Under the Knife

Michelle Wright looks at the increasing normalisation of extreme cosmetic surgery in British culture.

Michelle Wright, 5 November 2005

It's no revelation that today's women are expected more than ever to avoid 'letting themselves go'. Messages from the media, and consequently, messages from within ourselves never let us forget that we should hold on to and maintain those 'youthful good looks' and work at keeping "a trim figure".

This notion affects females of all ages with those in their twenties trading anti-ageing moisturisers with their mothers at Christmas. However, for a growing number of young women- particularly those about to start university - the quest for immortal good looks doesn't stop there.

more and more are opting for cosmetic surgery

Instead, more and more are opting for cosmetic surgery. Surgeons in the UK are reporting a demand for procedures such as breast enlargement, lip augmentation and nose jobs from female undergraduates who feel the results from going under the knife will give them the self-esteem and confidence they need to fit in and make new friends on campus.

If this doesn't prove that modern society's obsession with women's appearance has reached almost hysterical proportions, I don't know what does.

Why would any young, supposedly smart, woman feel the need to go on the operating table just so she can fit in? It reads like one of those nightmare Hollywood teen girl movies come to life.

Except this isn't Hollywood and these aren't high-school girls. These are young, educated women whose journeys of growing knowledge and independence are being halted by the message that the real key to getting ahead is to maintain model good looks.

are we really living in that superficial a world?

Are we really living in that superficial a world that a young woman feels the shape of her lips will prevent her from making friends and doing well in her studies? Why has she been made to feel this way?

Why? Because she is in the firing line every single day. There's a never-ending bombardment of air-brushed, vacuous celebrities in glossy magazines hailing the latest work they've had done; a significant proportion of conversation on reality TV revolves around the size of the female contestants' breasts and the surgery they had to acquire them; not to mention a slew of shows centered around the concept of cosmetic surgery itself whether it be Nip/Tuck or Extreme Makeover. This media is all marketed at young women. It should come as no surprise then that a few are likely to get hit with its skewed notions of beauty.

While some women may positively choose cosmetic surgery to correct features about themselves that have caused years of misery in order to boost their self-confidence, I find it sad that often the only thing making these women feel unattractive and worthless is not something that's inherently ugly about themselves, but simply the way they have been made to feel unattractive because of those ideals a patriarchal society place on her.

a never-ending bombardment of air-brushed, vacuous celebrities

It's all neatly encapsulated in the Channel 4 programme, Ten Years Younger, the ultimate advert for our society's male-manufactured ideals of beauty.

Each week one person (and nine times out of 10 it's a woman) gets a complete makeover with the aim of making them look 'ten years younger'. Before the makeover can begin though, it needs to be assessed just how much 'work' needs to be done.

A male voice-over critiques where exactly the woman has gone wrong. And this is done in a sort of mocking, "Oh dear, we need to sort that," kind of tone. It's hard to avoid interpreting this anonymous male voice as anything other than representing a patriarchal society's standards of female beauty and deriding women when they fail to adhere to them.

The male voice-over suggests the makeover is being done for the benefit of men. The underlying message seems to be, 'become physically attractive to men and you're all right'. If not... well, there's always TV makeover shows.

the tone of the show is somewhat light and superficial

There are a few stages to the show's anti-ageing process- each woman is given a new haircut, make-up and goes on a shopping trip for new clothes.

But the most disturbing thing to me about this process of 'transformation'- especially given the fact that the tone of the show is somewhat light and superficial - is the emphasis on cosmetic surgery. Every woman finds herself going under the knife to reconstruct a perfectly healthy nose or to lift a face that doesn't need lifting- all in the name of looking younger.

Every time, she's overwhelmed with the results (I doubt it would be otherwise with TV cameras there and all), declaring to only look younger but feel better too.

The idea that women need to be physically attractive to get ahead - furthered by the proliferation of cosmetic surgery - seems as arbitrary to me as the beliefs that circulated prior to the first and second-wave feminist movements; that a woman's possession of a womb meant she lacked the mental capability to vote in a general election or that she was best off in the kitchen. Yet, these supposed truths were eventually exposed as man-made myths, espoused to keep women in their place. The fact these myths ever existed can seem ridiculous to us now.

supposed truths were eventually exposed as man-made myths

But what has yet to be accepted as equally ridiculous is the current man-made myth that women should undergo such procedures as 'chemical peeling' (putting acid onto the face which creates a burning sensation and blistering to remove wrinkles and blemishes) as a way of improving themselves and getting ahead.

A website giving information about face-lifts lists some pros and cons to consider. The benefits of such a procedure include increased confidence, being able to apply make-up easier and being able to wear clothes with lower necklines as well as looking younger. The risks? Bleeding, infection, scarring and nerve damage. That so many women undergo cosmetic treatments despite these risks, shows just how deep the latest man-made myth has carved itself into our culture.

If these procedures were carried out on animals, there would be charges made for animal cruelty. More fuss is caused over the cruelty bestowed on foxes by hunting than there is over the dropping of acid onto women's faces. OK, so the woman isn't forced into having surgery but isn't the very existence of these procedures and the idea that she would look a lot better if she had them- perpetuated by programmes like Ten Years Younger - similarly cruel?

signs of old age in men signal wisdom and authority

It strikes me as not only being an extreme and expensive (never mind painful) thing to do in order to look good, but also one that I don't see many men having to endure.

While cosmetic treatments for men are available, in our society signs of old age in men signal wisdom and authority - in women it means they've 'let themselves go.'

It's hard to make this point without making all women look like powerless victims of the male standard of beauty enforced upon them - and it's true that this "victimhood" idea should be avoided. In fact there are many women in society who deride cosmetic surgery and the number of articles in the press which have exposed what some women look like when surgery goes wrong, are bound to have put off a few women.

But enough women are still willing to go under the knife every year, not only sustaining the industry, but causing it to grow. And it's not just 50-something women who want to look younger. If the idea that growing old naturally is something to be 'corrected' isn't depressing enough, now healthy young women are being made to feel inadequate for reasons that defy common sense, but serve to maintain the subordinate position of women in relation to men.

now healthy young women are being made to feel inadequate

The belief that success, confidence and happiness come as a result of being physically attractive isn't women's liberation. No: it just enslaves us more. It further ties us to our bodies, our physicality, without any regard for our minds. It ensures we become glowing pound signs and willing guinea pigs for the male-owned beauty corporations and male surgeons.

Where is the freedom in being pressured to hand over our bodies with a price tag attached to be corrected so that we can feel valuable in society?

Where is the equality in a consultation between a 50-year-old woman explaining how her emerging wrinkles are a major issue and the 50-year-old male surgeon, equally wrinkled, but prodding and poking and suggesting the woman should be fixed? Why doesn't the 50-year-old surgeon feel compelled to look in the mirror and go under his own knife?

Intelligent, successful and attractive-as-they-are females, while making gains in the workplace and exercising equal political rights, still book appointments with cosmetic surgeons in order to improve their looks.

And now women of university-age are being targeted. So where will it stop? Inculcated with such extreme notions of beauty at such a young age, who's to say they won't need liposuction to fit into their graduation gown, a face-lift to impress the job interview panel and Botox to achieve that promotion?

About the author

Michelle Wright

Michelle Wright is one of those much maligned media studies graduates, so inevitably she has a job completely unrelated to her degree. She prefers her own company, loves loud rock music and has a tendency to think too much.

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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