This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
I've just returned from a fact-finding mission to Palm Springs, California. Palm Springs is one of the communities suffering most acutely from a growing, frightening, under-reported environmental disaster.
The polluted ecosystem in trouble this time is unusual: the human body.
In Southern California, the light is very good; there's lots of sunshine. It's warm, so people of all descriptions are scantily clad. These conditions force upon the observant a great deal of data, much of it unwanted, about the state of the modern American homo sapiens body. And, my fellow Americans, the state of the union's body is an ecological disaster.
Three areas of corporal pollution stand out: technically, they are restructuring, surface devastation and over-expansion. In common language, what you have here is too many boob-jobs and facelifts, too many tattoos and piercings, and too many obese people.
Obesity, of course, is different: people choose liposuction and tongue studs but they do not choose to be overweight. Still, one can read statistics about the growing epidemic of obesity in America with concerned diligence and still be shocked by what the bright lights and little running shorts reveal at Legoland in Carlsbad. But that real health problem is quite distinct from auto-devastation.
If the Environmental Protection Agency monitored cosmetic surgery, Palm Springs might be ground zero. The city boasts a confluence of the geriatrically challenged and the wealthy. The combination, too often, is not attractive.
In the aisles of Von's supermarket, you're likely to encounter a face lifted so tight, stretched so taut, that you fear an out-of-control smile could pop a suture and send tucked skin rolling from canned vegetables all the way to condiments. Cleanup in aisle seven!
In New York City, one quickly learns never to make eye contact with anyone. In Palm Springs, one quickly learns not to trust optical illusions. Hair coloring, liposuction and tricks of cosmetic surgery advertised on the city's billboards can make the most senior of citizens look like a spring chicken at thirty paces; but when you get to five paces, you jump if you look too close. You learn not to.
About 130 miles to the southwest, the cosmetically rearranged at Legoland - in Carlsbad - are younger. The procedure of choice for females is clearly amplification of the Upper Legos. In the poor light and overcoats of eastern cities, augmentation sightings are rare. In Southern California, it's commonplace, which was news to me. Enormous, pouty lips are also very in.
Whatever it is that preys on people until they permanently alter themselves through risky surgery to conform to commercial images of physical beauty applies to all demographics: the young rob themselves of naturalness, the old of dignity.
Maybe the tattoos are a protest of just that. But I don't think so. Maybe I noticed the tattoos because I had been watching the NCAA basketball tournament where nearly every miraculous leaper is desecrated by designs. I can't imagine these guys as geezers. What's that tattoo on your arm mean, gramps? Ah, well, it says I'm going to kill your damn dog in Chinese. Cool.
Some tattoos and piercings are so nasty looking that I assume they express a kind of punk rage. You gonna judge my soul by the 12 rings in my eyebrow, you superficial capitalist robot? Perhaps I am attributing more ideology to the decorated than is warranted, though. Middle-class young men sporting daggers, skulls and barbed wire on their arms elect to wear violent symbols and ghetto icons for more mindless reasons.
There is clearly another kind of "body art" that is meant to be attractive not repulsive: the diamond belly-button ring or the butterfly on the shoulder blade. I think the tattoo set was profoundly influenced by Highlights magazine and those puzzles where you have to find the seven pieces of fruit hidden in the picture of the rabbit in the garden. Oh, look, there's a rose in that slice of skin between the low-rider jeans and the halter, just south of navel ring. And there's Scooby Doo just below the capri pants and above the Manolo Blahnicks.
The cults of cosmetic surgery and body adornment often merge, as with Janet Jackson's right breast. The object of that particular controversy, it seemed to me, had little resemblance to a human breast; it was appeared to be a balloon of some sort covered by skin, attached to a big piece of jewelry protruding from a Halloween costume. This was a prop, not a body part. That's what bugged me as a father of girl approaching teendom: a manufactured device masquerading as beauty.
What the California sun exposes so clearly is, I'm sure, just as common in the rest of the country. But the left coast is the cutting edge. And Hollywood is the principal carrier of this social disease.
In the face of these extremes of beautification and mortification, moderate obesity almost seems to be a sensible aesthetic and political statement. Almost. The contrast between the body-obsessed and the body-abandoned is striking.
Southern California has great natural beauty, much of it scarred by over-development and pollution. The same thing is happening with American bodies. All this body tampering is a screaming sign that we don't – to use the essential California phrase – feel good about ourselves.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer