I’ve been in America just less than two weeks, and already I’ve become aware of changes in myself. Some of them are good (definitely looking less pasty and discovered a deep love for tacos), but some of them edging on scary.
Being 20, I feel quite relieved in having roughly surpassed the phase of body confidence issues. I’ve stopped wanting longer legs or skinnier arms. I probably won’t ever be able to buy jeans from Zara, and that thigh-gap craze is certainly not one I can aspire to. But I’ve been size 10-12 since I stopped growing and I go in and out in around about the right places. Most importantly, I’m lucky to have been surrounded by friends who place little emphasis on image. I’m no Kim K, but there can only be one of her.
So perhaps to my surprise, yesterday I found myself in CVS studying the backs of tooth whitening kits. I had just left the gym and been staring from the treadmill up at the wide-smiled narrators on commercials that pop up every other second here. Their skin and eyes were brighter than mine. Their eyelashes longer and cheeks less chubby. Their lips a better shape and eyebrows more defined. All a thousand times better looking than me (and any other person I’ve ever seen in real life) – presumably due to the mercy of their home teeth whitening kits.
Doing my research in one of the many pharmaceutical isles I was torn between whether I wanted a ‘multi-dimensional smile’ from Crest White Lux Supreme, or if NiteWhite Complete‘s ‘active ingredients’ to ‘safely and effectively bleach your teeth’ were more my thing. Opalescence even offered a choice of between 10% ‘mild peroxide’ to 35% ‘maximum strength for non-sensitive teeth’, reassuring me that even ‘brown or dead’ teeth had some hope. I don’t think mine are brown. I checked them out in the mirrors on the makeup isle and they’re more a sort of light grey. But I did want it to do something. Maybe 15%?
It was $47.99 for an 8 pack in the melon flavor. I got out my currency converter app as I waited in line- just over £32, or about 3 trips to the dentist even with the dental insurance that I didn’t buy.
And then it struck me… I didn’t invest in dental health cover here, yet I’m about to pay to peroxide my own teeth….. Really??!
With North America now accounting for over 44% of the world’s pharmaceuticals revenue, much has been published to analyze, and often criticize the nature of the industry in the United States. A recent report commissioned by the World Health Organization highlighted the increasing ‘conflict of interests’ between the ‘legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical and economic needs of providers and the public to select and use drugs in the most rational way”. In short – too often Americans are being sold things that they don’t need.
Standing back, it’s not difficult to see that this is an industry the companies have pretty well worked out. As Republican platforms continue to challenge the mild but important progress of Obamacare, the huge costs associated with private insurance sets the industry on a precedent. Compared to European consumers the Americans I’ve met here are far less money-conscious when it comes to pharmaceuticals; with few other options, they’re used to personally devoting large sums to healthcare and thus inadvertently buying into it’s commercialization. And perhaps more dangerously, those without insurance are left especially susceptible as they attempt to meet their own healthcare needs at corner shop pharmacies with little guidance. Trawling through supposedly impartial advice forums on the internet can easily turn into staring at yet more advertisements. With far more relaxed laws on the advertising and distribution of medical drugs than within the European Union the law is on their side; the radio, the television, in shops and magazines, each pristine figure you see beaming through the camera that looks that much more goddess-like than the average human, persuading you – persuading ME – that I’m in need of the new ‘quick fix’. And once you’re paying for the teeth whitening and headache pills and extra protein and weight loss tablets and waist constrictors then it’s not much further down the line to botox for aiding collagen deficiency, breast implants for defeating low confidence or ritalin for the too-common menace of ADHD.
It’s easy for us British (protected by the veil of what is and isn’t covered by NHS) to critique the american appetite for self-perfection. Yet as someone who considered myself relatively comfortable within myself, being here, surrounded by the commercial possibilities of betterment I’ve both never felt more inadequate or sensed the need to reach further lengths for a desired outer appearance.