Grey’s Anatomy of Appearance

With a plastic surgeon as one of the regular characters, Grey’s Anatomy has more than the average dose of appearance-related storylines. There was the woman whose face was entirely rebuilt so she didn’t recognize herself. There was the husband who had become a recluse because of chronic growths. There was even a man having a face transplant. And now they’ve done multiple storylines involving children with facial birth defects.
This passed Thursday, I was struck by the way one doctor articulated why an infant needed surgery. In arguing for who she considered the “best” surgeon for the job, she gave a long list of all the ways the boy’s appearance would impact his life from social isolation to who he took as a prom date to the job he landed to who he married. To me, it felt like a laundry list of how I know social standards of beauty have, well, messed with my life. Social isolation as a child? Check. Prom? Never went. Spouse? Still single at age thirty nine. Job? The jury is out on that one because I don’t have the energy for employment.
I was struck by the difference between how people talk to me about appearance versus the way this show did. When I get frustrated by the negative consequences of the societal evaluation of how I look, people often very gently tell me I’m wrong. I get lectures on how complicated relationships are or explanations about how nobody at my age has an easy time making friends. My expectations are too high. My devaluation has nothing to do with how I look.
In less than sixty seconds of dialog, a television show pretty much substantiated every feeling I’ve had about how my appearance – or rather how society perceives it–has impacted my life. While painful to hear, it was also liberating because unlike what people say to me, this was akin to an uncensored opinion that nobody thought you’d overhear.
My question is this: why do people who love me show such, excuse the term, blindness when it comes to this? Is it harder for them to accept the reality I inhabit than it is for me? Perhaps it’s a sort of empathy gone awry. Nobody likes to think their friend will have a hard life where people will judge them harshly and they especially do not want to share such a negative prognosis with the person who will have to experience it.
I liked the clean, clear perspective shown in Grey’s Anatomy because it described reality. In denying this reality, as a society we actually further perpetuate the problem for you cannot address what you are not willing to acknowledge. Far better to find a solution than to engage in further burying our heads in the sand.
and in terms of solving the problem, there are really two choices. We either change people to fit the definition of acceptable appearance or we alter the definition itself. Clearly, I have a strong preference as to which path we take.
I find it fascinating that we teach our children to not judge based on appearance and yet we somehow do not actually change anything because those kids grow up to have the same, in my opinion warped, beliefs about our outer shells. It is one of those cases where actions don’t simply speak louder than words, they in fact drown out the words.
One part of the storyline made me extremely happy. A doctor told the mother, “We’re going to make this handsome felllow even more handsome.” That’s the kind of thinking that might have an effect.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

2 thoughts on “Grey’s Anatomy of Appearance

  1. I think friends and family see us as being us, not someone who has a disability or who has a “flaw”. I don’t think they believe that others could possibly overlook the person we are.

    When I’ve talked to friends and family about the challenges I face regarding accessibility and finding employment, they don’t understand why someone wouldn’t give me the chance. I think they forget that they’ve had the pleasure of truly getting to know me and what I can do, which is something the general public and/or potential employers has not.

  2. Brooke and the gang,
    That’s an excellent point that I hadn’t considered. Basically, we’re so fabulous that friends and family can’t conceive of someone not seeing that. I need to chew on it for a while.

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