I got engaged a few months ago. Cause for celebration, right? But since the engagement, this uncomfortable issue has reared its head. My mom has been calling me, urging me to schedule an appointment with her plastic surgeon. She told me that I’d benefit from some “work” before the wedding, specifically a tummy tuck, so I’ll look my absolute best for the wedding photographs and my husband-to-be when we marry next year.
What’s more, she’s offered to pay for the procedure as her wedding gift to me.I feel both devastated and angry. I’ve always been conscious of my love handles but now I feel even more insecure and self-conscious, and am starting to wonder if I should accept her offer. I’ve been asking myself, how do I decide whether to go ahead with surgery or not? How do I know whether this decision will make me feel better about myself, or is it simply me yielding to pressure from my mom and social norms?Jess, 28
Never before have women (and men) had access to so many diverse beauty treatments or surgeries capable of reshaping the body and resisting the ravages of aging. We live in an age where almost any aesthetic issue can be corrected by knife or needle. Though many would fear reprisal for admitting it, vast numbers of contemporary women in the United States have undergone plastic surgery. Data recently released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) revealed that minimally-invasive procedures have increased almost 200% since 2000. Subtle changes such as plumper lips, refreshed eyes and smoother foreheads can be achieved in the time it takes to buy your groceries.
But simultaneously, women today are also empowered, educated, engaged in the workforce and demand equal access to opportunities. The modern woman is the product of the post-feminist generation that championed gender equality, rejected female objectification and fought hard for women to be liberated from the domestic sphere into the wider world. For feminists who burned bras and insisted that men help with washing dishes and raising children, the idea that plastic surgery is anything but unfeminist is unthinkable. But for the contemporary woman, the matter is more complex and nuanced.
In places as varied as law firms, homes, nurseries and universities, many women are quietly empowered by their choices to use plastic surgery to transform their bodies so their physical form better reflects their internal landscape. Women are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, and want to preserve their looks, appear their best professionally and feel comfortable and confident in social circles.
For some women this means the ability to choose to soften their tear troughs with Juvederm, or undergo CoolSculpting to help tone their postpartum love handles. Those who have had aesthetic procedures performed ardently argue in favor of their choice as being a feminist act: it is an exertion of personal autonomy and agency. In essence, it’s my body, I choose how I want it to look, and I will decide how I want to achieve that.
Reasserting control: women reclaim their bodies
According to feminist and social critic Gloria Steinem, each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms. Unfortunately, throughout human history and across cultures, women’s bodies have been inscribed with the ideals and norms of the era in question, and often with the expectations of men. Think foot binding in China, corsets in Victorian England, and female circumcision in various geographical locations around the world, each causing its own particular brand of physical deformity and emotional pain. Such practices manipulated the plasticity of the female form, but in so doing, alienated women from their own bodies by shaping it into a vehicle for something else: for example, an object of male desire and fantasy, or a tool of reproduction.
Feminism has always existed in different forms throughout human history, sometimes as a solitary rebellious act, in other times as a collective protest. It first began to be recognized as a movement in the 19th century, changing and evolving throughout the 20th century until the present day. If a feminist were asked what the goals of feminism were, she might answer a range of objectives: to achieve political, social, economic, and personal equality between the sexes, equal access to opportunities, the right to feel pleasure, the right to freedom, and the right to look and present oneself as one chooses.
In feminist circles and literature, plastic surgery has long been maligned or considered taboo. The many criticisms it has been charged with include: encouraging women to conform to the male gaze, to be impossibly thin and big breasted, and to meet unrealistic media ideals of feminine beauty.
Women are constantly party to comments about their bodies: they are told what to do with them, how to care for them, and how they should look. While it’s true that plastic surgery can be used to confine women within narrow stereotypes, it can equally be used to liberate women so their bodies are better expressions of themselves, and are more aligned with their identities. After all, plastic surgery operates on the premise of the plasticity of the body: the fact the body can be shaped. Body shaping is a practice everyone engages in — when they style their hair, workout at the gym or get a pedicure.
