Friday, January 22, 2010

The Problem of Heidi Montag

This week, Heidi Montag revealed her new look to the world. After a whopping ten plastic surgeries, Montag has altered her slightly quirky face into that of the transsexual wife of an Orange County republican.

Almost as soon as these pictures broke, a collective cry rang out. She was such a pretty girl!! Why would she do this!!??? What is wrong with her??!! What kind of doctor would conduct such a surgery??!! Where are her parents??!! What kind of message is she sending to her young fans??!! It's all wrong wrong wrong!! Except that on some level it's not.

Heidi Montag is a walking metaphor for the inconsistent message women and girls receive about their appearance and its relationship to their worth in our culture. While girls are regularly TOLD that their intelligence, humor, and competence are valued, women of proven intelligence and humor continue to be subjected to commentary about their appearance. Whether it's Hillary Clinton, who endured far more physical scrutiny than Obama during the 2008 primaries, including one piece by Republican blogger Emily Miller that focused on her cankles, or Tina Fey, who's impressive list of comedic accomplishments receive secondary coverage to her nerd chic appeal, the message is clear. Intelligence, wit, and competence are not enough for a woman's physical appearance to avoid scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the only industries where women have consistently made significantly more money than their male counterparts are the modeling industry and the sex industry, both of which expect their women to meet certain appearance ideals but neither of which requires mental facility. In spite of lip service to the contrary, money has a quantifiable relationship to value and power in our culture. The fact that we choose to pay women far more on average for being supremely beautiful and for acting freakishly sexual than we pay them for being competent intellectually is not lost on girls and young women.

In effect, Heidi Montag is telling her young female fans the unfortunate truth that they already instinctively know - their looks have at least as much value as their personal qualities; and she is as much a victim as she is a metaphor for this confusing message.  This is why she failed to see the irony in espousing the message "beauty's really within," during her post-op interview with Good Morning America's Juju Chang (  After all, our culture gives excessive lip service to the "beauty is within" mantra while outwardly placing far more importance on external beauty.  Therefore, what's wrong with her embodying the same hypocrisy?  

Some have suggested the problem lies not in this hypocritical message.  Rather, Montag has been labeled an addict.  Perhaps she is.  But this is not singly important. Such over-indulgence is bound to happen in a culture that places a high value on physical appearance while offering a myriad of plastic surgery options. Moreover, our culture is largely accepting of plastic surgery as a means to improve self-esteem (a further admission of the importance of looks). According to a Consumer Attitudes Survey conducted in 2008, 56% of women approve of cosmetic surgery and 31% would consider having it themselves. To be sure, Montag was not heavily criticized after her first breast augmentation and nose job. This was seen as within the realm of acceptable tweaking. But when does that tweaking become unacceptable? It's only when someone radically changes their appearance in the way that Montag has that we cry foul. But, in a culture with questionable integrity regarding the qualities it claims to value most in women, can we really be that surprised by someone like Heidi Montag?  Perhaps the greater crime is the perpetuation of the myth that looks don't matter when their value is so obvious.

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