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Woman Risks Life to Get on X-Factor

September 9, 2009

When Susan Boyle sang for the first time on Britain’s Got Talent, the video spread rapidly online. Reactions ranged from stunned to inspired at the way her voice belied the expectations set by her appearance. Even though she didn’t win the competition, she showed just how irrational biases based on looks can be.

Ms. Lee Before and After

Ms. Lee Before and After

Not every woman who has auditioned for this sort of show has been able to overcome such judgments, however. Five years ago, Simon Cowell told then 18-year old Katrina Lee,

I just wish I could put your voice in another body.

Ms. Lee took that sniping to heart and underwent procedures including laser facial surgery and liposuction. She risked her life in order to “look like a new person” in an effort to make it on the X-Factor.

There are two cultural factors at play here. One is celebrity culture and the desire for the brief fame success on these televised talent shows can bring. This desire, and the value placed on celebrity, is what allowed Mr. Cowell’s words to have such an impact on Ms. Lee.

The second is the tendency to judge people, especially women, based on their appearance. The effects of this are not limited to TV. Conventionally attractive people make more money than those who do not fit current beauty standards. They also get better grades, more personalized medical treatment, and lighter prison sentences if they break the law. While Ms. Lee’s case may seem extreme, it is only an extension of what so many other women do. Think control top pantyhose and foundation: these may not put your life in danger the way surgery can, but the impulse to use them often comes from the same place.

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