The Service Industry! (Or, Moral Relativism and You!)

“If everybody followed their hearts, the world would grind to a halt,”

-the fictional Angela Chase (My So-Called Life)

“Delayed Gratification is the definition of adulthood,”

-some psychology textbooks; Carrie Bradshaw (A very cool article I will reference below)

There is not a right, right? I mean, there is no there there.

I’ll back up. This is about to get rull heady. I read an article this week in the Nation about a girl who was bullied because of how she looked. A national charity sponsored our friend Nadia Ilse $40,000.00 worth of plastic surgery to correct certain perceived facial deficiencies. Now Nadia – all of fourteen years old, our friend – tells national publications that she is happier with her ears pinned back, and her chin re-shaped, and her nose made aquiline.


In The Nation, Jessica Valenti’s impassioned feminist article hinges on this argument: “There may be a bit of head-shaking over young girls going to drastic measures to feel beautiful, but we never seem to question the idea that feeling beautiful is a worthy goal in the first place.” This becomes an argument less about the particular moral problems implicit in a fourteen year old getting surgery to get people to like her and more a rage against the machine of plastic surgery in general: to Valenti, there is a wrongness in wanting to change your appearance for – I think indisputably – other people’s benefit. I tend to agree. I do not believe women who say they get boob jobs for “themselves.” The world we live in praises and rewards these certain physical crapshoots, and isn’t that a shame when you’ve got a brain and are wicked good at the piano, isn’t that a shame that the Male Gaze has got so far under your skin you think the problem CAN ONLY BE your skin. The thing is, it might look easier to some women – no, a lot of people – to go under a few knives rather than spend a life tirelessly working to affront or spite this great machine they must coexist with regardless. You can swim upstream or go with the grain (a mixed metaphor). And while I like to think I’m about as livid as Valenti, I can also almost understand Nadia Ilse’s mother, wanting her daughter to be happy while she’s alive, not fighting for anything, not having it hard.


“Grow up and deal with it,” is hard advice to hear. “It’s okay to be ugly, because it’s an ugly world that lets you care about being ugly this much,” is also a doozy. In America, in my generation, this kind of candor is pretty rare, too. We are obviously a pleasure-chasing culture. We are a coddled bunch of layabouts. But even more than hard to hear, advice like this is unspecific, it’s vague, it’s not really instructions, just “grow up and deal with it,” is…well, I know what it MEANS (Girl Power! ; get hip to the codes that bind you!) I think I hate hearing it because it’s all that I want to do, and maybe because this isn’t 1950 and the project of being twenty-two comes with fewer guidelines, fewer ‘right ways,’ I feel I do not know how. Yikes. There’s something wrong with this position already – ten points to the one who can spot where I’m being selfish, how I’m being wrong.


Some murky rhetoricals, in lieu of conclusions:

I know you so I know you want the kind of grace that allows you to be happy in your skin, because that’s the only way to hack anything, the only place to start. You also want what you want in all colors of shallowness. And more philosophically, depending on what you believe in, isn’t personal happiness the I Ching? Aren’t we all just trying to be happy, all the time, one way or another, and the discrepancies between my kinds of happy and yours are – well — the root of wars? Does being right make Jessica Valenti happy? Now where in the equation of joy falls ‘right’? Is it being wise and old and mature to do the right thing vs. follow unquestioning bliss? We’re all going to die. I think in Nadia’s case, sure, it’s about questioning that from which you find bliss: changing for other people is a frightening trend to start because once you pop you can’t stop, presumably. But then again, we are entwined within each other, and no man is an island, everyone’s making sacrifices all the time to adhere to the social contract, and doesn’t that make them happier, fitting in, in this way maybe plastic surgery on the whole isn’t the most abhorrent thing ever necessarily…


Let’s talk rational hedonism: I know approximately three people who regularly attend a church, and one of them is Unitarian. A good percentage of our friends are “considering Buddhism,” but looking for moral loopholes through which they can still drink and fuck around on a regular basis. Morality for morality’s sake is the country of the highfalutin, and so, I am asking the ladies in Dr. Zizmor’s subway ads, I am asking my friends and family members, what is the best way to live? Not the most productive or practical, I mean the BEST – who and what tells you, daily, which goals are RIGHT, and if you’re disregarding whatever you think the rest of the world seems to think this is, where did you find your own high horse? Who do you suppose is watching? Doing the right thing for doing the right thing’s sake, thinking about the other person, being alive on the planet next to another person, this is the meat and cheese and bread of It. How much of my life do I live for other people, is the question. How practical, how empathetic, how sound is the argument that I make a physical change to make my day to day easier – because after all is said and done, I do still have to spend this day with YOU.


