a pleasing appearance guarantees successful relationships, marriages and careers.
It can be said that body worship is the end product of secularization and individualism. These terms mean that the emphasis given to religion and community life has gone down, and that as a result, the order and value systems that used to give meaning to people’s lives are gradually disappearing.
Relations within communities have dissolved, and people have become more individualized. They now find meaning in their own bodies.
A body has become a key element of a person’s identity and is a means of self expression. As individualism has gotten stronger, people take extreme measures to express themselves through their bodies.
Plastic surgery, piercings and tattoos prove that the body itself, rather than other means such as makeup or clothes, has become a means of expression.
Body worship is a worrisome phenomenon. It overlooks the fact that people’s bodies are finite. If a person thinks about the inevitable limitations of a body, it will be hard to worship it. As people worship bodies more, they become more afraid of death.
It is not a coincidence that death is entirely separated and excluded from daily life in modern society. When death is an essential part of life, a society that shuns it is truly worrisome.

*The writer is a professor of Western history at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ahn Byung-jik
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