Real beauty: Are facial prosthetics, plastic surgeries, body modifications, and other drastic makeovers deceptive?

Real beauty: Are facial prosthetics, plastic surgeries, body modifications, and other drastic makeovers deceptive?

Moment of truth

Text: Emily Heng

Editor: Jolene Khor

Image: Instagram | @madeau
Image: Instagram | @xangphotography
Image: Instagram | @mikaelschulz

What is the purpose of makeup? A question known to stump even the most dedicated of beauty devotees, it is also a highly contentious one sure to garner a multitude of responses. Some claim it highlights, enhances, and grants confidence — others, however, view it as a form of deception. See: 2016's viral movement, 'take her swimming on the first date', which was borne after makeup artist, Andreigha Wazny, posted a before-after image of her friend, Ashley VanPevenage. VenPevenage was suffering an allergic reaction to benzoyl at the time, and the photo was meant to showcase Wazny's skills as well as the transformative abilities of makeup. Instead, it was quickly turned into a cruel meme, shaming makeup-wearers for "trapping" others (mostly men) in a lie.

Retaliation arrived swiftly in the form of counter-memes ridiculing naysayers' inability to differentiate a bare face from a made-up visage. The responses mostly championed self-image positivity, but at the same time, the controversy also sparked conversation about the "true" definition of 'real beauty'. While it can be argued that makeup does not permanently alter the face one is born with, the same can't be said about facial prosthetics, plastic surgeries, and body modifications. As such, are those procedures a lie? Do they deceive? We speak to individuals who've undergone them to find out...

Plastic surgery

What it is
A surgical procedure involving the restoration, reconstruction, or alteration of the human body, it is usually categorised into either reconstructive or aesthetic surgery. The former comprises anything from craniofacial procedures to burn treatments (reversal of defects), whereas the latter encompasses procedures that improves one's appearance (enhancement of natural beauty).

What society thinks
Reconstructive and aesthetic procedures are more embraced than ever in 2019 — if we're looking at it from a purely numerical POV. According to Business Insider, both procedures have substantially grown in popularity over the last few years, rising from 14 million in 2010 to 23 million in 2019. That, however, is not to say that plastic surgery is accepted by the public in equal breadth.

Victoria Pitts-Taylor, the chair of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University, addresses this in an interview with Times magazine. "This moralization of aesthetics is mostly our society's way of controlling what it deems too sexual or too vain," she explains. "Our unease with the technological modification of the body hasn't gone away. We've merely refined our judgment about it. We have this increasing tolerance for the anatomically improbable for women. A 36D breast size doesn't look nonhuman to us even if the waist is 21 inches. Anything more than that in either direction makes us increasingly uncomfortable."

So, what does it mean to have a 'real' appearance in this day and age? From what we can tell, it's less about the surgical procedures themselves, but rather, surgical procedures that produce good (read: societally-approved) results. "A face that's a bit too tight, boobs that are bit too big, or lips that are a bit too plump — "bad work" — and you're cast as sad, vain, phony," Pitts-Taylor says. "The hypocrisy is pretty remarkable."

Indeed, the repercussions of plastic surgery are weighty: studies prove that 'obvious' instances of plastic surgery strengthen the line of thought that it is a form of 'deception' and that the women and men who undergo it are 'untrustworthy'. Thanks to a series of tests conducted by Danielle DelPriore, Hannah Bradshaw, and Sarah Hill, it has been discovered that beautification efforts enacted by females increase their likelihood of being excluded by same-sex peers or targeted by female bullies. It also reveals that women who have undergone cosmetic procedures are viewed as short-term mating partners rather than long-term.

What they think
"I got a nose job and jaw realignment surgery at 19," confesses a 24-year-old Singaporean who has chosen to remain anonymous. "The latter was necessary (in a sense) because it helped fix my severe overbite. I'll admit that I pushed my parents into it, though, especially after I found out that it helps correct facial asymmetry. After I had my jaw fixed, it felt as if my nose didn't fit my new face, so I persuaded my parents that I needed to get my nose done too. I'm not going to lie — I thought I made a huge mistake at first, especially when the fever set in and I was writhing around in pain for days in a foreign country. But it was worth it, in the end.

My new features are a huge confidence-booster. As a child, I was always mocked and called 'the ugly one' amongst my siblings, and it gives me a weird sense of satisfaction now that the tables are now turned. [Laughs]. I feel like I've "grown" into the face I've always wanted, you know? As for societal judgment — easy. I just don't tell people I've done it. While my family and friends are accepting, I've learnt the hard way that Singaporeans are too critical to see beyond the surface. To them, plastic surgery is a form of "cheating", a way to beat genetics, a system initially thought fool-proof. People like to tell me that my kids are going to be ugly when I eventually have them. That's really disgusting. It's really telling that these people assume I found myself ugly before. I had my insecurities, just like anyone else. But I had the means to do something about it."

Facial prosthetics

What it is
An artificial device used to change or adapt the outward appearance of a person's face or head, most frequently used in films, theatre, and television to create a dramatically different look. As of late, it's been adapted in many a makeup routine, particularly amongst Chinese women.

What society thinks
While there are no official figures or statistics released, top headlines regarding "vanity" facial prosthetics often bear negative connotations. Leading art, design, and photography community site, Bored Panda, released an article on the matter titled, "After Seeing These 22 Women Remove Their Makeup You Will Never Be Able to Trust Anyone Again", while Daily Mail and Lipstiq described the trend and the women who utilise prosthetics as "crazy", "alarming", and "completely unrecognisable."

