Recently, I watched a short documentary, Bleach, Nip, Tuck: The White Beauty Myth (NSFW, and quite graphic), which addressed the racism inherent in cosmetic surgery. It was a terrifying glimpse into the prejudice that is preyed upon by this industry, which I have always objected to as a feminist. I’ve long known that cosmetic surgery was built upon the bricks of misogyny, and seeing it highlighted as a demonstration of racism as well was interesting, though hardly surprising.
The lifeblood of cosmetic surgery is simply low self-esteem. As society presents us with airbrushed images of ideal beauty, cosmetic surgeons lurk in the shadows with promises of how we, too, can look like that, if we’re only willing to endure a little pain and the loss of a hefty paycheck.
This ideal is pushed most powerfully upon women, as we’re taught from such frighteningly young ages that our physical attractiveness is paramount to our self-worth. But the beauty ideal fights against simple biology, and teaches us to hate the very nature of the female form. While women are biologically programed to have a higher body fat percentage than men, we’re trained through social conditioning to keep that percentage dangerously low if we want to be beautiful. Though it’s proven that celebrity diets are unhealthy and sometimes outright dangerous, those are still the standards of beauty we’re held to. And god forbid we let nature take its course and accept the way our bodies change with age or pregnancy; no, these natural processes must also be circumvented, lest we fail at our feminine duty to be pleasing to the male eye.
Think cosmetic surgery isn’t based on prejudiced ideals of beauty? Then consider that breast implants and eyelid surgery (procedures which, respectively, alter women and people of Asian decent) were the most popular invasive surgeries in 2010. Or the simple fact that men made up less than 8.9% of cosmetic surgery patients. The numbers don’t lie: This is an industry that preys upon the insecurities of women and minorities.
But still, I’m often called an extremist for not supporting cosmetic surgery. So, I’d like to address those arguments which are most often tossed at me in defense of the industry:
1) If you believe in a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, you can’t be against cosmetic surgery.
I would never campaign to make cosmetic surgery illegal; that would be trampling the rights of individuals, and I believe all adults should be able to do with their bodies what they please, so long as they are not harming others. But my objection to cosmetic surgery is not one of legalities, it’s one of social morality. I want the systems that encourage women and minorities to seek unattainable ideals of beauty to be torn down. I want us to be encouraged to see our bodies as beautiful, regardless of how we compare to supermodels. More specifically, I’d like for supermodels to cease existence, and for society to revere beauty in all forms, not just those which fit such narrow definitions. It is not trampling anyone’s rights to point out the ugliness that lies at the root of these desires for cosmetic change, because desiring equality does not strip anyone of their freedoms.
2) You’re thin and have large breasts. It’s easy to be against modifying your body to attain certain beauty standards when you already meet them.
First, it’s ignorant to assume that I have any fewer body image issues than any other woman, regardless of my size or shape. (Ever notice how women fighting eating disorders don’t magically start loving their bodies when they hit a certain weight?) All women have a standard set for us that is so unrealistic, almost no one can naturally attain it. For my part, I’m still too heavy; I have tummy pudge and thick thighs, chubby arms and all around about 25 more pounds than the media would have me believe I should carry. Yes, I am still reasonably thin, and thus have it easier than a heavier woman, who’s also forced to deal with the ridiculous fatphobia that disguises itself as “concern for her health.” But for women around my size, those imperfections are very tempting for a surgeon’s intervention. Oh, just a little lipo, and I’d look like a model! Well…not quite. I’d still need to grow 7 inches taller, have long blond hair, and these breasts would have to be perky as A-cups. Plus my nose is too round, my lips are too thin, and man, wouldn’t more prominent cheekbones just make me look so much more sophisticated? No matter how many standards we meet, there are always still more that are just out of our natural reach.
3) But what about women who’ve had mastectomies, or people who were disfigured in accidents? It’s cruel to require them to live with their altered appearance just because you don’t like plastic surgery.
This argument purposefully blurs the line between cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery. While I can’t know what my reaction would be in such a situation, I would never lecture someone on reconstructing the form that was lost to them through injury or illness.
4) But you have tattoos! You can’t be against modifying the body in one way, but for it in another.
Oh, I’m sorry, were you under the impression that these drawings magically sprang forth from my flesh at puberty? I didn’t think so. There is a stark difference between making changes to your body that are purely artistic, and making alterations meant to mimic something that nature bestows on some folks but not others. Also, tattoos, piercings, and other extreme modifications done for the sake of aesthetics and art do not exist solely to make the modded person appear closer to societal standards for beauty. Quite the opposite; these modifications are made with the knowledge that you will be ostracized by those who buy into such beauty standards. It’s a conscious snub of the concept of beauty being stoic, and rather recognizes the beauty of creativity, individuality, and self-expression.
My objections to this industry are not about stripping anyone of their rights, or ridiculing anyone who’s indulged in surgical alteration. It’s not about judgment of what’s already been done, it’s about correcting the biased cause, so more social minorities don’t suffer because of unrealistic standards of personal appearance. It’s about teaching women and those with non-Caucasian features that our attractiveness is not only skin deep, and allowing us to recognize the varied and unique beauty we all possess. It’s about tearing down the social caste system, which places white males in power over even our own self-image. It’s about making a stand against prejudice, and refusing to let anyone else dictate what we should do with our bodies.