Jessica Helfand | Essays

Face Value

Twilight Zone: "The Eye of the Beholder." Episode No. 42, 1960

There’s a scene in an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which a group of physicians, their faces concealed behind surgical masks, are peering over a patient whose face is completely covered by bandages. As the bandages are slowly removed, the doctors step back and gasp in horror.

Something, it seems, has gone horribly wrong.

The camera cuts back to reveal the patient, a vision of Hollywood loveliness. (What did she look like before, one wonders?) Only then do we see that the surgeons have removed their own masks.

And they're aliens.

The notion of quantifying beauty has long inspired such works of fiction, and it's easy to see why. From Beauty and the Beast to Cyrano de Bergerac, Dark Passage to My Fair Lady, beauty's beholder is a fickle and unreliable target. Standards of beauty are themselves imprecise, not to mention prone to cultural bias and generational whim. Regardless, at the end of the day, it's about what you were born with — and that starts with your face.

Which turns out to be something you may now be in a position to upgrade.

Most of us cannot help but be fascinated by the notion of a human redesign, by that magical makeover cocktail — part cosmetic artistry, part surgical intervention — that results in the perfect re-do. Reality TV shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan and the quasi-outrageous Nip/Tuck target precisely this amped-up fantasy world, feeding that part of the cultural imagination that says you can't be too rich or too thin. Buried in this notion lies an implicit assumption that — like a cash windfall brought on by a winning lottery ticket — such improvements can't help but be mirrored by an equally improved lifestyle. While we understand, in the absolute, that beauty can't promise happiness, the utopian dream of having it all persists nonetheless.

Beauty is, of course, big business in the developed world, and physical improvements — by way of cosmetic surgery, for example — are expensive yet eminently achievable. Breasts can be lifted, eyebrows lowered, teeth whitened, hair darkened, noses straightened, tummies tucked, skin peeled, plucked, bleached, waxed, polished, shaved or bronzed.

For the truly fearless, of course, there's always Botox.

But such interventions are negligible when weighed against a complete facial transplant — something which, up until recently, resided squarely in the Twilight Zone. While CNN reported on its technical feasability (and moral ambiguity) more than three years ago, it wasn't until recent reports of a controversial face transplant in France that serious questions have emerged: questions of psychological adjustment, emotional forbearance, medical ethics and more. It's spooky and it's scary, yet many critics speculate that, if successful, hard-core beauty seekers will want access to such procedures, in spite of the potential dangers — which include, among other things, tissue rejection and an elevated cancer risk.

And what then, the ethicists argue? Where do we draw the line?

As much as we can comprehend the intellectual reasons why the facial transplant, as an elective surgery, is horribly misguided, we can't help but wonder if it will eventually find its way into mainstream culture. It's easy to imagine other transplants following suit: will progressive cloning therapies soon make it possible, for instance, to request Talisa Soto's earlobes, or Meg Ryan's feet? (While we're at it, what about Stephen J. Hawking's mind? Madeline Albright's diplomacy? Or Lance Armstrong's stamina?) Insane, sure. But not necessarily impossible.

Beyond the obvious troubling topics — an insurmountable psychological adaptation to a Whole New You, for one — lies the inevitable question of whether or not beauty is really just skin deep. And to the degree that designers make things look good, we're all somehow complicit in this. I'm not suggesting that working as a practicing designer amounts to a tacit support of plastic surgery — only that it's worth considering how the cultural shift that permits the radical makeover might have some bearing on design.

Ok, it's a stretch. But is it, really? Book and magazine cover designers, particularly those engaged with newsstand and shelf sales, struggle constantly with the idea that most people do, in fact, judge a book by its cover. The responsible editorial designer reads the book or article in question in order to represent some kind of distilled idea on top: but if you judge a design competition, you have no way of doing this. Instead, you look at the cover, try to glean a sense of what the designer was trying to accomplish and cast your vote.

Is this fair? Or are you making a judgment based on face value?

