Plastic Surgery to Prevent Bullying

This is as horrendous as it sounds. That someone would be driven to a surgeon by bullying is really, really disturbing. Jessica Valenti (responding to this story of a girl who did just that) thinks something is missed in the rush to be beautiful:

When I was younger I begged my parents to let me get a nose job. Like Ilse, I was taunted at school and hated my nose so thoroughly I was sure my face was an affront to the people around me. My parents, to their credit, never considered letting me have surgery. They simply assured me I was beautiful the way I was. But here's the thing: I knew that wasn't true. 

I was a smart kid, and I realized that compared to what was considered beautiful, I was absolutely awkward-looking. As my friend writer Jaclyn Friedman once said to me, the problem isn't that girls don't know their worth--it's that they absolutely do know their value in society. Young women know exactly how ugly the culture believes them to be. So when we teach girls to simply "love themselves," we're implicitly telling them to accept the world as it is. 

We're saying that being beautiful is something worth having when we should be telling them a culture that demands as much is toxic. In a lot of ways I'm glad I was considered unattractive as a kid--there is an upside to ugly. I developed a sharp sense of humor, a defense against the taunts. I thought more deeply about how good and bad people can be. I started writing. I found feminism. 

There's nothing wrong with embracing ugly. It's okay to feel inferior--we don't feel ugly or less than because of some deficit in our confidence, we feel that way because we're systematically trained to believe it. Because society depends on it. Self esteem won't change that--shifting the culture will.

I know that scientists say that there is an actual immutable beauty standard. But the fact is that you didn't see people like India Arie and Wesley Snipes anywhere in the mainstream pop culture at one point.  You can read slaveholders like Thomas Jefferson waxing poetically on the natural ugliness of the African. But the culture changed--or rather it was changed. And interestingly it wasn't changed by "embracing ugly," so much as by shouting "Black is beautiful" until we were throat-sore.

But a cultural change that would make this young girl find some peace in herself beyond the surgeon's knife seems to less to do with beauty and more to do with violence. I wouldn't be shocked if this young woman finds herself dealing with bullies even after surgery. I don't really know if we can create a culture without beauty, nor do I know if we should. I'm more optimistic about creating a culture where people aren't humiliated because their teen years are more awkward than someone else's. 

There have been some missteps in the recent movement against bullying, but in general, trying to turn the culture away from the mockery and throttling of young people is a good thing. I also think the "love yourself" message is really important. We can work on two fronts--reforming the collective culture and empowering the individual. These are not opposed. Giving your boy "The Talk" about cops is not tacit approval of police brutality.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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