For Angela Neustatter, a feminist and a journalist, undergoing plastic surgery in her forties was a personal choice and one she felt compelled to be open about. She notes that her decision was misconstrued by feminists as evidence of “body loathing”, when for her plastic surgery was much more oriented towards preserving the expressive eyes she loved and used to help her communicate as a journalist:
“I had an eye job in my 40s when my eyes seemed to be disappearing into a reptilian layer of skin folds. This made me miserable because we communicate so much with our eyes, and journalists, more than most. I wrote about my eyelid surgery partly because so many feminists were tight-lipped about the procedures they had (and believe me, they did) and I felt it important to be honest about the way I, as a feminist, deal with the human condition. I hadn’t anticipated the personal criticism and condemnation – I was accused of body loathing – that came my way. Feminists were not supposed to reveal such feminine frailty in the face of ageing it seemed.”
As Neustatter observes, this restrictive mentality generalizes plastic surgery as negative and anti-feminist. Women who undergo cosmetic surgery procedures are identified as weak, yielding to social pressure to appear more attractive to men or meet social standards. However, this view in fact overlooks the fact that for both women and men alike, the body is an expression and extension of the self. In Neustatter’s case, blepharoplasty or eyelid surgery allowed her to maintain a beloved part of self that was integral to how she interacted with her world around her, and performed her professional role.
Studies and surgeon’s insights on women and plastic surgery
One of the most common assertions from women who have undergone a cosmetic procedure is that the gap between how they look and how they feel has been narrowed, or in some cases, completely closed. Dr Hayley Brown, a plastic surgeon based in Las Vegas at the Desert Hills Plastic Surgery Center elaborates: “Tummy tucks and breast surgery are common body contouring procedures that allow women to feel complete, confident and successful when diet and exercise fall short. Facial rejuvenation surgery combats the effects of aging, sun exposure, stress and fatigue. The enhanced image and self-esteem promotes courage and strength to compete, which serves to improve economic status and enhance society overall… Plastic surgery has little to do with conforming to societal pressures or male expectations.”
As Dr Brown points out, feeling and looking good also has tangible benefits for women in the professional world. Economists have long acknowledged a phenomenon referred to as the “beauty premium”: the principle that beautiful people tend to have greater success in job interviews, office politics and promotions. Although a problematic truth, women who are confident in their own skin and present themselves well are likely to feel more empowered and perform better professionally.
A 2017 study carried out in Australia found that patients who had undergone plastic surgery and enjoyed a subsequent boost in their self esteem (which was the majority of patients) experienced greater job satisfaction and lower levels of burnout. The findings support the idea that job success is in part due to the fact that people who think they are beautiful have higher self esteem. Plastic surgery can assist women to feel more empowered at work and as a result, more likely to compete with their male counterparts and succeed.
In Dr Brown’s personal experience, women should have every opportunity to live fulfilled, rich lives as mothers, career women and wives should they choose to do so. She explains,“I am a plastic surgeon, a wife and a mother of four. A woman can have a fulfilling career, marriage and family. I have weathered the demeaning comments: ‘You can’t be a surgeon and have a family… You can’t start your own practice… You can’t have children and work full-time.’ My career dreams have been realized and I have enjoyed raising my 4 children!”
So should you get plastic surgery because your mom wants you to?
If you are conflicted about whether to undergo a cosmetic procedure or not, you need to honestly consider why you are seeking surgery, and what your goals are. If you desire plastic surgery, to enhance your self esteem and feel more comfortable in your own skin then undergoing a cosmetic procedure may serve as an empowering expression of bodily autonomy and agency. If you are seeking plastic surgery to look like someone else or please someone, then you should reconsider your decision.
A recent clinical study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science demonstrated that women who underwent surgery to feel better about themselves and who also had realistic expectations of what surgery could achieve, enjoyed enhanced well-being after surgery. Some of the benefits outlined in the study included an improvement in self-confidence, better quality of life and life satisfaction, a reduction in social phobias, and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
Interestingly, the study also pointed out that the women not only felt better about the body part that had been treated, but about their entire body as a whole. If taking advantage of the plasticity of the body allows women to boost lost self-confidence and become more engaged with the world as a result, then undergoing plastic surgery could be interpreted as an inherently feminist act.
The truth is that the body is the way in which we experience the world, interact in the world, and experience each other. When women make the choice to alter their body in some way it can be an empowering and strengthening decision, as long as the decision is a product of personal agency and choice.