Life In Plastic, It's Fantastic! But Is It Feminist?: The Cosmetic Surgery Conundrum
By Ciana Alessi
In whichever wave of feminism we’re currently riding, one controversial feminist query I often contemplate (and warrants a forum somewhere, for the record) is the cosmetic surgery dilemma. Cosmetic surgery is super normalized in this day and age, to the point where there are people who think Kim Kardashian West’s 2019 face is the same as her 2009 face. This normalization has only been heightened by the visibility, on social media, of cosmetic surgeons and patients. These days you can’t scroll through Instagram for more than five minutes without seeing someone who has filled, lifted, or replaced something on their body. I mean, there’s even a weird Instagram plastic surgery hub where surgeons and patients happily share videos of their minor (and major) surgeries to a loving reception.
The obvious side of the plastic surgery debate is simply a matter of aesthetic preference. If you like how breast implants look, you get them. If you don’t… well, you don’t. But, while it is that simple, it’s not really that simple. For some reason that complexity strikes a unique chord with me. I honestly believe that the hype around getting minor or “preventative” adjustments -- like lip fillers, cheek fillers, etc. -- and the normalization of these procedures is unhealthy. At the very least, surgery is surgery and is not something that should be trivialized or compared to something like a teeth whitening session. The fact that I can scroll through my phone, for example, and there’s a 75% chance I may see someone getting collagen surgically injected into their body on Instagram but I literally can’t see a woman’s nipple on that same platform means people think most cosmetic surgery is kind of no big deal. And at its worst, cosmetic surgery promotes a borderline theatrical and generally unattainable standard of beauty, often to young people who are already unsure of themselves and confused about their body image. Yet, when I start to lean toward the “plastic surgery is potentially toxic for people’s self confidence, body image, and actual bodies” camp, I think about my own opinions on gender and sexuality: not my body, not my problem. The whole thing feels reminiscent of the constant teetering motif between women doing what they want and other people deciding what’s best for women that has lead to our ultimate fight for equality and agency.
On the flip side of the coin is, of course, the simpler side of the argument, AKA “let people do whatever they choose!” A surgeon who has worked with the infamous Kim Kardashian West, Dr. Lara Devgan, has gone as far as to say “It’s more anti-feminist to shame people for electing plastic surgery than to just let them be who they want to be,” albeit while conveniently profiting off these decisions. But in a way, she’s not wrong.
My complicated reaction to the above comment exemplifies the larger issue: this grown woman can easily and happily exist outside of the world of her potential patients, a world of insecurity and idealized beauty, to say “women should be able to look like whatever they want to because feminism!” without asking “why do these women want to alter their appearance?”
This cosmetic surgery conundrum ultimately boils down to the same messy, grey-area response that most socially or culturally controversial issues must come to: it’s not a simple “yes it’s anti-feminist to believe cosmetic surgery is unhealthy and many people should opt for other routes to happiness and self confidence” or “no it’s feminist because it considers people’s greater wellbeing and why they feel they need to look a certain way.” While it’s not entirely fair to place blame on the individual without recognizing the larger structures that created that person, it’s also inaccurate to simply blame Society with a capital “s” without analyzing our own choices in this society we constantly cultivate.
By elevating specific images, specific aesthetics, specific beauty standards, we hammer into the minds of confused, insecure teenagers, twenty-somethings, and middle aged people that what they’re working with isn’t good enough and might warrant actual medical adjustment. If those cosmetic adjustments make that person feel beautiful and capable and confident, then that’s a beautiful story of growth. But if those adjustments, or even the idea of getting procedures and changes, makes that person depressed or ashamed to be who they are, then this toxic relationship between idealized beauty and complete happiness must be thoroughly analyzed and altered.