We live in a culture where plastic surgery is extremely common. We also live in a culture where people who get plastic surgery aren’t supposed to talk about it, and where it’s a subject of shame. The pressure to be ashamed of plastic surgery comes from all angles. Celebrity tabloids mock ‘surgery gone wrong,’ or make snide remarks about people who apparently can’t appeal without surgery — even though those self-same tabloids are the ones tearing women apart for not looking ‘perfect’ as they age, thus pushing women to get plastic surgery if they want to retain public-facing careers. Meanwhile, those who think of themselves as social justice inclined like to get on the case of people who choose surgery on the grounds that they’re not accepting their bodies or that they’re capitulating to the patriarchy.
Neither class impresses me. Both classes are wrong, though for different reasons. The problem of celebrity tabloids is fairly obvious, but the arguments against the extremely popular ‘social justice’ attitudes about plastic surgery are more complicated.
My most obvious and clearcut frustration with snide remarks about plastic surgery is that for some people, it’s a necessity. While people may refer to it as ‘reconstructive’ surgery, it’s still plastics — and people need plastics training and experience to do it well. All those breast enlargement surgeries provide surgeons with the toolset they need to reconstruct breasts after mastectomy for patients who want the procedure, or to perform gender confirmation surgery on trans women who want larger breasts or want to address the look of their breasts. The same goes for other gender confirmation surgeries, which heavily integrate plastics experience and skills — when you trash people for getting surgery, you’re saying that transgender people don’t deserve to seek bodies they feel more comfortable in, to align their bodies with who they are. Excusing it by saying ‘but I didn’t mean you’ is ridiculous — we don’t accept that argument for other kinds of discriminatory comments.
People may also need reconstructive surgery after injuries and accidents, or to address congenital impairments — for example, I know numerous people who have had nose jobs to correct deviated septums and sinus abnormalities. Are they bad people for seeking rhinoplasty? No, they’re people who want to be able to breathe comfortably and are interested in reducing the risk of complications from colds and sinus infections. Are people who seek skin grafting after burn injuries horrible people who have no self-confidence? No. The same goes for scores of reconstructive surgeries performed to make people feel more comfortable in their bodies, to address serious medical conditions, to restore range of motion.
But people shouldn’t need a legitimate medical excuse to get surgery — no one should be required to present the ‘oh, but I’m a good plastics patient’ card. Reinforcing a divide between good/bad plastics serves to further shame people who seek surgeries for other reasons. Yes, the dreaded ‘cosmetic’ surgery.
It would be nice to live in a world where we all love our bodies, but we don’t. And it would be nice to live in a world where looks didn’t matter, but they do. These factor heavily into the ways people present themselves, and they can include surgery. This concept may be alien to some, but everyone is at a different level of body acceptance, and sometimes people lack confidence in their bodies and feel insecure. For them, surgery, after careful consideration, consults, and thought, can feel incredibly empowering.
I was struck, honestly, by a scene in this season’s Grey’s Anatomy where Jackson Avery conducts a plastics consult with a patient who says she wants a breast enlargement. He meets with her, he shows her various simulated options, and then he tells her he’s not going to book an appointment. When asked why he’d turn down the surgery, Avery explains that it’s clear to him that the woman is getting the enlargement for her boyfriend, not for herself, and that he wants to work with patients who are choosing to empower themselves and feel good about their bodies through surgery.
People claiming that cosmetic surgery is gross or objectifying or unnecessary are shaming people for whom perhaps it was necessary, who experience better self-esteem and an increased sense of comfort in themselves and their bodies as a result. There’s a great deal of criticism of ‘I choose my choice’ approaches to social justice, and I respect where that is coming from, but I disagree.
Talking openly about plastic surgery and why we get it can break down some of this stigma, but more importantly, it can focus the lens on why people feel like they need cosmetic surgery to feel more confident in themselves. Shaming people for getting it serves to make it impossible for them to talk openly about their decisions and the motivations behind them, and it makes it that much harder to build a body acceptance movement for everyone.
If I decide that I hate my nose, that it’s impeding my quality of life, that I feel emotional distress every time I look at it in the mirror, cosmetic surgery might be an option for me to control my appearance, to take back my face. I’d want to consider it carefully and meet with a surgeon to discuss the risks and benefits, but it’s still my choice. And guess what: Thanks to the stigma against surgery, I wouldn’t be able to talk openly about it, and I wouldn’t be able to connect with people who have noses like mine and love them, to find a community of people who can talk about how they’ve come to embrace how they look. I would miss out on the opportunity to make a truly informed decision about my surgery, and a chance to maybe rethink my feelings about my nose. In this sense, ‘love your body’ culture becomes a weapon to beat me and isolate me from a real opportunity to love my body.
Image: Surgery instruments, RA Torsten Kellotat, Flickr