Defining Achievement . . . or not

July 22, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Uh-oh, I’m annoyed again. Nothing new, just a recycled annoyance that popped into my craw today and won’t leave, I suppose, because this particular instance, while merely a minor irritation on the surface, indicates a raging cultural infection coursing underneath.

I’m easily annoyed by words used incorrectly in the hopes of making either the subject matter or the speaker sound more important or intelligent or valuable or necessary than it probably is. This happens regularly; verbal faux pas have been catalogued, column-ized and syndicated. Corporatespeak has created a behemoth of misuses and our own president plays with English as if it were a Nerf football to be tossed about, squished, stepped on, soaked in mud then caught in the dog’s teeth, and hey, don’t worry if a few chunks of actual meaning are missing.

This day, however, the word wasn’t grammatically trounced, but it assaulted my senses nevertheless, leaving an irksome sensation of unpleasantness, a bad taste on my cultural tongue. I was listening to news in the car, as most of my city lay without power after treacherous storms roared through the region. I mention this only because I normally listen to CDs in my car, music to soothe rather than news to agitate. I need calming when I drive so as to avoid my propensity toward early-onset road rage. Anyway, in the midst of the news, a commercial ran for a plastic surgeon who promises to make us all beautiful. He can create perfection. Upgrade us from our current, obviously sub-standard condition. He can make us better. He can “help you achieve the you you’ve always dreamed of.”

Huh? I mean, aside from ending the sentence in a preposition (which, duh, is just wrong), how exactly is going under the knife in the hopes of coming out better than you went in “achieving” anything? This is an achievement? Sorry, no. For the doctor, maybe. For the money guys who invested in his profitable little practice, perhaps.

But this is not an achievement for the patient choosing to suck off a bit of fat here and there instead of say, power-walking. Or for the patient who chooses to have her face sliced and stretched so she can pretend she’s younger than she is, instead of embracing herself in all her decades-old glory. And especially not for the patient who decides to poke a pair of unnaturally large and perky breasts into the peripheral vision of every seeing human who happens to pass her way. Oh NO, making sure breasts get more unnecessary attention than breasts already get in our painfully superficial culture is most certainly not an achievement.

I’m not talking about plastic surgery to correct an injury or a birth defect or any of a number of actual disfigurations or discomforts that dramatically affect the quality of life of the bearer. I in no way believe we shouldn’t use the giant leaps we’ve made in medicine to help people, but how far down the slippery slope do we tumble before we’ve gone too far? I’m talking about superficial, overdone, make-yourself-look-like-somebody-else-because,-bottom-line,-you-aren’t
-with-appearances-but-you-won’t-do-the-work-to-figure-it-out-and-fix-it kind of surgery.


“Geez,” you say. “Can you spell over-reacting?” you ask, while perhaps rolling your eyes in my general direction.

OK, maybe I am over-reacting. Let’s say I am, then, and see if we can figure out why, shall we? I’m almost 47. That’s older than I wish I was. I’d be pleasantly surprised if I woke up tomorrow in the body I was wearing at, say, 28. Firmer, smoother, a bit thinner and certainly not graying or wrinkled or sagging in any particular direction. I’ll even admit to covering the gray in my hair once a month, because I just don’t feel ready to look like my grandma. I guess you could say I have no business telling others, then, where they shouldn’t spend their money. God bless our freedom to make those choices, of course. So my hair color is superficial, yep, I admit it. Permanent, expensive and life-threatening in the way that any medical procedure is? Not so far.

Let’s say this all bothers me because I am divorced, and dating, and well aware of the male preference for bodies of the 28-yr.-old variety over the 47-yr.-old variety. Although I’ll state for the record that I’m not dead yet; I’ve learned that this ol’ body still has a few rounds left, thankyouverymuch.

But I digress. Maybe it’s because I’m a graduate student, and as such, could nary afford such a luxury as unnecessary plastic surgery. Call me bitter, call me envious. You’d be wrong, but I can see how you might assume such a thing.

