The Peril of Naming Our Flaws






“What is buccal fat how are they still inventing new flaws for us,” tweeted Jules Zucker after she saw the latest celeb cosmetic surgery trend. Responding to one of the 100,000 likes and comments, she wrote, “I am literally running out of limbs and features.”

The New York Times picked up on the conversation, which started when Agnes Philip tweeted, “Wake up babe new surgery just dropped in Hollywood” and offered photos of several celebs. Her post was quoted 4,463 times at last check—but received only 16,900 likes, which tells us that not many folks are overly concerned with buccal fat, but at least 100,000 are sick of being told how to look.

Buccal fat is, by the way, a pad of fat deep in the cheeks that, if ample (and this is down to DNA, not weight) can round the face, sacrificing those cheekbones we have been told to love. Celebs do not want chipmunk cheeks. They want cheekbones so sharp, they will cut anyone who dares to kiss them. And so, for $40,000 or so, a surgeon will remove two blobs of fat roughly the size of a grape. Dr. Andrew Jacono, a plastic surgeon on Park Avenue in Manhattan, told the NYT that he is doing three times more buccal fat reductions now than he was five years ago. In demonstration, he picked out Raphael’s cherubs “as examples of prime candidates for buccal fat removal.”

I always saw those cherubs’ cheeks as kissable. But once you have a diagnosis….

Naming our flaws is a cruel and sinister practice. Women with soft cheeks were fine until they were told they had large buccal fat compartments. I was fine having pink cheeks until a dermatologist called it rosacea and offered me a prescription. Actually, I am still fine; I turned down the drug so I could save money on blusher. But I have not felt the same about what I joking called my raccoon eyes since a friend nodded knowingly and said “troughs” were hard to fix, even with Botox and filler. Troughs? I know brows can furrow, but this takes agrarian metaphor to a new low. I picture a row of hogs gobbling from my sunken circles….

It got worse. A woman at the Chanel counter narrowed her own lovely, thick-fringed eyes to look at mine and shook her head sadly. “Since you inherited those” (an elegant sweep of three fingers in the general direction of my upper face) “you’ll want to hold your lid up with your pinkie while applying the mascara.” I neither want nor need to do that. But I did know what she was referring to; the only words I had found for it were, “My eyelids are so heavy, they’re shrinking my eyes!”

Back home, I went online (why do I do this to myself?) and learned that what I now possess are “hooded eyes,” a description I would have thought better suited to villains in noir novels. Guess they balance my troughs, I mutter. Then I remember the plastic surgeon I interviewed years ago, how he extolled symmetry and added a few aesthetic criteria I had never heard, including, “The nostrils should not be visible.” Gazing upward, one might glimpse those dark caves of air. But apparently they should never be visible straight on.

Mine are. And the fact that I now think of this as a flaw is—his fault? My problem? Both? I am wistful about the lost innocence of all those years when I had no idea my nose’s holes were an atrocity. And why, now that I am on a sad little roll, does my sort of chin need to be labeled “weak”? Having a “sloping chin” would sound so much nicer.

In Richard Osman’s latest delightful mystery, The Bullet That Missed, one of the characters, up in years, remarks that you had better love your face, because if you do not, it shows. The world conspires against such a healthy love, but he is right: its absence does show. As does the angst of perpetually retouching (an artist would call it “overworking”) the body.

We need to stop this awful labeling of perceived flaws, which only reifies them and exaggerates their undesirability. While we are at it, we might admit that most of the diagnoses for various sorts of neurotic or psychotic behavior are wildly unhelpful as well. A friend of mine’s wife received about seventeen different diagnoses over the years, if you count the various combinations. What was she to do with that information?

And what about labeling kids with “behavior disorder” or “learning disorder,” which implies they may never know how to behave or learn? How much gentler the world would be if we could defy the insurance companies and just say a kid has a hard time controlling his restless energy, or a temper that can tempt him to aggression, or needs extra time to absorb written material.

I know, I know. Labels are efficient. They standardize. But to standardize, you need a presumed set of norms and values, so you are off on the wrong foot already. Look what happened when we began to label homosexuality, replacing the old, tacit knowledge that some people are more comfortable being intimate with those of their own sex with a label that could be ostracized and criminalized Look what happened when we stopped calling ourselves Americans one and all, and instead began tacking on ethnic origins. The impulse was laudable, but the resulting hyphenation limited the unifying word, splitting us apart so we could be pitted against one another.

And yes, I know none of it was that simple; plenty of denigration preceded those labels. But words do shape thought and behavior, and names do carry connotations. Once a person or a feature or a way of living has been tagged, conclusions and generalizations come easily, and the response is no longer specific to that individual. Often, the result is a distortion.

Consider mathematician Manil Suri’s effort to make the Mona Lisa’s features more symmetrical. I approach his piece warily: here we go again. We are so proud of ourselves for figuring out proper proportions and other aesthetic principles that we now think conforming to them is the only way someone can be beautiful.

Ah, but I read on. Using a Harvard mathematician’s conclusion that “making an object more symmetric should make it more beautiful,” Suri points out that the Mona Lisa is “a bit of a dud, failing even the bilateral symmetry test.” To demonstrate, he duplicates the left side of Mona Lisa’s face on the right. The result? “A pointy skull and a Gérard Depardieu nose.” Suri continues tweaking to make the Mona Lisa even more symmetrical, and the results grow steadily uglier and more ridiculous. When he adds still more axes of symmetry, she ceases to be a person at all. “Something’s changing, do you notice?” he writes, deadpan. “It’s symmetry, working its magic. Mona’s getting beautiful again, in a flowery, tableclothy sort of way.”

In her final transformation, Mona is a circle, “the most symmetric figure there is.” She is pure geometry, in other words, entirely abstracted from human life, with its quirks and variations, its wear and tear, its laugh lines and blotches and lumps.

“This points to a difficulty in the search for a universal criterion for beauty,” he ends. Yes, symmetry can be beautiful, but “the aesthetics that result are intrinsically in conflict with each other.”

Push any label far enough, and you find an error at the heart of it.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.