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Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to have elective surgery to enhance the aesthetic appeal of female private parts. It is expensive, and it doesn't always work, but it is a highly profitable business. Cue the hand-wringing.

One of the weekend’s more entertaining reads came from intrepid reporter Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who covered the Congress on Aesthetic Vaginal Surgery for the UK’s Guardian.

She tells both sides of the story. That is, she reports the views of the assembled surgeons and their clients on one hand, and liberally salts it with her own preconceptions about plastic surgery and the profit motive on the other.

The condemnation from readers was swift and brutal.

One, who clearly has difficulty with the notion of “liberty”, compared voluntary cosmetic surgery to forced genital mutilation.

“Horrible, horrible”, said another.

Some responses were downright rude. One declared that women who seek vaginal tightening are whores. (My darling virginal princess, do you know how babies are born? Smarter than you.)

A few judgemental souls said women must hate their bodies to have cosmetic surgery done, and are driven to this depth of self-loathing by chauvinistic patriarchy. Others declared that women are lured to surgeons by objectification, the impossible ideals sketched by women’s magazines, and the commercial pressure of the “porn aesthetic”.

Prettifying body parts, especially if it involves cosmetic surgery, is not universally appreciated. To be perfectly frank, the aesthetic aimed at by most people who go in for plastic surgery often leaves a great deal to be desired. Maybe some women want Pamela Anderson beach ball breasts or Angelina Jolie lips (and one must assume some men like that too), but such a gaudy concept of beauty is not for me. But each to his own. De gustibus non disputandum est.

Those who don’t like vanity surgery or body enhancement invent more substantial reasons than taste to condemn it, however.

A new campaign in the US calls for a so-called “Self-Esteem Act”, which would force magazines to disclose the horrible truth: even supermodels, after hours of makeup and styling, still need a great deal of airbrush intervention. Of course, what such a law would really achieve is to tell the world that even supermodels are too ugly for public display. Way to go, feminists.

It’s like the “warning: hot liquid” label on a cup of coffee. It’s coffee, for heaven’s sake! If it’s not hot, you send it back! And if it’s not liquid, you sue!

I’d counter with a “Stupid Act”, indemnifying the rest of us against idiots who think pictures in advertisements are for real. You know, despite the advertisements, food doesn’t really fly gracefully on its own. And if you think before-and-after shots in diet adverts are bad, try this example of true portrait editing creepiness.

As for the “porn aesthetic”, I hestitate to call myself an expert, but having covered technology for as long as the internet has been around, I have had occasion for some professional research. I must declare I have no idea what the term might mean. A leisurely scroll through the alleys of online porn reveals every aesthetic one might conjure up, and quite a few one wouldn’t, ever. I’d offer a representative catalogue, but it would be irresponsible journalism to put you off sex forever.

Amid all this condemnation over cosmetic vaginal surgery, it also struck me that penis enlargements are all over the internet, but one only ever hears annoyance expressed over spam email.

Where is the moral outrage over the ritual humiliation of the less-endowed male of the species? Nobody decries the objectification of men when magazine models are routinely depicted with sculpted six-packs and perfectly dimpled chins sporting exactly 36 hours of stubble. One can only conclude that men don’t need their self-esteem protected by law, like our fragile female flowers do.

Frankly, none of the objections about the taste, sense or psychology of women who have their nether regions done, and the doctors who do them, strike me as much of anyone’s business but their own.

The most serious-minded criticism of cosmetic vaginal surgery is an economic one. “For-profit medicine always gets the priorities wrong”, a regular reader wrote to me.

A Guardian commenter said: “We live in a sick society when surgeons will do this instead of reducing the list of people who need reconstructive face surgery or other disfigurements.”

The article itself ended on a condemnatory note, tut-tutting at the water consumption of the conference venue. Maybe this is a meaningful metaphor to journalists who react instinctively with classic zero-sum naïveté to every perceived excess, but as a demonstration of economic literacy, it fails.

Let’s examine the case more closely.

It is true that surgeons make little money in the areas of medicine that are heavily controlled by the government. Therefore, they seek profitable avenues elsewhere. Now if this is a problem, would you blame the private individuals who privately contract for private surgery, or are government bureaucrats at fault? Politicians always delude themselves that they can regulate away both scarcity and cost, and act surprised when the outcome is always the exact opposite of what they intend. Why would anyone believe the people they blame for this? How does government failure implicate the profit motive in the ills of society?

