On human enhancement and breast implants

In the wake of worldwide concerns about unsafe breast implants, an article yesterday reported one woman’s struggle with a ruptured implant seeping silicon into the rest of her body. And yet, far from sympathy, the initial response of many, including myself, was ‘well it serves you right for getting implants’. Is it tall poppy syndrome? Is it the feminist in me that finds it reprehensible to alter body parts that are uniquely feminine to conform to societal (and often male) preferences? Or is there something ethically wrong with cosmetic enhancement?

Enhancing ourselves is not something confined to physical appearances, and in many cases there are ‘natural’ methods of improvement and ‘non-natural’ methods – the difference between say eating healthily vs having liposuction.

In sport, athletes can improve their performance through rigorous training and diet regimes. Or they can see vast improvements through the use of drugs like steroids and blood doping techniques.

In education, students can spend days upon days studying and revising, sacrificing socialisation, leisure and anything else demanding your time. Or they can find an unethical doctor to provide ADHD medication to increase their focus, or take drugs to keep them awake all night the night before to achieve similar results without sacrifice.

We would be quick to say that using drugs to advantage in sport competitions is unfair*. But the lottery of genetics doles out unfair advantages all the time: Kenyan runners naturally have higher red blood cell counts, similar to effects of blood doping, from training at high altitudes; African runners are generally born with a bone structure that makes them naturally more gifted at sprinting**; and champion swimmer Ian Thorpe is born with huge size 17 feet that help propel him in the water.

So we can accept that people excel at sport thanks to their luck in the genetic lottery, but not if they win with the assistance of ‘unnatural’ manipulation. But why? As Savulescu argues, allowing performance enhancing drugs would actually level the playing field and make competition MORE equal. “The result will be that the winner is not the person who was born with the best genetic potential to be strongest… The winner will be the person with a combination of the genetic potential, training, psychology, and judgment [on which drugs to use, how much etc].” ***

To go back to breast implants and undergoing invasive surgery to increase your attractiveness, some people ‘win’ the genetic lottery and develop large, perky breasts, some people ‘lose’ and develop almost no breasts, or asymmetrical breasts… or simply breasts that don’t look like those on the women society emulates – models, porn stars, actresses.

So is getting breast implants just a way to level the playing field? If everyone got them, would mate selection actually be based on ‘the beauty within’ and the ‘personality that counts’? Is increasing your façade of sexual attractiveness ‘cheating’? I don’t want to generalize here so I will confine myself to my own opinions, but I can accept that some people are incredibly attractive as a result of genetic lottery, but I take issue with people who undergo invasive surgery to improve their lot. Not everyone thinks this way, but a lot do – if not about fake breasts, then about drugs in sport or academic testing.

So, why do we reward the genetic lottery and not enhancements?

My theory is that we revere people who are ‘freakishly good’. If it was possible for anyone to run 100metres in 9.5 seconds, if only they tried harder, we would all try, we would all work hard. Because who doesn’t want to be stunningly beautiful? Who doesn’t want to be the world’s fastest man? In our tall-poppy society, we would rather the elite be naturally talented, so that nothing we can do (drugs included) could enable us to compete. So it is better to bestow a mystical quality to them to explain why they get the glory and not us – it helps us ‘normal’ beings to cope with being somewhat inferior.

It also seems fair that some people are gifted because it was luck. Luck to be born beautiful, luck to be born athletic. As if all the humans on earth were lined up next to each other, and every 130th person was given a special talent or advantage. Everyone had an equal chance. And that means, that at the end of the day, it could have been you. Luck is the check to keep the whole herd in balance – a tool for acceptance that true equality in unsustainable – and that if you’re not the ‘chosen one’ it was just the luck of the draw – not that you are unworthy or inferior. Messing with the equilibrium by forcing advantage ruins that fallback for everyone.

* “Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport”, it is the essence of Olympism; it is how we play true. Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of the sport.” World Anti Doping Agency, 2009. http://www.wada-ama.org/Documents/World_Anti-Doping_Program/WADP-The-Code/WADA_Anti-Doping_CODE_2009_EN.pdf
** Savulescu, J., Foddy, B., and Clayton, M. 2004. Why we should allow performance enhancing drugs in sport. Journal of Sports Medicine, 38, (6).
*** ibid