Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Plastic Surgery, Brazil, and our new Pope, Renee Zellweger.

Today on the internet, everyone is:
 wiggin' out about Renee Zellweger's new face,
mad about people being mean about Renee Zellweger's new face, or
depressed the pressure to be young and beautiful in Hollywood.

Much like the girl who told me fairies weren't real in elementary school, I think that if you truly feel outraged about someone's personal life choices, you should just ignore them. Which, coincidentally, is the opposite of what most internet folk have chosen to do, whatever the opinion.

 In all fairness, I didn't ignore that girl, either. I kicked her, and I got detention.

She will be a bridesmaid in my wedding next October.

As a digital shin-kick to everyone and anyone, I'd like to bring up  a couple passive-aggressive, vaguely linked points in response to your overwhelming personal sadness over a stranger's apparent plastic surgery.

Zelly knew what she was doing. She's got agents. She's got publicists. She's got personal assistants, and--I hope--some friends.  In all likelihood, the idea that this would be taken negatively by any and everyone on the internet was factored into the discussion of "should I receive an apparent face graft". The negative, explosive press was likely on the "pro" list of this transformation, and her recent statement  all but confirms that suspicion. At last, people are watching her again. The gaze. The beautiful, intoxicating gaze.

The part of this that is most troubling to me is NOT  so much that older women are altering their bodies in order to be "more beautiful" (more on that later).  I'm more concerned about the growing trend in deciding that anything is better than obscurity. We've always been obsessed with the idea of celebrity; modern society makes the collective psychosis more obvious. In my humble, largely unheard opinion, the message behind this internet explosion is as follows:

Being famous is so important, that I'd literally rather rip my face off than dive into obscurity. 

It's about fame. Our culture  commodifies storytelling, reducing it to something as unimportant as notoriety.

We don't love people because they are brilliant artists.
 We love them because they help us believe in a great and powerful falsehood: immortality.

The links between fame and illusions of immortality are pretty easy to spot.  When your Uncle Maury dies, it's tragic, but only inasmuch as it affects Maury's relatives and friends. Eventually, days pass when Maury is thought of with less frequency. Indeed, months slip by without his name being mentioned aloud. Maury not only physically dies, but his memory in the living world dwindles to almost nothing.  That's dying. The forgetting. Just ask Thorton Wilder.

Celebrities enjoy a lasting power that extends well beyond their final pulse. Foundations are started, Facebook is flooded, news is halted--for the remembrance of one celebrity's birthday or death. Think about CNN or Fox on the anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. Still. Still, this happens. They are, in a sense, immortal.

 The illusion of immortality clings tightly to our brightest entertainers, and so we love them.  Think, then, of the pressure of obscurity. The challenges associated with no one taking her picture. In the unreality of fame and a culture obsessed and terrified of death, Renee was dying long before her time.

We are replacing old gods ( i.e. God, Zoroaster, the Beatles) with the notion of celebrity. The deification of humans always puts me on edge. Think of the problematic rule of the Pharaohs. Or the Papacy.  Trust me, we don't need more popes  running around, eating kale salads and forgetting to wear underpants with their mini-skirts.

Ironically, when celebrities elect to dramatically change their physical states, it causes a troubling inner stir which might otherwise be reserved for, i don't know, people we actually know. 

As for plastic surgery, I'd like to reference an article posted earlier this year that explores the lives of Brazilian women undergoing surgery, sometimes in teaching hospitals that subsidize the procedures, Ivo Pitanguy, the namesake of one such institute, waxed philosophical about every person, even the poor, having the right to be beautiful. 

Many friends and peers lamented at the "distorted notion of beauty" that this mentality supposedly embodies. There were cries of "every body is beautiful" from all four corners of the internet, as men and women alike weighed in on this oft- discussed issue of plastic surgery. I can understand the argument that beauty should be less important than it is today. I nod my head in assent at the argument, "why does everyone have to be beautiful? Can't we all just be good people?". I think it is esoterically sound.

. I just contest the feasibility of a collective change of heart toward beauty, given our aforementioned affection for glamour.

As a conventionally attractive, "normal looking"  cisgendered white female American, it's easy for me to talk about self-love Its easy for me to look at magazines and disregard my cellulite or crooked teeth and say, "every body is beautiful".

 It is easy to go on about inner beauty when you are, in fact, beautiful. Even if you don't feel beautiful all the time.

 But there are physically ugly people in the world. Some would argue that beauty consists of a series of metrics., It's a simple mathematical equation that doesn't add up properly in some bodies,

The golden ratio tells us that exceptionally beautiful people exist for no reason other than that their bodily proportions add up to about 1.61. Aesthetics are not a myth, or even, in some ways, our choice. That ratio has held true in our bodies, paintings and master works of art, and was even referenced in a Dan Brown Novel.   Thats how you know it's real.

Please note, this observation comes from the existence of subsidized or even free plastic surgery, which provides greater access to cosmetic surgery than we have in the United States. Here in the states, cosmetic surgery is generally available to wealthy people with time and money to burn.  Like everything else, it is used as a symbol of our status and power. It indulges those Calvinistic urges that say that some people are just intrinsically better, and therefore more opportunities are available to them.  But that's not cosmetic surgery's fault. It's due to our ongoing obsession with wealth and status.

There is something beautiful about the Brazilian perception of cosmetic surgery. Something lovely about a woman taking control of her body, looking the "I-Was-Just-Born-Better" mentality in the eye, and manifesting one's own destiny in the realm of physical beauty. If its so unimportant, then why sweat the changes?

After all, if our exteriors are merely shells,  and not that important anyway--what is it about altering one's body that is so sacrosanct?