OK, but even if I am overreacting, isn’t it possible that even a small portion of the money we spend on unnecessary, narcissistic nonsense in this country, like these kinds of surgeries, might be better spent on helping others whose lives could truly use some help? You know, people who lose everything in hurricanes or tsunamis or tornadoes or fires, people whose countries are ravaged by war or disease or other rampant scourge that simply takes lives and ruins them?

Ah, well. Maybe that’s too simplistic. Don’t help others – or maybe you already do. Save that money to support yourself in your old age – which will get here whether you remove the fat and the wrinkles and the bags or not.

Or perhaps my powerful reaction to this stupid commercial sprang from my motherhood, from a defiant need to protect my own from the superficiality of those trying to make a buck off the insecurities of others. I have daughters, the oldest of whom has reached puberty and is perched on the cusp of teen-hood. She is already concerned with her appearance, with every teeny tiny aspect of how she is shaped, colored and put together. I realize this is normal at her age. What if it doesn’t remain just a phase of adolescence, though, but shapes who she is, this dissatisfaction with appearances? I don’t want that for my girls. I don’t want that for anyone.

Doesn’t it seem paradoxical? Women have come so far in the last century in terms of our place in society, yet we’re still being told that surgically altering our appearance – SURGERY, people! – in order to look younger, less realistic and more like the airbrushed photos with which we are constantly assaulted, is an ACHIEVEMENT.

I get it. I understand how easily one can be sucked in to this. Like the good doctor said, he could create the me I’ve always dreamed of. [sic]Always, ever since I could dream, I’ve wanted to be shaped differently. I wanted a flat belly and a long waist instead of the curves I inherited. I wanted to be tall, I wanted straight, blonde hair, I wanted a look entirely unlike the one I have. Because what I look like has little to do with the looks presented as beautiful in our culture – I am NOT pretty, not glamorous, not even cute – and according to every commercial and billboard and advertisement I ever saw, I’d be HAPPY if only I looked different. How could I possibly have been content with who I am on the outside, how could there possibly NOT have been a different me in my dreams?

When I see this same thing happening to my daughter, my heart breaks a little. My daughter, who is drop-dead gorgeous with beautiful thick, black hair, a dazzling smile, strong legs, graceful hands with long, lovely fingers – this daughter has already been told by a close friend that she looks fat because her stomach isn’t flat, and by another that “her butt is too big.” Yeah, what I wouldn’t give for such a big butt . . . !! It curves. But it curves without one dimple of fat on it. She’ll never be string-bean thin like her little sister, no. But she’s active and strong and flexible, and we’ve been very conscious, since she was but a tiny babe, to talk about her beauty in terms of exactly who she is and what she feels and all that she can do. Sadly, though, at 11, she hears those peer voices above mine, no matter what reassurances I give.

She also wants thin hair, because her thick hair gets too “poofy.” Yeah, well, don’t we all want something other than what we’ve got? That’s different. That’s just a bit of the ol’ “grass is always greener” syndrome. I don’t worry about that. She’ll figure that one out eventually.

I just want my daughters – along with all the rest of us, now that I think about it – to focus on what is inside instead of what is outside. Make no mistake, I certainly want them to honor their external beauty by taking good care of themselves, by feeding their bodies well, by exercising and stretching as part of their normal activities and presenting themselves with care and pride. I want them to find joy in physical activity and push themselves to their full potential in whatever it is – and be proud of what their bodies can do rather than how they look.

I want my daughters to find within themselves passion and kindness and the ability to look past the surface of others to see whole people – people with histories and feelings and opinions that matter. If my girls can possess, above all, the true beauty that comes from both self-awareness and empathy, they will have reached true achievement.

If my daughters can reach adulthood and accept themselves, embrace themselves and love themselves, flaws and all, they will be able to claim real achievement.

If their lives and actions and accomplishments can fly in the face of all that tells them they’d be happier if they paid someone else to change them, then, yes, they will have achieved the selves of dreams.

A dream all of us should dare to examine for ourselves.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Consumerism, Culture, Current Events, Health, Language, Medicine

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (1)

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  1. Susan says:

    Mindy, this is the most insightful and well written blog entry I have ever read in my entire life.

    I salute you.

    Susan from NY

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