Uncanny Valley

Beauty, so the saying goes, is only skin deep, but worryingly what lies beneath the epidermis these days is not so much a beautiful soul, but quantities of plastic – or, more specifically, silicone, fillers and neurotoxic proteins.


When irreverent Scandi-pop group Aqua topped the charts in 1997, singing, “I’m a Barbie Girl, in the Barbie World/ Life in plastic, it’s fantastic”, it’s unlikely that they envisioned just how prophetic it would become, let alone how earnestly their song would be appropriated as an anthem for a new and burgeoning subculture less than two decades later.

Cosmetic surgery in its modern form has been around since the First World War, and its excesses have always been morbidly fascinating to the public. While our perception of what was once considered OTT may have changed, our fascination remains, and it was this that helped an apocryphal tale about a litigious Chinese husband go globally viral in late 2012.

According to the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post among others, a man from a northern province had taken his wife to court for deception, after their children had been born conspicuously lacking any of his wife’s aesthetically pleasing features. Or, to put it bluntly, uglier than he’d expected. He argued, apparently, that the extensive surgery she had undergone to transform her appearance constituted a kind of marital fraud – one that had unfairly forced him into economically supporting a physically disappointing progeny he’d never have spawned with a full grasp of the facts. The veracity of this tale has never been confirmed, but the ease with which it’s entered our cultural folklore speaks volumes.

If anything, the account is rather tame by contemporary standards of excess. The wife, after all, was at least natural-looking enough to have convinced her partner for years. The alarming aspect of the yarn, true or not, was not her surgery, but his reaction.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of egregious surgery these days; the cover of any glossy magazine will do. And if we don’t do it physically we do it digitally with celebs and selfies alike, re-touched and photoshopped beyond reality.

In South Korea, where up to a third of its cosmetic surgery business comes from China, operations are often seen as a badge of honour, if not a necessity. “Everyone but you has done it” reads the caption on an advertising hoarding for a cosmetic practice in Seoul.

“We want to have surgeries while we are young so we can have our new faces for a long time,” a Korean college student told Patricia Marx from the New Yorker. “When you’re 19, all the girls get plastic surgery, so if you don’t do it, after a few years, your friends will all look better, but you will look like your unimproved you.”

It is estimated that one in four women in South Korea have had some measure of cosmetic surgery, the highest rates per capita in the world. According to Marx, the obsession can be traced to the aftermath of the Korean War, “triggered by the offer made by American occupation forces to provide free reconstructive surgery to maimed war victims”.

Much like in the West however, what was once the preserve of corrective altruism, quickly became used for narcissistic purposes. One particular surgery, developed by the chief plastic surgeon of the US Marine Corps, became widely popular among Korean prostitutes hoping to attract GIs. This procedure, a form of blepharoplasty known as double eyelid surgery is now the most common aesthetic operation in South Korea and across Asia. Its purpose is to create a larger, rounder, more ‘western-looking’ eye – by fashioning an upper eyelid with a crease – than the more stereotypically East Asian monolid. Its popularity isn’t without controversy. Detractors claim it only helps to enforce white standards of beauty, while others claim that wide eyes are merely a common, global signifier of innocence. Whatever the reason, the fetishisation of the round-eyed look has permeated almost every facet of Asian culture, from anime and manga cartoons, to the K-pop and Korean-wave trends. Korea is still a very conservative country, and women are expected to look good to find a husband. Much like in Japan, the home of anime, this usually translates as a childlike, fresh-faced naiveté.

An obsession with a cartoon-like visage is no longer just an Asian thing. Venus Angelic, a Swiss-born YouTube personality, has almost a million subscribers to her weekly videos on how to look and act like a living doll, specifically a Japanese anime-style doll. This raises the intriguingly ironic possibility of a westerner dressing up to look like an idealised version of a Japanese doll, designed to look like an idealised version of a westerner. The influence is mainstream too; Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton for SS16 goes so far as to quote Evangelion, a Japanese anime series from the 90s, as his inspiration.

It’s not just women either. Men are becoming increasingly obsessed with this same faux-comic strip beauty. Take Justin Jedlica, a 34-year-old New Yorker and self-proclaimed real-life Ken doll. Jedlica has had over 125 operations, including a brow bone shave, a brow bone lift and five nose jobs, the first of which he underwent at just 17. His new obsession is an implant of his own design, specifically larger custom bicep moulds so unregulated that many surgeons refuse to insert them, forcing him on a surgical odyssey to find someone unscrupulous enough to operate on him.

This kind of behaviour isn’t uncommon. “When somebody comes to me and says they want to look like somebody else, that worries me,” says a renowned consultant dermatologist in London. “That’s not what I’m about.”

But to many, it is. British mother, Georgina Clarke, 38, and her daughter spent over £56,000 between them on nose jobs, breast and buttock implants, lip injections and veneers to look like the model Katie Price. “I just love the fake look,” said the mum on This Morning.

