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COMMENTARY - Effortful perfection

I recently heard one of the greatest pickup lines ever, and I'm wondering how I can work it into a conversation. It goes like this: "Great breasts, by the way, except that this one is much smaller and higher than that one." I wish I could say I made that up, but unfortunately, I'm not that clever.

I also need to come clean--this wasn't really used as a pickup line (surprise!), but rather it was uttered by one of the plastic surgeons on the Fox show (surprise!) "The Swan." You know the show, even if you haven't seen it--the one where women are trying to win a pageant by seeing who can get the most plastic surgery, personal training and counseling. In that order.

I feel ashamed to confess to watching the show, but I'm among friends, right? And I'd like to say that I was planning a column on "effortless perfection," but that would be a lie. I watch because I can't help myself, and I'm not sure why.

It would be easy to be critical of the show and the people on it, though I don't mean the women who compete, but rather the people in charge. The shallow plastic surgeons who think that any breast smaller than a C cup is a birth defect. The "coach" who has more collagen than brains and whose technique consists in telling the competitors to "be more positive." I could go on, but you get the idea. Yes, it would be easy to make fun of these charlatans, but I'm not about hating, so I'm not going to do that. And the bigger problem is that they have a point, even though most of us condemn them with every fiber of our being.

Well, almost every fiber. Because we all know that appearances matter, and as much as we avoid this truth, condemn this truth, struggle against this truth, we all give in to its tyranny in one way or another. I do. So do you. You buy your Sevens or your Pradas or your Dolce & Gabbanas or your BMWs, and you know damn well that you think you're getting something for all the good hard cash that you lay down.

Whether it's plastic surgery or a pair of jeans, we are all trying to cover our outside with a pretty veneer. Is it because we hate what's on the inside so much that we have to cover it up? Or is it because beauty is something real, if transitory and illusive, that we rightly desire for ourselves?

I hate to bring in Shakespeare at this point when I've tried to keep things classy, but his Julius Caesar presents us with an interesting perspective on this question. Early in the play Cassius is trying to convince the honorable Brutus to take up arms against Caesar. This may be ancient history, but Cassius uses rhetoric in a way our shallow plastic surgeons could appreciate. He hits Brutus where it hurts--in the face. For Cassius has access to a part of Brutus' essence that Brutus himself can never quite grasp, since he cannot really see himself as he appears to the world. Cassius asks plainly, "Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?" (1.2.53), and of course he knows the answer. His solution to Brutus' dilemma is ingenious: "And since you know you cannot see yourself/ So well as by reflection, I your glass/ Will modestly discover you to yourself/ That of yourself which you yet know not of" (1.2.67-70).

Cassius then tells him that his honor and virtue, which are hidden to Brutus himself but which are apparent to others, require that he take up arms against Caesar's tyranny.

We are probably familiar with what follows--Cassius convinces Brutus to assassinate Caesar, Brutus himself later commits suicide, and the rest is history.

What's the point of this little fable? It's that we haven't escaped Brutus' predicament, no matter how modern we are. We cannot really see ourselves as others do, no matter how many mirrors we surround ourselves with. And because we are imprisoned by the gaze of others, our longing to be beautiful is always precarious--always just outside our reach.

But there is a significant difference between us and Shakespeare's Brutus. He has no plastic surgeon, so he can't rig the game as we can now. His only path to beauty is the beauty of his character, but that of course is not entirely within his power because he cannot see how his own character really appears. And this is how Cassius traps him into murdering Caesar, convincing him that his "true appearance" requires that he become a rebel.

It might seem that Brutus is not one to emulate, but I'd have to disagree. His methods might have been questionable, but he tried to live up to an ideal of perfection and beauty that required him to change the world. That's not something to sneer at.

The question is: how can we begin to seriously talk about changing our world when we can't see past our own faces? I'll make a modest recommendation. We cannot escape the tyranny of appearance, and we should stop trying. What we are not forced to accept is that appearance is defined solely by our breasts, pecs, jeans, cars and abs. Yes, be concerned with your beauty, but realize that beauty involves the whole of you, and that includes your political self too. For the sake of appearance and beauty Brutus stands up to political tyranny, and dies in the process. Maybe that's the kind of beauty we need more of.

As Nietzsche so famously said: "become what you are." I say: become perfect. Become beautiful. Become political. Become Brutus. Become you.

Stefan Dolgert is a Graduate student of Political Science.


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