In the Western cultures, unless it is part of one’s professional life, there are relatively few times that the naked flesh is actually seen or is socially acceptable in its entirety.
Probably the bed, the beach and the stark private reflections in front of the mirror are the places where our outer camouflage is discarded and the face and body is revealed without compromise. One also has to ask who are you looking good naked for? I suspect that the most important person will be oneself but the competition on the beach and control of the bedroom are powerful factors in looking good!
Inspecting your body in the mirror is a fundamental benchmark, but perceptions of what is normal, ugly or beautiful are greatly influenced by culture, history and religion. Strict seclusion and the veiling of matrons were in place in Roman and Byzantine society. Between 550 and 323 B.C.E, prior to Christianity, respectable women in classical Greek society were expected to cover themselves and wear clothing that concealed them from the eyes of strange men. The Quran guides Muslim women to dress modestly and cover their breasts and genitals. When Adam and Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge they became self-conscious of their nakedness. They left the Garden of Eden forever and the fig leaf became a symbol of modesty. I once had the courage to ask a lady in a Burka her views on cosmetic surgery of the face. (She was the mother of a patient of mine at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital). Her reply was unequivocal. “I care about how I look as much as any other woman. It is a very human and personal matter. My Burka is a symbol of modesty, privacy and morality”.
Now in the twenty-first century, there has been a globalization of images. In every corner of the World every conceivable picture or photograph can be found on the Internet. I go to Ethiopia on surgical missions every year and the vision of remote tribes people using mobile phones is very striking. Mass culture must influence the way we all feel about nakedness both personally and aesthetically. The power of Greek art and its revival in the Renaissance still affects us today. The “beautiful” human forms of Greek sculpture are echoed in the six-pack culture of today as benchmarks of perfection or desirability. The fact that I have used the word beauty indicates how much I have been influenced by Western precepts in my own subconscious. Yet this flies in the face of the true variance of the human form. The range of height, weight, breast size, facial and body proportions and shape are indicative that normality is, in reality, a very difficult concept. Although there is much past and present research in mathematically describing human shape and form for the purposes of defining normality and helping with the future outcome, we are still a long way off before we can rely on computer analysis to inform us of what looks good to human beings. I also believe that there is probably an in-built human instinct for beauty, which is likely trans-cultural. What we perceive as looking good naked is therefore very complex. For our Western culture the crushing power of the media, which dictates to us how we should look like or what is desirable, can put impossible demands upon impressionable elements of society and incredulity for the rest of us. The media certainly does not teach us what is normal.
One definition of cosmetic surgery is the art of the possible in “normal” people. Therefore when I discuss the aims of cosmetic surgery of the face, breasts, and abdomen to patients, I realize that I am in essence exploring so many aspects of the patients’ culture, life history and their deep primeval psychological instincts. Nature abhors perfection because imperfection is the anvil of evolution and nature often uses deception and camouflage to attract mates or deter predators. Most cosmetic surgery is to enhance and not to perfect. Clothes, make-up and jewelry do the same.
The art and power of cosmetic surgery is to enhance what we have and to help encourage the psychology of self-esteem that empowers us to feel good about ourselves and hopefully move on.