It is possible, likely even, that in the days that follow, the facial transplant story will short-circuit itself, going the way of Dolly the sheep — which was, it should be noted, similarly plagued with questions of ethical (mis)conduct. And while designers have no role to play in the larger medical questions, the ethics surrounding this issue affect us all, especially those of us engaged in the visual world. The phenomenon of the facial transplant reminds us that there's more to design than improving the way things look. And that includes people.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Science

Comments [8]

I thought the patient in France was expected to look like "herself", at least somewhat. So, while getting a facial upgrade might be desirable, it sounds like placing an order for a specific result is still a long way out. Surprised you didn't mention the horrible "Face Off" with Cage and Travolta and it's earlier influence on the public perception of facial transplants.

Wow. Where to begin? I have to say that this article first jumps into ill-informed hyperbole for the sake of sensationalism, and then lamely tries to make a link to the design profession (so that it, too, can be tainted by the frisson of Brave New World-ian fearmongering?)

Let's draw a very clear line, first, between elective surgery and reconstructive surgery. Elective plastic surgery on its own is already very, very limited in what it can do. It cannot make you into something that your underlying bone structure doesn't already have. Radical transformations of the face are rare; it's usually in the realm of literally, a nip or a tuck to reduce a sag here, balance an earlobe there, correct a deviated septum elsewhere. In general, the idea is to create proportion and balance, not to become something you're not.

Doctors - reputable ones, anyway - will not all of a sudden be harvesting supermodel cadavers so that we can ghoulishly mask ourselves, Ed Gein-like. First, the ethical considerations would require doctors to reject such casual requests out of hand. Secondly, it is a major intervention that exposes the patient to extreme risks - exposing a massive, sensitive area of the body to infection, for one. There's also tissue rejection to consider: the anti-rejection drugs one would likely have to take in the case of a non-close match depress the immune system severely, so a common cold could kill you. Thirdly, the logistics involved in having a donor available at the same time you plan to have surgery pretty much render on-demand face transplants a non-starter. So can we leave this idea where it belongs - on Entertainment Tonight? This was a rare case, a one-off. It's not going to become something you get done while waiting for Jiffy Lube to rebalance your tires.

Cloned tissue for therapeutic purposes might become a reality, I'll admit, and a welcome one. But I don't think "The Island" is anything more than a Hollywood fantasy, and there it should stay.

I am somewhat concerned with an underlying hemming and hawing around the idea of a Western standard of beauty. Sure, different cultures have different standards, and we should learn them, celebrate them and try not to trample on them. But I reject the backlashist thinking that somehow Western standards of proportion and beauty are invalid, and therefore we shouldn't try to do anything that looks good because it's all so...unfair? Or is it because the idea of beauty is a sop for the uneducated, commoners, poor people? (after all, only we Culture Vultures can understand why Frank Gehry's cheap aluminum sheds are superior to anything John Nash did!) First of all, it seems to forget that North America and Europe have a long shared heritage - a culture - certainly going back as least as far as the Renaissance. Most of their ideas about proportion are still in use in our daily work - hello, Aldus Manutius. It shaped our visual culture then, and continues to do so today. So to dither about whether we have a valid cultural definition of beauty is to reduce nearly 600 years of creative, artistic and aesthetic progress (and cultural intermingling from the ages of empire, I might add) to a flavourless tofu spread.

If we fail to believe in beauty - and worse, start thinking that striving for it is somehow anti-democratic - well, I believe Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron" shows us precisely where we end up if we follow that line of reasoning.

Yes, some people will always be naturally "prettier." But with a little bit of commonsense spiffing up, most "average" people can look great, no surgery required.

If we follow the logic presented here, do we have to accept that some graphic design is just naturally "nicer" than others (and we can't have standards about design anyway, because we're all fixated on Dead White Male ideas about such things)?

So be brave, designers! Embrace the natural look. After all, Word documents with text set in 11 colors of all-caps script fonts (and Comic Sans) are beautiful in God's eyes, and people who think otherwise should learn to read the content (printed on fluorescent pink paper) first before passing judgements!