The statistics in the story suggest that the kind of cosmetic surgery it describes is far more rare than the outcry would make it appear, but there is clearly some demand. People want it for reasons of vanity, comfort, or genuine medical need. And why should anyone deny them that right?

Should corrective lens surgery, coloured contacts and fashion shades be banned until everyone who needs it can have cataracts removed and cheap spectacles fitted? Does an expensive pair of shades somehow take away eye care from the poor?

Should cosmetic orthodontic work be stopped because it’s a symptom of wrong priorities on the part of profit-driven dentists?

Should tattoos be banned as an unconscionable waste of economic resources on sheer vanity?

Of course not. And likewise, clients of cosmetic surgeons have every right to enter into a contract for a given service. That this implies something bad about healthcare priorities is a fallacy. There is no reason to believe less cosmetic surgery would produce more of the more ordinary, life-saving kind.

Let’s use a non-medical analogy. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that car makers produce luxury cars? Where do great new technologies that eventually become common – like ABS brakes, heads-up displays, air cushions, satellite navigation or park distance control – first get developed and sold, if not in new high-end cars? If luxury cars are a failure of priorities on the part of for-profit manufacturers, what is the maximum value for which a car must be produced so everyone can have one? How would this be paid for without the profits from luxury-car buyers? How would it be achieved without government regulation, or even nationalisation?

How would you answer Ion Mihai Pacepa, the Romanian “car czar” under Nicolae Ceausescu, when he denounces the cars produced by central planning, such as the Trabant, Dacia and (yes) Jaguar?

Or, to use an example that would annoy people who look down on luxury cars too, would the same argument be valid for organic food and artisanal farming? After all, it is inefficient and expensive. It caters mostly for the rich. Workers on a Western Cape organic farming co-op recently featured on TV say they earn R300 a month each, plus veggies. Should organic food be banned as a wasteful expenditure of rich people’s money?

I don’t like being overcharged for organic food, just like I wouldn’t want surgery on my privates, but the idea that those who buy luxuries are wasting money that could be better spent on services for the poor is, frankly, wrong.

For a start, that money would not exist if the person who earns it doesn’t get to keep it. Why would anyone work if there’s not much in it for them? If you cap salaries, for example, nine times out of ten you’ll limit the amount of value you get out of someone. If you tax away investment income, most investors will simply take fewer risks and expend less effort to employ capital efficiently.

Moreover, money spent on luxuries is not “wasted”. It might be used for a yacht, but it finds its way to the suppliers and boatbuilders and materials factories and working people that comprise the rest of the economy. Just because someone serves champagne in a mahogany-panelled state-room doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly good job that earns them income they spend on food, healthcare and little luxuries of their own. Just because a boat-builder gets a big yacht contract doesn’t mean his windfall doesn’t spill over into suppliers and subcontractors, strengthening with capital and experience the entire maritime industry, from shipping to scientific research to fishing to cargo handling to leisure options for the less well-heeled.

In short, just because value is created in one place in the market doesn’t mean this value is “lost” to the economy in any meaningful sense. There is no obvious way in which failing to create value in one place implies that it will be created elsewhere, rather than not being created at all. Conversely, any value that is created contributes to the economy as a whole and no value that is created precludes value from being created elsewhere.

But enough theorising. Let’s return to the prurient procedures at issue.

If I had to go to a surgeon, I’d be delighted to know, first, that he can afford to give me a good price because he has stinking rich patients whose vanity funds his lifestyle; second, that he isn’t shaking because he has to work 36 hour shifts to make ends meet; and third, that he is good enough that vain people put their privates under his knife voluntarily.

Purveyors of pudendal prettiness and penile prominence, like luxury car makers, hone their skills and improve their efficiency at the expense of voluntary clients who have reason to be uncommonly fussy about the quality of what they buy.

As a consequence, when you or I really need surgery, the chance of success is likely to be higher, recovery time is likely to be less, and (in the absence of burdensome government intervention) the price is likely to be lower.

Even something that makes the knees of the economic illiterati jerk as much as cosmetic vaginal surgery is not a “wrong priority” on the part of “for-profit medicine”.

On the contrary. Isn’t it marvellous that in our modern profit-driven world, despite the best efforts of socialists and statists, we have the knowledge, technology, prosperity and risk appetite for this kind of vanity? It certainly makes me happier with the state of life-enhancing medical science.

Besides, my friends, are you seriously objecting to pretty pussy? DM



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