Dr. David Teplica—plastic surgeon, photographer, and philosopher—is in the business of beauty. He is living the dream, not just because he is pursuing two of his life-long passions (medicine and photography), but also because he is so damned likeable.
Dr. Teplica is unexpectedly tall. He emanates happiness and peace. He is funny. He absolutely does not fulfill the overworked, emotionally-immune doctor stereotype.
His clientele do not fulfill stereotypes, either. Dr. Teplica’s photography business draws in monoygotic twins, who have allowed him to develop a mirroring theory of dermatological development. In his plastic surgery practice, Dr. Teplica welcomes patients who are shunned by other plastic surgeons: HIV-positive clients on whom many surgeons are unwilling to operate, transsexuals seeking acceptance and understanding.
So why do people want to change themselves? Dr. Teplica posits that patients are often driven by a desire to align with their gender identity. Women want to be “smoother, leaner, more feminine.” Men often seek “definition, angular contours; they want to eliminate femininity. Pleasure, gender identity, gender preference all play a role in shape.”
Dr. Teplica also stresses the tremendous power that plastic surgeons possess. “Plastic surgeons are the only people who can cause positive permanent change,” he says in describing people’s post-surgical experiences. Dr. Teplica’s passion is helping people match minds with bodies. If a transsexual man wants modest breast implants, he makes the effort to give the patient what he wants: “I’m not going to put bigger breasts in him and say ‘revel in breasts!’ My role is to fulfill wishes.”
His views on why people seek plastic surgeon present a gentle alternative to the common perception that those who have plastic surgery procedures have a shallow self-concept or that surgeries are driven by a need to feel desired or loved by others.
Almost all the time, Dr. Teplica’s expertise is employed in “trying to align what’s in [the patient’s] head with [his or her] body.” Plastic surgery seeking, then, is driven by a desire to align a person’s self-image or self-schema with what people see. With plastic surgery you “don’t make the body central; you put the body away so you can focus on other things in your life.”
This desire—to align our internal world with our external world—is a pull that finds parallels in many aspects of our lives. Fashion is an industry driven by our collective desire to present on the outside some small part of who we are. Cognitive dissonance is a much-studied psychological principle denoting our drive to maintain consistency in our mental world. Hypothetical Adam doesn’t want to be a hypocrite, even if the only person who knows Adam is a hypocrite is Adam.
In the computer age, what we are discovering is that we will use, often indiscriminately, platforms for exhibitionism to project an image of our internal world. Vacation photographs, our relationships with others, personal information that was previously closely guarded, are now publicly accessible for the approximately 500 million active users of facebook.com. The popularity of reality television has proved that exhibitionism is accepted, a quality to be tolerated, valued even, in others. If you have nothing to hide, why not disclose indiscriminately?
Many popular news outlets have derided this exhibitionism as low-brow, the lowest common denominator, low. But the exhibitionism continues unabated. Just as research has produced a more forgiving view of plastic surgery, there is a similarly kind explanation for our obsession with beauty and compulsive disclosure.
Aligning our internal and external worlds, matching our private thoughts with what other see, lessens feelings of loneliness and separation. Loneliness goes beyond the absence of romantic relationships and friendships. Our drive to disclose, to be known, is often not fulfilled by presenting our internal world through verbal communication. This drive exists in all of us, whether we were born into the ‘right’ body or not.
Our internal worlds—our minds—are so endlessly complex, that we are ultimately alone.
Beauty is compelling not only because it reflects what is beneath the surface, but because it is, inherently, on the surface. Beauty can be understood and known completely. Other people can appreciate the way we look more fully than they can appreciate anything else about us.
This doesn’t need to be depressing. It excuses our obsession with physical appearances to some degree. It means our appreciation of physical beauty extends beyond base tendencies and small-scale eugenics. Projecting and absorbing beauty closes the gap. And if you weren’t born into the perfect body, you can always go to the experts.