Say what you will about society's shallow preoccupation with physical appearance, no one can accuse us of not sweating the details. Never was this more clear to me than a few years ago, when I visited a "laser spa" at a dermatologist's office in the hope of lightening a small (and, in retrospect, inconsequential) scar on my knee. Without looking at my chart, the porcelain-skinned, flawlessly made-up "laser spa technician" led me into the treatment room, gestured toward a hulking machine worthy of the Starship Enterprise, glanced up at me and asked, "Just your face today?"
At that moment, the era of not worrying about my face came to a screeching halt. My adolescence and early adulthood had been marked by a low-grade dissatisfaction with just about every other aspect of my appearance (there was so much to hate about my hair and body that a little blotchiness and acne seemed like lint on my shirt by comparison), but now I was officially at war with my face.
"High definition" means HDTV, which offers viewers unparalleled picture clarity, and it makes a lot of familiar on-air personalities suddenly look like drag queens or Frankenstein monsters (the curse of traditional stage makeup) or pock-marked teenagers (what traditional stage makeup used to cover). Congress has mandated that all television broadcasts make the switch from analog to digital signals by February 2009. The major networks are now using their digital signals to air prime-time shows (at least) in high definition. As for hi-def TVs, in 2007 there were an estimated 8.6 million in households nationwide; in 2008, the figure is expected to jump to 38.8 million. In other words, the number of viewers who can gaze not just at a news anchor's eyes but deep into his or her pores, lip creases and telltale face-lift scars is growing exponentially. And that doesn't take into account the fact that even home-use camcorders are now available in hi-def. You don't have to be Matt Lauer to subject your nostrils to public scrutiny.
Of course, products and procedures meant to ease the transition are also multiplying, namely makeup like Cargo's blu_ray collection, which is supposed to promote "optical blurring," and Dior's High Definition Serum Foundation, which contains "HD liquid crystal pigments." Never mind that these products sound like they simulate what might happen if you dropped a computer monitor on the floor and then smeared whatever oozed out on your face.
Just as the real world seemed to get a little more chromatic (or maybe just more complicated) after color television came along, hi-def is sharpening the focus of images on and off the screen. But is this much clarity the best way to see things? Is it the best way to see ourselves?
If our cultural obsession with perceived physical flaws is any indication, the world went hi-def years ago and it's TV, in fact, that's catching up. Whether we're adding millimeters to our teeth (according to a recent NPR story, teeth lengthening is the latest in age-fighting cosmetic dentistry) or patrolling against errant chin hairs as though they were a manifestation of terrorist sleeper cells, there's no doubt that the mirrors we're using to view ourselves and others are not full-length but magnifying ones. Our societal standards of beauty seem perilously focused on minutiae.
Plastic surgeons advertise procedures such as the "mini face-lift" and "micro liposuction," which are often aimed at people who might want face-lifts and liposuction but don't really need them that much. Makeover shows teach us how to correct the most banal beauty problems. ("Forehead too wide? Help is on the way!") Tabloid magazines extol the virtues of particular celebrity body parts, fawning over Movie Star A's perfect clavicle while lamenting Movie Star B's unfortunate elbows.
It's claustrophobic, and in the age of hi-def, looking at the big picture won't be just hopelessly retro, it will be nearly impossible, because we're so consumed with the small stuff. Just because we invented microscopes doesn't mean we should look at the world through them. That said, there's no stopping high-definition television now. That means that "Just your face today?" won't only be the refrain at laser spas. It'll be what we think when we stare at a news anchor's wrinkles instead of watching the news. So much for clarity.