Teenagers and Cosmetic Surgery

Why are more and more young women opting for breast implants? Catherine Redfern offers an explanation.

, 16 April 2001

Cast your mind back to the start of 2001. The news was full of debates around

cosmetic surgery, particularly breast enlargements. It was all sparked off by 15

year old Jenna Franklin, who was thrust into the spotlight when she decided to

have breast implants for her 16th birthday. Her mother, who herself had had two

breast operations, and who runs her own plastic surgery business, said she and

her husband would happily pay the £3,250 for the operation.

Jenna was articulate, slim, and pretty, but explained her decision saying she

was unhappy with her body and that a breast enlargement would give her more

self-confidence and get rid of her hang-ups. She also asserted that you need

big breasts to be successful in life, naming various celebrities such as Britney

Spears and Pamela Anderson as proof.

If she waits a while, her breasts might grow bigger.

Problem solved![pulloutbox]

There was a flurry of press comment and criticism. She’s far too young, they

said (i.e. if she was a bit older there’d be no problem); she probably hasn’t

finished growing, they said (i.e. if she waits a while, she might get bigger

breasts, then she’ll be okay); she’s emotionally too young to cope with the

repercussions, they said.

No-one seemed to question the fundamental assumptions behind it: that ‘big’

breasts are desirable; why breasts are such an issue; that if a woman thinks she

has small breasts she should want to change them.

Soon after, Channel 4 showed a documentary called ‘Perfect Breasts’,

investigating the apparently growing phenomenon of young women opting for

cosmetic enhancement. The programme featured women and girls explaining how

they were unhappy with their bodies, and how they ‘just want to look

normal.’ Interesting. The bit I remember most is a scene of two sisters, both

who’d had breast implants, eating dinner with their parents and discussing the

possibility that they may never be able to breast feed a baby. The younger

sister said it didn’t bother her in the slightest, that the very idea of her

breasts being used to nourish a baby was repulsive. “They’re sex objects, to

me” she explained with gusto, giggling, “Sex objects!” Her father mumbled

nervously in protest. “Most natural thing you can do, breast feeding…” but he

was soon drowned out by the chatter from the women. It struck me as

humorous, strangely sad, and also telling about different

attitudes to the humble breast.

Now, teenagers having cosmetic surgery is not new. It’s been happening

in the USA for years. In the richer American cultures for their 16th birthday,

boys get a car, girls get a nose-job. Even over here the issue is old news. In

1998 the BBC investigated younger and younger girls having cosmetic surgery, and

plastic surgeons willing to offer it to them. In 1999 they reported what women

wanted; Emma Bunton’s nose, Melinda Messenger’s breasts, thighs of Naomi

Campbell, etc. Recently WH Smith began stocking ‘Cosmetic Surgery Magazine’.

[pulloutbox]What’s behind this are some unquestioned assumptions

about womens bodies[pulloutbox]

It’s not the specific issue of breast implants I am talking about really.

Neither is it the young age of these girls: I’ve argued in another

article that 16 years olds should be treated as young women and their

opinions respected (only if they agree with me, of course! ;-)). The solution is

not to ban 16 year olds from having plastic surgery, or ban it altogether. I’m

all for the fundamental right of women to do what they want with their bodies

and make their own decisions about their lives. BUT I believe there is a more

fundamental issue here; that what’s behind this are some unquestioned

assumptions about womens bodies that our society subscribes to. These

assumptions are:

1. Something is fundamentally wrong with the female body and it’s natural to

be unhappy with it.

It’s not just natural teenage insecurity either. In our society, adult female

bodies are treated like mistakes that continually need correcting. It’s too

smelly, it’s too hairy, it’s the wrong shape, it’s the wrong colour. We’re seen

to be badly designed somehow, needing extra stuff to make them okay. Being

unhappy about your body is often presented as one of the essential personality

traits of women, if we believe what society tells us. I’ve heard many times

suggested, often humorously, that in the darkest ages of humankind, women were

whining to their caveman mates, ‘does my bum look big in this loincloth?’ Silly

yes, but there’s also a subtext that says it’s something women have always done

and will always do. We just instinctively hate our bodies, and, we are brought

up to believe, with good reason.

[pulloutbox]There is something in all these exaggerations that we are

supposed to relate to[pulloutbox]

Take Bridget Jones and her ilk. Women who are obsessed with how

they look, the size of their bum, and convinced they are the wrong shape are an

absolute staple of women’s fiction, and Bridget is hailed as representing

‘everywoman’. Of course Bridget is humorous, and exagerrates the obsessiveness

to comic effect; but the fact is there is something in all exagerrations that we

are supposed to understand and relate to. They simultaneously take the piss out

of such irrational concerns and enable us to sympathise with them, whilst

stuffing us with the unsubtle morality: maybe you’re not as fat as you think you

are and maybe just maybe, looks don’t matter that much. Well gee, thanks for

pointing that one out!

How many times have you had to convince your friends that their bum is not as

big as they think it is? I’ve heard this from the skinniest friends of mine,

obsessing about parts of their bodies. It’s come to something when the best way

to comfort and reassure them is to act like you’re jealous; ‘Your bum’s

nonexistent, you bitch!’ The TV fashion and beauty programme ‘She’s Gotta

Have It’, trailed their new series mentioning ‘the hang ups we all have’. The

hang ups we all have. Proves my point perfectly.

