I’ve cut a fringe, cut classes, cut losses and cut ties. I’ve even cut letters from my name, all in an effort to define who I am, or maybe more accurately, to be something defined by who I am no longer. Nervous and in need of the new, I’m far from alone. Everywhere, there are endlessly reoccurring litanies of reinvention, of something more, something better.
Whether we blame celebrity culture or consumerism and the rise and rise of the so-called self-improvement service industries, it’s undeniable – there seems to be, at heart, a restless need for change, for reinvention. “In a 24-seven society, there’s a demand for things to be instant – instant delivery, instant transformation, instant availability,” says Professor Anthony Elliott, co-author of The New Individualism (Routledge), who blames globilisation for being increasingly seduced by the culture of reinvention and betterment. “We live in a global electronic economy where huge work forces can – and are – put out of work at the click of a mouse. Increasingly, people are going about the business of trying to reinvent their lives, their relationships, their identities, their bodies … anything they can reinvent, they will, all in an effort to be seen to be some kind of player.”
It all sounds very tiring, and it is. While this trend condones harder, faster, better, stronger – near enough is never good enough – the result, according to Elliott, is individuals “taxed to their limits” who are deliberately, and repeatedly, seeking reinvention. It’s true, I bite off more than I can chew and am – mostly, eternally – dissatisfied with what I haven’t done. It’s never enough. And it doesn’t feel like it ever will be. On the same day – breathless and stitch-riddled – I run three kilometres, I imagine I can do twelve in half the time. When I tan, it’s five layers, not the recommended single coat, of St Tropez. I cut jeans into shorts. Then again into shorter shorts. And again until they are less than decent, even by my standards. “Interestingly, no one ever arrives at the destination and says, ‘It’s great, I’ve arrived. I’ve now done what I needed to do and I’m here and I’m happy and I’m complete’,” says Elliott. “Instead, it’s a process of required ongoing endless construction.”
For many of us, the Japanese theory of Kaizen – continual self-improvement – has fast become a modern day mantra. But there are risks around not knowing when to quit – nowhere is this more apparent than in the beauty industry. Dr Phillipa McAffrey, founder of one of Australia’s first cosmetic medicine clinics, Clearskincare Clinics, has, as a veteran of what is a comparatively young industry, witnessed the eternal dissatisfaction driving this trend. “The thing I’ve learnt over the years is that each person has something that really bugs them about themselves,” she says. “Even the most beautiful girl will find fault. They will often fixate on some relatively minor thing that really drives them crazy and think, ‘If I could fix that, I’d be much happier’. It might just be that they don’t like their freckles or they don’t like a mole or whatever, it’s all very valid.”
For some, this constant bettering brings a semi-religious yoga retreat or a little botox – it’s not so much about the size of a change, as the change itself. For others, it’s a makeover taken to a new level.
In the States in 2008, botox took out the number one in the top five nonsurgical cosmetic procedures, followed consecutively by laser hair removal, hyaluronic acid, chemical peel, and laser skin resurfacing. “The surgical side is much more hazardous,” says McAffrey. “There certainly are instances of people who just go way too far. It’s like any part of life, there’s always the extreme end that becomes pathological; just like Münchausen syndrome, it’s very rare, but it exists.” But when it comes to non-surgical work, she says there’s no real danger of extremes. “You kind of can’t go too far. Just like the fringe you can grow out, non-surgical interventions like botox require minimal commitment – three to four months is the standard run when it comes to dermal fillers after which your skin returns to its natural state, although some (if your genetics favour your new bent) can last for up to 18 months,” she says.
“We don’t use any permanent fillers because if you don’t like the look of it, then you’re stuck with it for five years. You’ve got to remember everything we do is purely cosmetic, there is no medical imperative to do this, so it’s really important that people get a result they’re really happy with.”
Happy with. Happiness. Is that what I’m – what we’re all – chasing? Superficial, certainly, but when it comes to matters of self-esteem, it’s subjective at best. Sating that appetite, though, is a different story. Regina Spektor’s Better comes to mind – “Will you feel better, better, better – will you feel anything at all?” she asks. Are we fooling ourselves into thinking it’s about being good, being better, and knowing – by our own definition – we can never best? Or is there something deeper at play?