Kidding aside, the idea of design as a gentle (if firm) corrective is essentially a positive and uplifting one; I prefer the analogy of What Not To Wear to Nip/Tuck. It's not about artifice or vanity (or it shouldn't be, anyway). It's about finding the right style, the appropriate style, so that our clients' companies don't go to the mall wearing flip-flops and sweat-pants, graphically speaking. It's about seeing the diamond in the rough that just needs a cut, a polish and a perfect setting, or in our profession, a crop, a filter and a good layout.


Here's something interesting and on topic I think: Orlan , for those who don't know is a french artist who did a series of surgery-performances in the 90s called "the reincarnation of saint orlan". Shes done a bunch of relevant work and I believe shes coming to lecture in LA in a couple months.

From a design point of view: It's just as important to rationally understand that even 'aesthetically challenged' humans or visual designs can actually have very visually appealing properties.

Designers generally understand that it's possible to 'go against the grain' of so-called design standards to create beauty which would have been otherwise left un-earthed. After all, could aestetic development ever exist without contradictions or opposition?

On the other point: Lets let cosmetic aesthetic ethics reside in the conscious of the individual and what is actually possible, not the masses or the media. To even be bothered by such ideas is to be [in some odd sense] a victim of medical development. The only people who care are those who have it done and those who are offended or jealous. I am none of those, I simply don't care. :)

Related to the cosmetic surgery side of this discussion: an excellent article by Christine Rosen in The New Atlantis, "The Democratization of Beauty."

She concludes: "Concealing our desire for physical perfection behind a mask of democratic or therapeutic rhetoric will ultimately do us no good. We should, instead, bring cosmetic surgery out into the open, not merely to please our taste for voyeurism, but to understand how we might handle new and increasingly sophisticated techniques for empowering our vanity—techniques which stand to make that vanity much harder to conceal and to control."
William Drenttel

At age 42, I'm considering getting braces, to correct some crooked teeth that have made me self-conscious since childhood. Am I on the slippery slope towards a facial transplant? I hope not. I do see this an opportunity to redesign my face, however, with the hopes of becoming more comfortable not with my skin, but with my bones.
Ellen Lupton

There is some evidence that human beauty is associated with symmetry, not for some metaphsyical reason, but because symmetry is often an indication of health and nutrition. (For example, a recent Nature has an article showing that people, especially women, like symmetrical dancing in persons of the other sex). A lot of other animals also use symmetry, purity, consistency and other external markers as indicators of mating fitness.

Despite a possible biological basis, the details are cultural. High cheekbones are popular now, but two hundred years ago wax insets to round one's cheekbones were all the rage. The competition is still centered on access to resources. If most people are suntanned from working outdoors, beauty is pale skinned. If most work is indoors, an expensive resort tan becomes the marker.

Don't rule out cosmetic plastic surgery. It can be much more valuable than psychotherapy. Also, remember that plastic surgery has been around for decades. Remember LA Confidential, set in the 1950s, with the pimp who had his prostitutes redone so his clients could pretend to have sex with the stars?

The real change is the accessibility, quality and safety of cosmetic plastic surgery. Fifty years ago, it was for the wealthy. Now, it has moved down market. How long will it be before it is deprecated and reapplied, and the wealthy start having their noses enlarged or their teeth twisted?

When the prices of fonts are similar, their design value resides in their cultural and artistic meaning, not in any of their intrinsic properties.

That episode of Twilight Zone was one of my favorites, but I never interpreted it as aliens vs earthlings. It was a warning about the dangers of conformity; and how a powerful majority can thwart individualism. Our society values beauty, whether naturally endowed or surgically enhanced, far more than intellect, talent, compassion or achievement. It is this prejudice that allows the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahlmers to perpetuate evil under the protective guise of beauty. This dismissive prejudice towards anything different from a narrow definition of beauty is sad; but not as sad as the people who buy into it.
Susan Kirkland

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