But before we go Earhart into Kant and Sartre and cetera space (I’m no dummy, I know how the world works, I know we are all all of us always trying to figure out the WHY)…


Simon Amstell’s got a similar worry. I went to see him a week ago at Theatre 80 in the Village and this guy – who’s a British comedian, for the uninitiated – delivered the most heart-breaking, weirdly too-self-aware set of side-splitting stand-up comedy I’ve ever seen. So Amstell is at a point in his life where he’s frantically trying to get to the bottom of the same set of paranoid hang-ups that have hampered his ability to enjoy groups of people from teenagedom to present day. His show ‘Numb’ was an investigation, a probing of our post-post modernist cultural awkwardness. He wants to know why it’s hard to relate to another human being. And during this set, every time a joke seemed to fall flat, he’d acknowledge the dead air by fretting silently for a second before saying something like, “BUT WE’RE ALL JUST PEOPLE IN A ROOM, RIGHT? SHOULDN’T THIS BE EASIER?”


On his spiritual quest, Amstell has arrived at joy. We do the things we do to find pleasure, because there is nothing else, no time, no pragmatic means to address all the world’s pain. We can improve only the lives of those immediately around this, and the best way to start this is to go ahead and get fucking self-actualized already, howeverso you choose. Stop thinking. Stop all the clocks. Easier said than done. Easier done when you’re a millionaire and can afford to do things like take three months out of your life to go visit a shaman in Peru.


One of my favorite teachers once gave me this advice: Terra is huge, there are billions of people standing on it, it is your prerogative and your duty to take up all the space you can. Speak (sing. This was a singing class) from your whole big legacy, claim everything you care to touch, own it. Because why not? No one’s ever really looking out for you, unless they’re your parents. Or your other half, who wants something. Yet I’m stranded here contemplating the difference between owning yourself, your voice, and what it is to consider/shoulder other people’s burdens and wishes. If I’m being my singing teacher’s idea of a good human, taking up the space I occupy, how much do I kowtow? Am I ever putting them first? Or, am I really, truly looking out for this single vessel?

The moral codes we live by are set up for reward, sure, obviously, living is the hardest, but can there be a GOOD, tell me please I really want to know, if it’s unqualified, if it’s inherently un-definable?


Called on to cease the question marks and lay down the gauntlet, I believe these things:

-it doesn’t feel good, in your bones, to move around alone. Thinking only about yourself and your comfort. It especially doesn’t feel good when considering the template you’re writing for people like you to come after, or people like you who came before, who I believe are hard to ignore. Still unsure what this means for plastic surgery and being fourteen. Jury’s still out, they went to a college-level Philosophy 101 class in the woods somewhere and they’ll be back when yours truly turns thirty. (I hope.)

-you should be kind.

-Paul Ryan is a lunatic and it’s very important to vote this year (all years).

-Joy is what to follow, but maturity is temperance. You shouldn’t get everything you want. It’s impossible, there are a lot of other people in line.

-There will come a point when it becomes impossible to be entirely selfish. We sacrifice things to be a part of the family, we sacrifice things so we won’t be alone. Because…because people are individuals.

-One great rock show can change the world.


Maybe the only moral code to acknowledge is the one that’s de facto, and circuitously entirely self-concerned: do what you do for smile-making and understand it will never be enough, and what you choose to do with the lingering guilt (I.e cosmetic surgery or bra-burning) will be the meat of you. And believe in the things you believe and proselytize or preach, defend the defenseless, arm the unarmed, do these things, because because because because because !!!!!

one billion guesses and none of them count. Off to buy mascara. So people will look at my eyes when I’m telling them what I think. 


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