Why do we still make a big fuss about plastic surgery?

Why do we still make a big fuss about plastic surgery?

Life in plastic

Text: Renée Batchelor

Is cosmetic surgery the last real beauty taboo? And should women (and men) be shamed or feel ashamed for undergoing procedures?

Plastic surgery is one of the last great taboos in beauty. As the world becomes more culturally aware, we are slowly beginning to see more diversity: There's a growing acceptance of a multitude of skin tones, features, body shapes and even hair types. Advertisements and even television shows make it a point to showcase diverse-looking people, because the first step in acceptance is representation.

But when it comes to cosmetic procedures, the world is much less forgiving. Much more than being a marker of great vanity — undergoing immense pain and cost simply to look better — there are so many different concepts that has become intertwined with the idea of plastic surgery. Cosmetic surgery raises so many questions. Is it the erasure of racial identity? Does it propagate the idea that perfection (and a certain homogeneity) is something that all women and men should seek? Why is the process of ageing something that should be actively battled? Even the very idea of beauty as a kind of privilege — one that some women and men are lucky enough to have, and others should just envy from afar — comes into play.

And women — both young and old — are often the first to be criticised. The model Bella Hadid is the latest celebrity in a long line, to come to the defence of her famous mien. She told InStyle, "People think I got all this surgery or did this or that. And you know what? We can do a scan of my face, darling. I'm scared of putting fillers into my lips. I wouldn't want to mess up my face." They truth is, anyone who has googled older pictures of the younger Hadid sister will see that her face has changed drastically in the past couple of years. Heck there's even a Twitter account dedicated to her old snaps that highlight a possible chin reduction, nose job and lip fillers. Her comment that she is open to having her face scanned is also slightly disingenuous, as many forms of plastic surgery (such as rhinoplasty) would not necessarily show up in a scan — even nasal implants can come from natural cartilege grafts. It is also disheartening to her young fans to see her deny something so seemingly obvious. It's hard for an unbiased observer to not notice that these changes couldn't possibly have been part of Hadid's natural ageing process and clever makeup. So what does that mean to us?

The fact that Hadid, a young woman of just 21, has to make this outright denial says so many things. First, if she did undergo the extensive plastic surgery the world and Twitteresphere believes that she did, she is deeply committed to keeping up the illusion that her showstopping beauty is 100 percent natural.  And because Hadid's face is literally her fortune (she has endorsements for tonnes of brands including Bvlgari, Dior and Tag Heuer) a lot is riding on the fact that her beauty is God-given. To put it more bluntly if Hadid, who reportedly fashioned herself after a young Carla Bruni, can 'buy' beauty, what's stopping the rest of us?


Hadid's problem is slightly different from your usual run-of-the-mill complaints about plastic surgery because her very beauty is a source not just of envy, but of immense wealth. Like an advertisement that has been heavily photoshopped, is she somehow deceiving the public if her face is one that has been constructed at the hands of a very skilled surgeon? More than two decades earlier, pop superstar Michael Jackson was heavily criticised for his various surgical procedures, that started with a nose job and was then reported to have become a laundry list of procedures that resulted in a face that was literally crumbling at the time of his death in 2009.

Fuelled by deep-seated insecurity about his looks — his father Joe Jackson used to berate him for being ugly when he was a child — it was clear, again to even the most casual onlooker that Jackson's surgeries were a sign of some deeper psychosis. There were also more than a few whisperings of him being a race denier, with the age old joke, "Only in America can a poor black boy grow up to be a rich, white woman." But beneath these jabs, jibes and frank bewilderment, there was always a sense that the more Jackson departed from a sense of psychological wellness, the more alien and plastic surgerised he looked. Even more startlingly, he denied having extensive work done, reportedly telling ABC News' Martin Bashir in 2003, "I've had no plastic surgery on my face. Just my nose. It helped me breathe better so I can hit higher notes." One of the main criticisms of cosmetic surgery is that it is tailored towards a certain white ethnocentrism — it is certainly true that many of the most popular surgeries include making the nose sharper and slimmer, the lips of a certain proportion and for Asians, having double eyelids and larger eyes. 


Altering your face via surgery is not a big taboo in some cultures. In Korea, nose jobs and double eyelid procedures are gifted as birthday presents and it's normal for entertainers, such as the members of a boyband to adopt certain homogenous features. It seems part of the 'charm' is making one member virtually indistinguishable from another, hence their standardised heights and coordinated clothes. Plastic surgery is not imbued with the sort of heavy symbolism and a sense of psychological dysfunction that is implied in other cultures, and often there is a certain practical stance to surgery, which is seen as an investment in ones' future. If plastic surgery can improve your appearance and by doing so your prospects for success in your job and in your romantic life — then why not?

In fact, in an award-winning 1993 study anthropologist Eugenia Kaw did on Asian American women, she found that while most of the women interviewed believed they were not actually unhappy with their ethnic features, they were actually undergoing surgery as “an attempt to escape persisting racial prejudice that correlates their stereotyped genetic features…with negative behavioral characteristics” (i.e. appearing 'sleepy' or 'dull')". Similarly for many anti-ageing cosmetic procedures, part of the motivation is also a desire to maintain a youthful visage, but also arguably to signify to the world that one is still young and vital. This is probably why so many men opt for procedures like blepharoplasty (removal of eyebags) in order to look awake and implicitly, still capable. It is less about attaining that golden ratio, and more about survival — or maintaining your bread basket — in the simplest sense.

In an ideal world, we will not judge and berate other people, man or woman, celebrity or not, for their cosmetic surgery choices. As for dishonesty or perhaps denial, about extensive procedures... well they will continue to rub most critics the wrong way. People simply don't like the idea that they can be hoodwinked, or the crass notion that beauty can be bought. Is the solution to be completely upfront about what you have had done — removing the stigma before others can point it out? Would we like Bella Hadid more if she simply told us the name of her plastic surgeon? Or is it a choice that solely rests on the individual? There are no clear answers, except that denying surgery will result in outrage and disdain. It seems while we may be on our way to accepting everything from saggy boobs to stretch marks, we still can't accept a beautiful face that's not God-given.