Renee's example is not that of bodily empowerment or ownership. She is seemingly entranced by the immortality illusion. But, why are you so sad about plastic surgery in itself? Why aren't you more concerned with the waste of money, or the glaring wealth inequality that allows for such frivolities in this country? Why are you lamenting Renee and demeaning these Brazilian women? Both took control of her body in an unconventional way. One received it for an affordable price. But we are more worried about the transient changes of our godlike examples than the prospect that physical beauty can be created and still  be genuine. It's just that it can only be achieved under certain circumstances. Like wealth, pre-existing beauty, and godliness.

I'm not trying to say that Renee Zellweger is an anti-Calvinist egalitarian demigod, championing female empowerment. Hell, she's saying that she didn't  get plastic surgery in the first place.

 I'm just suggesting that maybe, it's not plastic surgery that's problematic in our shallow, self-absorbed society. It's wealth, fame, and our endless obsession with the pursuit of immortality.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dear West Virginia 4-H: We Have To Stop Using Cultural Appropriation in Our Camping Traditions.

It's national 4-H week, and I am flooded with memories of campfires, once-close friendships, and old songs. I miss my old friends, and wonder why we grew apart. I am grateful for Kyle and the Russo sisters, probably the last holdouts from that  category.

There's one part of camp that, as I have grown in age and perspective, has become disconcerting. It's not the ever-encroaching over-supervision of campers. Or the gossiping counselors.

Every summer (which is the pinnacle of 4H participation in West Virginia), we assemble into tribes.  Four groups, separated by a color, totem animal...and a Native American name.

One of these things is not like the of these things just doesn't belong. 

The 4H camping tradition is over 100 years old. My mother, sisters, and now niece have all participated in this fun, lighthearted and loving week of youth vigor, valor and vim (guess which tribe I was in). Words like "Tradition"  and  "Legacy" are thrown around the campfire pretty regularly. We hold many practices sacred.

I understand. I loved it, too, I loved being a "proud Seneca", serving as both a "Sagamore" and a "Chief" of my "tribe".  Wakonda jokes were great stand-ins when nothing funny happened that day, and wearing a chief's headdress or sagamore tag made me feel proud, even though it did create a week-long ring of green around my forehead.

When I try to relay memories of camp now, I find myself censoring most of the aforementioned events. In my present mind and worldview, these traditions that we hold so dear seem like hurtful, reductive pantomime of a marginalized and oppressed culture that has been ignored or ridiculed by American society for too long.  We are not those people. We do not oppress, tease, or marginalize. We are here to make the world a better place, and this tradition is keeping us from doing it.

Dear fellow West Virginia 4Hers, you're going to hate this. You're going to get mad and feel sensitive, because for so many of us, 4H was a haven from the world, a reminder of how to be a kid, a true outlet of joy.   But we have to stop using tribal symbols in our Camps. We have to let everyone know how wonderful we are, and part of that means making 4H and 4H camp accessible to everybody.

As a community, we strive to uphold the 4 Hs--Head, Heart, Health, and Hands. Mimicking tribal names and traditions is an egregious violation of these four pillars.

  Head: It encourages us to make a moral exception for ourselves, despite the fact that we all know that mimicking Indigenous traditions is racist, reductive and damaging to our society.

 Heart: By denying this fact, we are closing our community to minority groups. Do you think a Native American would feel comfortable joining our group? 4H is for everyone. Camping is for everyone. But, when the basic structure of our camping model violates the personal history of others, we unintentionally exclude those who might view our traditions as offensive. WE need to open our hearts to the potential for change.

Health: Racism is, in many ways, a mental health issue. Using tribal jargon for pantomime desensitizes campers to the implications behind the use.  By making this a non-issue, our organization is sweeping hundreds of years of oppression under the rug. If we are capable of doing that with one group, why not others? This practice sends a subliminal message to campers that some racism is okay.

  Hands: As an organization, we are dedicated to using our voices to make the world a better place in every scale. "For my club, My Community, My Country, and My World."  This may not cause big waves in West Virginia, where there is a largely homogeneous culture.  But we aren't just worried about West Virginia (although it is the Best Virginia). We are concerned with the world. We want to make it a better, more loving and equal place. Mimicking indigenous cultures is counter intuitive to this mission.

I know that  intentions are not to offend. I understand that 100 years of "tradition" can make our perspective hazy.

I am also aware that we have been through this before, and someone said it was "OK" as long as we are "culturally sensitive". But let me tell you---there is no situation where mimicking another culture is sensitive. Especially when you consider the historical treatment of Native peoples by the United States. I'm not just talking about smallpox blankets and the Trail of Tears. I'm talking about poor resources on reservations, continual socio-economic inequality, and continued cultural appropriation throughout many aspects of popular culture, media and organizations such as 4H. So this time, let's not have to wait to be asked---and sued--by Native American Peoples. Let's do the right thing, and reach this conclusion on our own.

We can keep the bears, turtles and birds. We can still shout our approval, sit by a campfire and sing songs while competing for the funniest skits or best top ten lists. Those are our traditions.They are what make 4H special, sacred even.

 Seneca, Cherokee, Delaware, Mingo and Big Foot are not ours. They do not uphold the 4Hs, and they are holding us back.  Please, for the sake of creating a more conscientious, equal and loving world, consider removing Native connotations from our 4H traditions. I want 4H camp to be open for everyone.  In order to do that,we must create a landscape of equality for everyone, not just for some.

I take my stand, I make my pledge, and each day it means more. And from now on, through all my life, I'll pledge the H's 4.