Fuck the Nip and Tuck: Why I am Opposed to Cosmetic Surgery

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.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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2 Responses to Fuck the Nip and Tuck: Why I am Opposed to Cosmetic Surgery

  1. Asia Morela says:

    Interesting issue to say the least. I personally agree with your distaste, even outrage at such a practice as cosmetic surgery. I am not sure, however, how much credit I am willing to give to the specific arguments you picked; not that they are untrue, but to what extent do they explain the *whole* problem, and which problematic implications might they carry?
    First off, you mention eyelid surgery as an example of racist connotation targeting a “minority”. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but eyelid surgery is most popular in Asian countries where what they are seeking to modify is the norm, the majority. It could still be the result of internalized racism, like typical Asian beliefs that a “flat” nose is not pretty, nor is darker skin. But, much as I am sensitive to everything white Westerners have been guilty of in the course of history, this self-flagellation sometimes comes too close to ethnocentrism.
    Half of my family happens to be Vietnamese (so I can talk about racism pretty much firsthand), and guess who’s got the most fucked-up view on female beauty? These crazy Asian people. From my grandmother’s nose job to my mother’s own hang-ups, everything I know about not liking my body, I’ve learnt from the Vietnamese. My “white” family could care less whether I have Asian eyelids and a flat nose, whereas my mom has always disliked my (very Caucasian) freckles (“from a purely aesthetical point of view”, I quote). Unlike what many pc white people may be tempted to do, let’s not idealize foreign cultures, but on contrary, let’s face that they house oppressions of their very own, against which certain so-called “Western” values might actually be all but essential.
    I would also like to discuss your use of the “nature” argument. Although I myself use it frequently and without qualms, I understand its conservative, essentialist potential, one which many feminists and queers often have to fight against. A woman is supposed to have a higher body fat percentage? But… what if you don’t want what a woman is supposed to have and be? What if you don’t identify as a woman? The only person of my close entourage who was ever “into” cosmetic surgery (ie both defending it and considering to go through it) was a man, who admittedly wished to look more feminine. He hasn’t managed to convince me, but he at least made me think.
    Thirdly, though body image has certainly reached an unprecedented cultish status in contemporary Western societies, I don’t think it possible to get rid of common cultural patterns that guide our sentiment of what is beautiful and what is ugly. These patterns shift with time and space (obviously), they’re sometimes dangerously lined with good/evil, right/wrong patterns, and that’s where we can act and impact; but dissolving such patterns entirely? I don’t believe it.
    At last, I am a little tired of this tendency to speak of models as though they were monsters. You say yourself that fat people are guilt-tripped under health pretexts; yet the next line you talk about “unhealthy and sometimes outright dangerous” diets. A close friend of mine as well as my own sister were models, and well, they were just born this way. I don’t understand why making some body types feel better about themselves should involve bashing other body types. Women should work together, not against each other! In spite of what some people may think, the ladies you see on the catwalks or in the magazines are real, are human, are alive, and all the focus we give them instead of the fashion and beauty industry they’re trapped in is only playing the latter’s game.
    As a person who suffers from an ED and low self-esteem, I believe that efficiently opposing the warped messages on beauty we’re served must avoid passive acceptance and a fatalistic surrender to “biology” AT ALL COSTS, but instead emphasize how active, how capable our bodies are, and how much control we have over them (disabled/crippled people certainly would have a lot to say about that). You may be interested in Jenny Teacups’ feminist thoughts on plastic surgery (jennyteacups.blogspot.com).

  2. bunnika says:

    These are also objections I’ve heard before, and I’m glad to have the chance to address them.

    Regarding eyelid surgery: I am not specifically familiar with the rates of this practice in Asian countries; the statistics I quoted were from The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and I was speaking from an American perspective, so arguments cannot directly translate to other nations. Likewise, the documentary spoke from a British perspective. Both are addressing cultures in which people of Asian decent are in the minority, and the pressures on them will be different than in Eastern countries. This is not to discount the possibility of negative Western influences on Eastern nations, but rather just a disclaimer that I can’t speak for them. The pressures to meet an American or British beauty ideal may or may not be the same, but it is likely a moot point, as that ideal could very well be far different.

    The argument against holding women to beauty ideals isn’t based in telling anyone that they have to let passive biology take over; rather, it’s an argument against forcing anyone into a form their bodies don’t naturally follow, if their only inspiration for attaining it is meeting a societal standard. It’s like the difference between cosmetic surgery and body mods–something done purely to meet societal standards is worlds apart from something done out of an internal desire to modify your appearance strictly for your own sake. A born-female who identifies as male would not be conforming to social ideals to try and shape their body in a more masculine fashion.

    Regarding models: A line has to be drawn between people who are “just born [that] way,” and those who engage in those unhealthy diets to force their bodies to attain an ideal that is unnatural for them. Before pregnancy, I was a size zero, without starvation diets or even calorie limitations; it was simply how my body was formed. Likewise, my daughter is shaping up to be as skinny as I was in my youth, but she’s also a great deal taller, so she will possibly have the “model figure.” There is a difference between shaming those who are born with different natural shapes (which I don’t believe in doing) and wishing to break down the system that oppresses everyone who doesn’t fit into that minority. And, something I recognized as a heavy-eating skinny girl: While my feelings might have been hurt when people “skinny-bashed,” those hurt feelings had no place in the larger discussion. My body still met an ideal, and I had privilege because of it. Just as white people need to not put their encounters with personal racism on the level with the consistent institutionalized racism that people of color face, skinny women need to accept that by benefit of their/our natural privilege, they/we cannot go looking for pity when issues of sizeism are debated. Also, the point isn’t to villianize the models themselves, but the industry that uses only models that meet this very narrow idea of beauty. “Supermodels” shouldn’t exist not because tall, exceptionally thin women should be ostracized, but because models should exist that represent all body types, none of them placed as “super” above another.

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