Pursuing Un-Natural Beauty in an All-Natural Society

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Americans are terrified of even tiny amounts of toxic substances, but apparently they'll make an exception if, say, injecting the toxin that causes botulism into their faces helps fight wrinkles.

This is an odd development. When it comes to preferences in food, vitamin supplements, even cosmetics, consumers often expect to avoid any substance with a bad reputation, and the code word for excellence these days is "natural." Heaven forbid we eat vegetables and fruits raised with the benefits of synthetic agricultural chemicals even though science confirms that pesticides, when used in the approved manner, contribute to good health by keeping the produce supply plentiful, varied, and inexpensive.

The same goes for food additives. "Additive free, nothing artificial added" sells potato chips, coffee, ice cream even cigarettes. When it comes to food and environmental issues American consumers fear "toxins" and often seem oblivious to the concept of dose. "We do not want exposure to poisons!" is the rallying cry. Thus exposures to even 50 parts per billion of the toxin arsenic (which would be a carcinogen at a much higher dose) in drinking water is not tolerated. And there is fear and rejection of even the most minute levels of "toxins" or "carcinogens" (generally defined as something that causes cancer at huge doses in laboratory animals) such as PCBs in the Hudson River or dioxin in paper towels, even though there is no evidence that trace exposure to these substances have ever caused human ills.

In the context of our utopian, nature-seeking society, consider the celebration accompanying the forthcoming FDA approval of Botox the commercial name for botulinum toxin A, the neurotoxin that causes botulism as a tool in the cosmetic surgeon's arsenal against aging. Botox does its magic (and appears to do so both effectively and safely) by paralyzing the facial muscles at the site where it's injected, thus erasing wrinkles. Botox, which has been in use since 1991 despite its lack of FDA blessing, is so popular that when the New Yorker featured its famous cartoon map of "NewYorkistan" a few months back, a large chunk of Manhattan's Upper East Side was designated "Botoxia."

Now let me get this straight. The same ladies (and gentlemen, too) who will let only organic vegetables and free-range chicken touch their lips are enthusiastically seeking a known neurotoxin to be injected into their pristine, all natural faces?

Here we have the modern chemophobic/chemophilic schizophrenia. When agricultural or synthetic chemicals, even at trace levels, are perceived as "toxins" they are rejected because consumers perceive no personal benefit from them, no matter how innocuous they might be healthwise. On the other hand, a classic human toxin like Botox is perceived to have great benefit and voila, chemophobia is transmogrified into chemophilia and a toxin is elevated to miracle status. Only in America!