It’s almost seen as an essential part of the female experience. If I was to

say, if asked, that I’m completely happy with my body and wouldn’t want to

change it, I’d be viewed as an arrogant cow. Who does she think she is? What’s

the question female celebrities are usually asked in interviews? ‘If you could

change any part of your body, what would it be?’ Surely we can come closer to a

feminist critique of the beauty myth than letting celebrities and models admit

that, guess what? They hate their bodies too.

2. If we’re unhappy about our bodies, we should change it. And, women are

changeable creatures.

If you think there’s something wrong with your body, change it. If your lips

arn’t the right shape, fake it. If your hair is the wrong colour, dye it. If

your skin isn’t matte enough or glossy enough or good enough, change it. If your

eyelashes are too thin, change it. If your body isn’t good enough, get

something done.

Girls who’ve been brought up on the idea that our bodies can be altered at a

whim by make-up and everything else, think of cosmetic surgery as the next

logical step. People who attack cosmetic surgery but don’t see the connection

with other forms of women changing and camoflaging our bodies to fit the social

norms are missing something deeper.

I’m not saying that if you wear lipstick you will eventually have a boob job.

Of course not. But I think it’s on the same spectrum; something you do to

change yourself and make yourself acceptable. If you put on makeup every day

to face the world, to correct and improve your face, you are falling for the

same lie; the underlying idea that there is something unacceptable about you

that needs to be corrected.

[pulloutbox]I can’t deny the fact that makeovers are fun!

I’m aware I sound really radical here! I’m torn every day between my feminist

ideals and the impulse to just – well, lighten up. I don’t know

where the dividing line is between adorning and decorating our bodies to add

colour and fun to the world, and changing our bodies to present a false

image to be acceptable. Where does one end and the other begin? It’s a tricky

one. On the one hand I refute the concept that there is an unchangable standard

of beauty and it’s only natural and right that women should try to attain it.

But on the other, I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with having a

fashionable hair cut, being interested in trendy clothes, or being bright and

colourful. And I can’t deny the fact that makeovers are just – well –

fun! Nevertheless, I think that women are seen, far more than men, as

changable creatures. As Richard Madely from ‘This Morning’ said, before a

foreign young woman who’d never worn make-up before underwent a makeover; ‘She’s

a real blank canvas’. As the Head and Shoulders ad with the Mona Lisa wannabe

puts it; ‘a work of art’. She literally is a blank canvas; painted by a man.

Nothing demonstrates more clearly that women are seen as

changeable creatures than the makeover. The traditional before and after shots;

the gasps when the ‘new’ woman is brought out ‘you look amamzing!’ the fact of

how completely different they look surely says something about how femininity is

a construction. Ever noticed that men who have makeovers don’t look as different

as the women tend to do? Does this mean that women are essentially, inherently,

blank canvases to be filled in and altered by fashion stylists, make-up

artists – or plastic surgeons? I’d like to think not.

There are many, many examples of the makeover factor, and of women being

encouraged to change themselves to fit in with what other people think they

should be.

The coolest character gets madeover and is instantly more

acceptable and attractive

At the end of the film The Breakfast Club, the coolest female

character who dresses in black, sulks and peers out from under her duffle coat

through thick black eyeliner, gets madeover and is instantly more attractive

and acceptable to the other characters. She’s forced into white, prissy clothes

– an alice-band, for goodness sake – and gets to wear make-up, which instantly

makes her look far better, of course, and allows her to get the guy. In

Grease, Sandy only gets to be popular when she rejects her uncool look

and fakes it as a raunchy leather-clad wild-child. As an uncool girl myself at

school, it seemed like a surrender. Similarly, I remember watching

Neighbours years ago, when plain Jane gets made-over for a prom and

emerges sparkling into the living room and shocks her date, who had previously

been grumpily expecting to have to go to the prom with the ugly girl. How many

times have we seen that tired plot line?

Many times, in stories like Cinderella and My Fair Lady,

updated for modern times by Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock

plays an ‘unladylike’ FBI agent who gets to work undercover as a beauty queen.

The trailers showed a male collegue shouting at her ‘Don’t worry – no-one thinks

of ya that way.’ Presumably, when she emerges swaying in a tight pink dress,

hair gleaming, they darn well do.

So, breast surgery is just a type of makeover for girls who want to ‘look

normal’. Nevertheless, some women have claimed that getting a boob job is a

feminist act. All the women who get breast enlargements will claim they are

doing for themselves, not for anyone else; they’re doing it to empower

themselves. Of course they are doing it for themselves. Who else would they be

doing it for? But the fact is, they’re doing it so they’ll be happy with their

own body, in a breast obsessed society. I find it hard to believe that if they

lived in a remote society and had never heard of cosmetic surgery, they’d

somehow have an inherent, deep-seated unhappiness with the size of their breasts

and want to make them bigger.

It’s heartbreaking to see young women convinved there’s

something repulsive about their own bodies

So, I think this is what’s behind the breast implant boom. The underlying

expectation that women hate their bodies, which becomes a self-fulfilling

prophecy. And the idea that women are changeable, able to make ourselves over in

a few hours, or by a team of make-up artists and hair-stylists, or indeed, by a

few days spent having plastic surgery. Added to a culture obsessed with a part

of the female body – the breast at the moment, there you have it. It’s

heartbreaking to see young women convinced there’s something repulsive about

their own bodies. But you can’t condemn women for having breast implants if you

think its normal to refuse to leave the house without make-up. It springs from

the same root.

For further reading, I really recommend the excellent book The Beauty

Myth by Naomi Wolf.

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