Reddit threads are also brimming with comments, ranging from jokes made in poor taste — "Beijing recently had a thunderstorm; men in streets unable to recognise and find their girlfriends" — to wholehearted disapproval. User foxwaffles points out, "I think they're really cool and fun to watch but I know some people who genuinely think all Asians are like this. They think all Asians do transformations to deceive people and look like "porcelain dolls". I've had people when I'm wearing a smudge of makeup to cover a pimple suddenly talk about 'Oh wow, makeup really transforms Asians! Hahaha!' Like no honey, I'm wearing only concealer. These transformation videos are funny in a tongue in cheek sort of way, but when they go viral they only push a stereotype that feels frustrating somehow."

What they think
An 18-year-old cosplay fan (who prefers not to be named) sheds some light: "First of all, I think it's really funny that these people are taking these 'viral videos' at face value and assuming that Asian girls are putting on prosthetics on a daily basis. Please. It's clearly done for entertainment value. Do you know how thick prosthetics can be? Imagine wearing them on a daily basis. But even if someone is, I don't think you should judge them for it. I wear nose and ear prosthetics from time-to-time for cosplay purposes, and you should see people's faces when I remove them in public.

It's all done in good fun, and people have no right to say it's a form of 'deception' when it's only a temporary measure. At the end of the day, you have to take it off, just like makeup. I suppose this whole 'deception' stance can be argued when it comes to something permanent like plastic surgery, but I don't think the same can be said for prosthetics, no matter how life-like they appear. Unless whoever is wearing 'em can physically graft them to their skin forever, I'd say that whoever they are trying to 'fool' would eventually catch wind anyway. If it makes them feel more confident, if it makes them happier... why sh*t on someone for it? We don't say that men are trying to deceive us when they grow out beards or facial hair to hide their weak chins, right? Same theory."

Body modifications

What it is

Body modifications refer to the deliberate altering of the human anatomy or physical appearance. According to the book, Forensic Human Identification by Tim Thompson and Sue Black, it is "often done for aesthetics, sexual enhancement, rites of passage, religious beliefs, to display group membership or affiliation, in remembrance of lived experience, traditional symbolism such as axis mundi and mythology, to create body art, for shock value, and as self-expression, among other reasons."

What society thinks
The public's understanding of body modification is largely swayed by what the media spotlights, which consists mostly of extreme cases such as with Dennis Avner. The man spent years making himself look like a cat — think fangs, whisker implants, and a face tattoo to boot. A report by CNN reveals that this has gathered detractors, many of whom refer to the procedure as 'body mutilation' and claim it to be a sign of 'underlying psychiatric issues'.

There is truth to that statement; desperate pursuits of an image-change could be an indicator of body dysmorphic disorder. Dennis Avner, aka the Stalking Cat, took his own life in 2013 after a long struggle with depression and other mental disorders. While instances of body modifications such as tattoos and piercings are on the rise, the lack of public awareness that this is but one of the many forms of body modification does nothing to improve its maligned rep.

Body modifications done in the name of tradition, cultural significance, and identity (see: long-neck women, scarification, and gender transition) are also overlooked in favour of the controversial, 'weird', and 'scary'. With such odds stacked against them, it comes as no surprise that many choose to believe body modification as a 'phase' or a deliberate attempt to mislead others rather than a projection of one's true self.

What they think
Proud local "modificator" Chester Lee from Oracle Tattoo tells us: "Body modifications have always been beautiful to me. I eventually got my first one at Freiburg, Germany. Studio Visavajara did my tongue splitting and forearm beads while Luna Cobra tattooed my eyeballs. I was really nervous at first — it's not every day you have someone cutting you open to have implants put in — but I made my decisions after careful study and consideration. As to why I got them, well, I've always just been fascinated by body modifications. There's a whole lot of misconceptions out there, but I truly believe that any form of modification is simply a way of beautifying yourself. What is beautiful to someone is not to the other, and that's okay."

"I was always ambivalent about body modification," recalls our trans friend, a Singapore national who wishes her identity protected. "On the one hand, I knew that they were a part of my future as a trans person who wanted to transition medically (disclaimer: not all trans people do). On the other, I grew up in an environment where any investment in physical appearance — from makeup to working out — was considered a weakness or marker of superficiality. So I bore a lot of shame for caring about the way my body looked, although I came to realise later that it's a natural part of being human; it just needs to be managed healthily.

I went through my most serious procedure because it was always a part of myself that I objectively disliked. But as a trans person (or at the time, an androgynous teenager), I would have total strangers offer unsolicited compliments and criticisms about my body, and that was a major focal point; it made my dysphoria so much worse.

Here's the thing: like anybody else, trans people modify their bodies for both themselves and society. A person as both an individual and a member of society are not parts of yourself you can neatly compartmentalise. Our ideas of gender, beauty, and health are a hybrid of the two influences. I can't speak for all trans people, but the pursuit of cosmetic 'passibility' is not just about validation. It's about safety and freedom from self-consciousness. On my best days, I can make peace with my gender dysphoria and get on with life. I get so absorbed in doing things I love and spending quality time with friends and family that I totally forget that I'm living with my condition.

Then, when you inevitably catch someone staring at you, or, worse, obviously scrutinising specific areas of your body or giving you repeated once-overs, your sense of physical and psychological safety takes a hit. My surgery has largely freed me from that fear. I recognise that it's not the answer to every unpleasant aspect of my transness, but in this case, I made a decision about what was right for me, and subsequent experiences have vindicated it.

'Deception' implies that something isn't real, and I think that people's understanding of 'reality' is more variable and elusive than most people would like to admit. Elizabeth Wilson wrote in her book Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity that people's distrust and scorn for clothing, makeup, and other forms of body adornment or modification is 'a 'muddle' about 'the natural person being the real thing... Human beings, however, are not natural. They do not live primarily by instinct. They live in socially constructed cultures.' I love that, because historically, social constructs that define what's real or not often work to the exclusion of minorities, and are interpreted as set in stone when they're, in fact, always in flux."