Isn’t it interesting how differently we look at things? How the same bridge crossed by ten people becomes ten bridges? How beauty is so subjective? So ephemeral? Just think of how Shakespeare opened his second sonnet: When forty winters shall besiege thy brow and dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field, thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now, will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
And yet to some, beauty -however evanescent- seems a prize worth having, no matter the sacrifice. It seems unfair that it should have been doled out to some, but not to others. There are cultures where the inequity of this disparity is taken seriously; there are countries where beauty is felt to be a right to which all should be entitled no matter their social strata.
So accustomed am I to my own cultural mask, I have to admit that I had not realized that Brazil was such a place until I came across an article in the Conversation that addressed the issue. It was written by Alvaro Jarrin, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. https://theconversation.com/in-brazil-patients-risk-everything-for-the-right-to-beauty-94159 ‘Brazil considers health to be a basic human right and provides free health care to all its citizens. […] In Brazil […] patients are thought of as having the “right to beauty.” In public hospitals, plastic surgeries are free or low-cost.’ But, ‘public hospitals remain severely underfunded, and most middle-class and upper-class Brazilians prefer to use private medical services.’
Jarrin feels there is a darker side to this medical largesse however, in that the surgeries are frequently performed by more junior surgeons, just learning their techniques (albeit likely under the supervision of more experienced surgeons as is frequently the case even in the USA).
He goes on to say, ‘Yet these patients, most of whom were women, also told me that living without beauty in Brazil was to take an even bigger risk. Beauty is perceived as being so central for the job market, so crucial for finding a spouse and so essential for any chances at upward mobility that many can’t say no to these surgeries.’
‘Plastic surgery is considered an essential service largely due to the efforts of a surgeon named Ivo Pitanguy. In the late 1950s, Pitanguy […] convinced President Juscelino Kubitschek that the “right to beauty” was as basic as any other health need. Pitanguy made the case that ugliness caused so much psychological suffering in Brazil that the medical class could not turn its back on this humanitarian issue. In 1960, he opened the first institute that offered plastic surgery to the poor, one that doubled as a medical school to train new surgeons. It was so successful that it became the educational model followed by most other plastic surgery residencies around the country. In return for free or low-cost surgeries, working-class patients would help surgeons learn and practice their trade.’
The author seems to feel that the reconstructive aspects of plastic surgery -techniques for the treatment of burn victims and those with congenital deformities, etc.- have taken a back seat to techniques geared to aesthetic enhancement, however. ‘Since most of the surgeries in public hospitals are carried out by medical residents who are still training to be plastic surgeons, they have a vested interest in learning aesthetic procedures – skills that they’ll be able to later market as they open private practices. But they have very little interest in learning the reconstructive procedures that actually improve a bodily function or reduce physical pain. Additionally, most of Brazil’s surgical innovations are first tested by plastic surgeons in public hospitals, exposing those patients to more risks than wealthier patients.’
As a retired (gynaecological) surgeon myself, I have to say that I take issue with the naive view Jarrin seems to have about the training of the resident surgeons he reports. After all, clearly it would be better for the young surgeon to learn techniques under the careful guidance of an experienced mentor, than to suddenly be expected to possess the required expertise once she has passed her exams. Indeed, a selection bias is perhaps equally applicable to the anecdotes Jarrin quotes to demonstrate his contention. But, in fairness, I may be guilty of an insidiously perverted form of cultural relativism myself: I see my own world even when it’s not…
Cultural relativism, first popularized in the early twentieth century, attempts to understand and judge other cultures not by our own standards, but by theirs. It is a contextually rooted approach that can be devilishly difficult to achieve. We are all inherently cultural solipsists; we learn customs from the cradle and mistrust or actively disavow any deviations from those to which we have become habituated.
Even beauty itself is fraught. What is beautiful? Surely it is an ill-defined shadow on a rather large spectrum, its position tentative and arbitrary, depending as it must, on time and measurement. Shakespeare knew that. We all know that… Or do we? Are there unequivocal, objective criteria that must be met, or are they entirely subjectively defined? Culturally allotted? Surgically assigned?
No one has defined beauty more bewitchingly, in my opinion, than the poet, Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American writer and artist in The Prophet. When the prophet is asked about beauty, he replies:
… beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.
It is not the image you would see nor the song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.
It is not the sap within the furrowed bark, nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden for ever in bloom and a flock of angels for ever in flight.
… beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.
I cannot criticize the cultural ethos of Brazil, or its need for beauty; I can only wonder whether they will ever find what they are so desperately seeking. Who can touch a rainbow just by reaching?