Venus angelic, a swiss-born youtube personality, has almost a million subscribers to her weekly videos on how to look and act like a living doll, specifically a japanese anime-style doll. This raises the intriguingly ironic possibility of a westerner dressing up to look like an idealised version of a japanese doll, designed to look like an idealised version of a westerner.

As for her daughter’s generation, Nilesh Sojitra, a consultant plastic surgeon and member of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, told the Times that there had been a 50 percent increase in the number of 14- to 18-year-olds requesting surgery, including lip augmentation and fillers to ape their soap star heroes. Professionals like Sojitra in the UK have consistently begged the government to tighten the rules, which currently allow almost anyone to perform cosmetic procedures – dentists, beauticians and the like.

And it isn’t just wide-eyed fame seekers who fall prey to this mentality; even professionals at the heart of it are susceptible. The suicide of Dr Fredric Brandt, himself a dermatological surgeon in the US, was widely thought to have been the result of his own deep dissatisfaction with his looks. Brant cut an unusual figure, all white hair, smooth skin and jutting cheekbones with that ethereal waxwork look that those who indulge in too much cosmetic surgery are prone to. He was an easy target, so much so that his appearance was parodied in the Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

In robotics, the term “Uncanny Valley” was coined to describe the instinctive revulsion people feel when confronted by something that looks almost, but not quite, human. In Korea, the term “sung-gui” is used to describe a face so unnatural as to arouse repulsion. It translates, rather bluntly, to “plastic surgery monster”.

Evidently, there is finally some recognition that perfection can go too far. Engineers and computer programmers now spend hours on life-like models and CGI renditions, painstakingly recreating – guess what? Imperfections. They have recognised that it’s these flaws that make us human and that without them, the subject looks fake. Of course to some, that’s just the point.

So where does it start, and where does it end? “Barbie Girl” includes the lyric “Imagination; life is your creation” but while surgical procedures are improving all the time, they can rarely match up to the power of a patient’s imagination. Because surgery is addictive, patients will undergo multiple procedures, to tweak, improve and fix an appearance that’s already been drastically changed.

When Jedlica was introduced to Valeria Lukyanova, a Ukrainian “real-life Barbie”, for an episode of Inside Edition, rather than being the perfect match, they hated each other. Was it the fake, Uncanny Valley look they both profess to love that caused this? Or was it because they saw their own insecurities reflected in each other?

In the aftermath of Brandt’s death, many were quick to point the finger at Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s cruel depiction for tipping him over the edge. In truth, his fateful decision was more likely to have been the deep-rooted self-hatred that caused him to so obsessively remodel his appearance in the first place – an insecurity that’s increasingly prevalent among the young.

“These days 80 percent of my clients are young, between 18-30,” says clinical psychologist, Dr Jo Zagorska. “I have models and celebrities as clients who despite being beautiful and successful are not happy. Yet young girls still feel that being beautiful and famous is the only route to happiness. Women feel pressure to be slim, with good skin, hair and figure, while men feel pressure to be successful. They present with low self-esteem and anxiety.” The main problem is the pressure that the media puts on individuals, a pressure that’s also rampant in Hollywood, where there’s barely an actor who hasn’t had (at least) a nose job to look better on film.

What tends not to be mentioned as much, least of all on social media – a medium designed to collate all your peers’ triumphs and channel inadequacy directly into your living room – is the frequency with which surgery fails to live up to expectation. An independent survey by Treatment Adviser in 2011 revealed that one in five patients in Britain are unhappy with their procedures, and over half felt they had been pressured to go ahead by surgeons or staff at their clinic. Another survey, by Cosmetic Surgery Bible, showed that 37 percent of patients were dissatisfied, with a further 26 percent unsure. In Korea, the Consumer Agency reported that a third of all patients were dissatisfied with the results of their cosmetic surgery, and 17 percent suffered at least one negative side effect.

What’s more, a study by Norwegian Social Research demonstrated that women there who go under the knife are more likely to be depressed and suicidal, both before and after surgery, with some symptoms of mental health actually worsening on average post-op. “It seems like those who get cosmetic surgery have more problems than others,” said Ingela Lundin Kvalem, co-author of the study. “And after the surgeries, their symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and excessive alcohol consumption have increased.”

In August of this year, Toby Sheldon, a 35-year-old who spent $100,000 on surgeries to look like his idol, Justin Bieber, was found dead in a motel room in California. A year earlier, he and a group of similarly cosmetic lookalikes had recorded a song called “The Plastics”, a semi-knowing, novelty song extolling the virtues of surgery, which includes such frivolous lines as “Everyone can be beautiful when you’re made of plastic”, while the painfully auto-tuned group jiggle around an operating table and take turns to get Botoxed. The video has been viewed over a million times on YouTube, and plays on reflection like a grim, unironic counterpoint tribute to “Barbie Girl”. If this is how far we’ve come since 1997, where will we be in another 20 years?


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