Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The 'enhancement' fantasyland

Commentary by Pat Murphy


Pat Murphy

Baseball slugger Barry Bonds is in a heap of trouble for "enhancing" his batting performance with steroids. But, once you think of it, Bonds was doing what most Americans do in our cultural obsession to "enhance" performance, physical looks, popularity, careers and net worth.

It's a compulsive national preoccupation, pouring tens of billions of dollars into industries devoted to altering what Americans don't like about themselves into something they prefer.

·  Viagra and Levitra enhance the male sex drive. For needy women, help is on the way with a counterpart medication, Intrinsa.

·  Television has popularized makeovers of whole bodies to enhance good looks (breasts, noses, thighs, ears, eyelids, cheekbones, and rumps). China just held its first Miss Plastic Surgery beauty pageant, a gimmick certain to spread to American reality TV. Men who want to be women (and visa versa) can change through the miracle of surgery.

·  Professional team owners enhance profits with absurd prices that gouge household budgets—an outing for one baseball game for a family of four averages $263 in Boston, $185 in San Francisco, $194 in Chicago for tickets, refreshments, parking.

·  Fans can also blame players for "enhancing" their incomes and passing along the costs: the California Angels ladled out $146 million for just two players (Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon). The whole team cost only $183 million last year.

·  Vitamins, anti-obesity pills, exercise machines, creams, lotions, massages, facials, manicures and pedicures, weekends at fat farms, teeth whiteners, Botox—billions of more dollars to enhance beauty and health.

·  If not with drugs and steroids, athletes enhance performance with shaped skis, skintight synthetic swim gear, streamlined racing helmets, lighter and stronger racing bicycles, shoes with bounce, endurance training in mountain altitudes, special diets and vitamins, better football padding, improved baseball bats, to name a few devices.

·  Upwardly mobile professionals hoping to impress their bosses hire consultants to enhance their success by improving wardrobes, polishing their speech, preening their social manners.

·  Politicians, too, enhance their persona with pollsters deciding positions to take and spin doctors writing the scripts. President Bush enhanced his macho image with his orchestrated "Mission Accomplished" landing on an aircraft carrier.

But enhancing performance can backfire, as Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld discovered painfully: Using an efficient, time-saving signature-writing machine to sign condolence letters to families of GIs killed in Iraq created an uproar with military families, who called it insensitive and uncaring. Rumsfeld now will personally sign the letters—to enhance his battered reputation.

So, with so many of us "enhancing" ourselves, how much is left of the real us and what we were born with?

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