“I think the fear of disposability is, if we’re talking at a really deep emotional level, remarkably frightening, it’s traumatic,” says Elliott. “This is leading people to going down paths they may not have otherwise thought of doing.”
There is an undeniable irony to the whole affair though – an effort to stand out gives rise to the smooth, the unpigmented, the generic. No matter your gripe – be it blemishes, uneven skin colour or sun damage – McAffrey assures “it’s correctable”. And then there’s the view that it’s about maintenance rather than makeover; with the young taking ‘preventative measures’ such as an eyelid revision to widen the eyes or botox to ‘calm’ the face.
Of course, some changes can be for the better and while this continual need to reinvent can be stressful “there are loads of people who are able to undertake this and it seems things are for the better – they are improvements and they are leading happy and better lives,” says Elliott. “It’s human nature. We do want to constantly better ourselves,” says Siamma Miller, founder of the appropriately-named The Last Resort. Her Bondi-based clinic relies on repeat patients who each have their own reason to visit – “They want to clean themselves out; whether it’s emotionally, physically, spiritually.”
One of the services offered – colonic irrigation – has been described by first-time patients as the “most wonderful experience of their lives”. It’s about flushing things out; a fresh start, a clean slate. Miller explains: “When people have their first colonic, they release a lot of old matter. When you do that, you feel lighter. Because the transverse colon sits on your solar plexus – the emotional centre in your body – excuse my crass language, but when you let go of shit, you let go of shit.”
Miller says while many people love the physical effects of the treatment – “the glowing skin, the beautiful hair and the shiny white eyes” – it’s treatments like these, she assures, that calm you; that give you the energy you need to deal with the pressure of too many deadlines, late nights and broken hearts.
It’s also a fallback, says Miller. Your ‘if only’: if only you flush your colon with warm water, you’ll feel better. My ‘if only’ is the comparatively less invasive microdermabrasion. I sit at my desk, every fourth week like clockwork, itching to make another appointment, knowing I won’t be happy until my skin has been sloughed away. Miller says it’s closer to servicing your car to ensure it runs at optimum level – it’s not always about upgrading; that it comes down to mindfulness, a term she prefers over ‘betterment’ or reinvention’.
“It’s not new, it’s not a craze,” says Miller of the self-improvement bent. She says it’s not about reinvention, but mindfulness. “It’s just how we should be to make the world a better place – excuse the total cliché. To see more clarity in your life, to see things as they should be when you are mindful.”
It’s about listening to your body. Two weeks into a detox, people were telling me I was happier, healthier, shinier. But it’s not about bragging rights; it’s about tangible results, about keeping up – at pace – and having something to show for your efforts. Miller encourages me – and anyone bent on being better – to write down three physical goals, three emotional goals, and three spiritual. Then, write down the steps you need to achieve them. “It’s simple. It’s about controlling your mind, focusing on your goals,” she says. “Your attitude changes when you feel better. You feel fantastic, you look fantastic and everyone’s telling you that you look amazing. You’re walking on air all the time and you want to keep that up.”
McAffrey says it’s important to be realistic when it comes to reinvention. As promises have been made and advertising copy penned, the line between the beauty and medical industries have become increasingly blurred. “The beauty industry is notorious for promising the world and delivering very little,” she says. “Really, really early on I realised there was a fork in the road – one fork you could go down where you fed bullshit, took money and worried about the consequences later.”
The other, she said, was to hold firm to medical principles of evidence and not offer a service that may – or may not – yield results. “There’s still a lot of snake oil salesmen, a lot of hocus-pocus, a lot of promises, and that makes it very confusing for the consumer. New technology tends to rush onto the market – it takes about three to four years to really learn what these new machines are capable of and what the long-term results are. So these promises are made, the goods aren’t delivered and the treatment gets a bad name. A lot of the so-called permanent fillers came on the market with a big bang and then all the complications happened and now they’re not on the market anymore.”
“We’re living in uncharted waters,” says Elliott. “There’s a sense of adventure.”
I now – almost religiously – see a woman my friends refer to as ‘the witch doctor’ who prescribes a strict diet and enough supplements to ensure I rattle with each step. A doctor friend took one look at my pill collection and shook his head. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop taking them. Or cutting my shorts. Or hitting the St Tropez. As American anarchist Bob Black said, “the reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps”.