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Beauty as prisoner's dilemma

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Wednesday, Dec 24, 2008

Here’s another contender for the recession’s silver lining: the end of the plastic-surgery arms race. Or as the Economist’s Free Exchange blog calls it, “Breaking the Botox equilibrium.” Responding to a NYT report that expenditure on plastic surgery is dropping, the Economist blogger writes:


The increased demand for plastic surgery during the past few decades may have changed our cultural definition of beauty. Attractiveness in women has historically been associated with fertility. Yet, sometimes cultural norms confound that look—for example, the trend toward narrow, boyish hips, but large breasts. This look is often only achievable through surgical enhancement. If clusters of women undertake certain beauty rituals it can change the standard of beauty.
It could be argued that the plastic-surgery race became a coordination failure. It created an equilibrium where some women felt plastic surgery was necessary to feel attractive. If you were enmeshed in a Botox culture, it was hard to deviate. But if every woman abstained from Botox and breast implants, another welfare-enhancing equilibrium might emerge. Breaking out of the Botox equilibrium could be the upshot of the recession.



Refreshingly, this analysis posits beauty as the product of social relations—it’s not objective or transcendent, and it’s not purely subjective either; rather it’s an expression of class and social power and luxury and leisure and how these work on our genetic makeup. What is recognized as beautiful depends on social conditions, so surgical intervention brings you closer to current ideas about what is distinctive, not some eternal ideal. (The NYT article notes how celebrities are now turning on Botox, which had perhaps become too mainstream, too accessible.) Plastic surgery is a way of turning your body into a status good; in order for it to be a truly effective status good—a limited access positional good—the surgery has to become more and more extreme, or reversible, so that the removal of surgical enhancements can signal a higher, meta-enhancement. But beauty is never going to stand independent from money, power, and status. What we find objectively attractive will inevitably be appropriated and assimilated.


Because beauty is a social relation, it can be subjected to game theory analysis—hence beauty becomes a prisoner’s dilemma. Cooperation might yield a more democratic and inclusive standard of beauty, but where’s the fun in that? Better to make it a game of strategic self-objectification, so that women can continue to make themselves into pretty prizes

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