For Real Friday: Identity and Perfection


Scott Westerfeld linked the Pygmalion myth with plastic surgery and brain damage in Uglies, and it was beautifully done because in one fell swoop he nailed the two reasons why the Pygmalion myth is so pervasive in our culture. We’re terrified of being forced to become something we’re not or being replaced by something or someone that can fill our role better that we can. The fear behind this myth is why it keeps popping up as a cautionary tale in AI stories or Frankenstine stories or Pinocchio stories or any other inanimate object turned to life story. If you want to know a cultures fear, study its stories.

But there’s something else that makes it into the cultures stories. Longing. And that is where the second variation of this myth comes along. It is just as popular, just as pervasive, and the beauty industry absolutely thrives on it. We want to be remade. Reshaped. Plucked from our ordinary lives by a rich stranger and remade into a better version of ourselves. We want the make up, the surgery, the weight loss miracle. We want more.

And that’s fine, when the wanting is healthy. It’s okay to want to get into great shape and look wonderful. It’s when we cross the line from healthy wanting and unhealthy obsessing that it becomes a problem. Its when girls look at models who’ve been given the pygmalion treatment, reshaped, retouched, recreated so much that the models don’t even recognize themselves, and starve or despair because they can’t become that, that it becomes a problem.

It’s a problem when a person looks at their significant other and tries to reshape them to meet unrealistic expectations.

It’s a problem when parents put so much pressure on their kids to make them better, smarter, prettier, more perfect, that the children snap.

It’s a problem when schools are so focused on the perfect score they forget about the people the numbers represent.

Pygmalion is alive and well in our culture and that is why I hate that myth. Because it’s not a myth. It’s our reality. And rather than see it for what it is, we romanticize it. Reshape it. Remold it until it tells the story we want to hear.

And that’s a problem.

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