Source: Photo by Joeyy Lee on Unsplash
Plastic surgery involves both surgical (eg, liposuction) and non-surgical (eg, Botox) procedures that aim to improve one’s appearance. Plastic surgery, on the other hand, aims to restore the appearance and functioning of the body, for example after illness or injury.
Despite the potential health risks of cosmetic surgery, its popularity is growing rapidly. For example, cosmetic surgery rates increased by 20% globally between 2015 and 2019. In the United States, 18 million procedures are performed each year, and in South Korea, 20% of the population undergoes surgery. aesthetic every year. In all countries, most cosmetic surgery patients are women, and in many countries, cosmetic surgery patients are very young. In China, for example, 96% of cosmetic surgery patients are under 35 years old.
In one new review of the scientific literature, researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of Queensland (Australia) sought to better understand what they invented Paradox of cosmetic surgery: “the phenomenon by which modern women are both encouraged to undergo cosmetic surgery and condemned for it” (p. 231). Below, I summarize the key points of their review.
Why We Love and Think We “Need” Cosmetic Surgery
Beauty ideals are at the heart of the paradox of cosmetic surgery. Current beauty ideals are unrealistic and often unattainable for most women. For example, having muscle tone and no body fat, but with “curves in the right places”. It is important to note that while beauty ideals have always existed, nowadays women are constantly exposed to them through technology (social media) and learn to view their bodies as a “problem” that “needs to be solved”.
Three main factors play a role in this respect:
1. Advertising for cosmetic surgery.
Historically, many cosmetic surgeries aimed to reduce stereotypical racialized features. This is related to the fact that beauty ideals often idolized a more “Western” appearance. Nowadays, however, there are cosmetic surgeries for all areas of the body. Cosmetic surgery companies advertise their procedures as a tool to get a “better” appearance and to “fix” that particular body part.
It is important to note that cosmetic surgery companies both promote existing beauty ideals and also shape those beauty ideals. The authors give an example of cosmetic surgery of the female genital organs. Cosmetic surgery societies have coined the term “lip enlargement” to describe when the labia minora extend beyond the labia majora and are “larger than normal”. Despite the fact that more than half of all women have vulvas that naturally form this way, cosmetic surgery ads describe “enlarged labia” as a “problem” with an “easy fix.” The growing popularity of labiaplasty can be attributed to beauty ideals that idolize a single type of vulva, and cosmetic surgery advertisements that portray other vulvas as “abnormal” and in need of repair.
Reality TV like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is popular across cultures and promotes beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery. The reach of these shows is amplified via the social networks of celebrities.
Interestingly, on many “makeover” shows, contestants describe wanting to have cosmetic surgery to look “normal.” These shows reinforce the idea that deviations from the beauty ideal are abnormal (e.g. larger nose, smaller breasts) and cosmetic surgery is an appropriate “treatment”. Research shows that women who watch reality TV that promotes beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery are more likely to have cosmetic surgery.
3. Government policy.
Interestingly, governments often promote cosmetic surgery. The authors give an example from Brazil, where people can have cosmetic surgery for free or at low cost. The initiative began in the 1960s as an attempt to help people overcome lower socio-economic status, as many people who had migrated to urban centers in search of work were stigmatized because of their appearance (for example, visibly aged faces from working in the sun). Cosmetic surgery has been promoted as a solution to help people break through classist barriers by altering their appearance. In other countries, cosmetic surgery is promoted in government tourism publications (eg, Hungary) and is subsidized by the government (eg, South Korea).
Why We Dislike Cosmetic Surgery and Those Who Get It
As much as cosmetic surgery is becoming more and more popular, at the same time there are widespread negative attitudes towards cosmetic surgery and those who receive it. Why is that? The authors provide the following reasons.
1. Welfare concerns.
Although complication rates are generally low, cosmetic surgery carries health risks. Unlike other medical procedures, cosmetic surgery is not considered necessary.
Also, even though cosmetic surgery may improve satisfaction with certain body parts, there is not much evidence to suggest that cosmetic surgery makes people significantly happier with their bodies, and any improvement in self-esteem self is short-lived. People can therefore have a negative view of cosmetic surgery because they think it is not justified. Indeed, research shows that people who oppose cosmetic surgery justify their beliefs based on concerns about harm to people who undergo it.
2. Cosmetic surgery as unnatural.
The authors describe the naturalistic fallacy that underlies negative attitudes towards cosmetic surgery, namely the ingrained belief that what is natural (vs unnatural) is good and should be revered.
The naturalistic error is reflected in current beauty ideals, where “natural beauty” is considered good. For example, beauty companies and fashion magazines promote products and regimens to achieve a “natural” look, and studies show that men prefer women who look good without using makeup, effort or fireworks. Additionally, although beauty ideals often idolize youth, women who use treatments to mask or “reverse” the signs of aging are viewed negatively.
Numerous studies indeed show that people perceive cosmetic surgery in a negative light, precisely because they consider it unnatural. For example, in South Korea, a country where cosmetic surgery is common, cosmetic surgery is only considered acceptable when the result looks “natural.” In contrast, in cases where the outcome does not feel natural, people describe facing condemnation and stigma. Other studies show that people who view cosmetic surgery as wrong justify their beliefs on the basis that cosmetic surgery “violates the sanctity of the body” (p. 235).
3. Cosmetic surgery as unfair. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that cosmetic surgery is viewed negatively because it is seen to give people an unfair advantage over others, for example, when it comes to dating or being successful at work. Along the same lines, people may see cosmetic surgery as unfair because they think it’s a “lazy way out” (e.g., liposuction versus dieting and exercise).
put it all together
In short, current beauty ideals paint an unrealistic and often inaccessible picture of beauty. Moreover, this beauty must be obtained “naturally” and must be “rightly acquired”.
These ideals of beauty contribute to the medicalization of appearance and the popularization of cosmetic surgery, for example through cosmetic surgery advertisements, reality TV and social media. At the same time, these beauty ideals also contribute to widespread negative attitudes towards cosmetic surgery and those who undergo it, as unnecessarily risking their health, as an “unnatural” form of beauty, and as unfair.
Therefore, many women can find themselves in a Catch 22, where “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The authors conclude their review with valuable directions for future research, such as conducting more experiments across genders and in different cultures around the world.