Beauty and the Breast has posted an article by Jennifer Cognard-Black, who has also written this great article on plastic surgery for Ms. Magazine. Her latest, Exporting American Beauty: Plastic Surgery and the New Culture of Worldwide Acceptance, was apparently intended for Ms., but they decided against printing it. I’d say that they missed out, and I urge you to go read the whole thing.
When discussing the social perils (rather than just physical risks) of plastic surgery, feminists generally comment on how an “ideal” cookie-cutter woman is being constructed that looks easy to emulate if you have the money and are willing to go under the knife, but isn’t. That model is generally blond, with big boobs, a flat, tight stomach, small but curvy hips, wide eyes, small nose, big lips, and high cheek bones. It’s a long list. And yet we also tend to fail to discuss that it’s not only white women trying to reach this strange blond ideal — plastic surgery patients who are women of color are using the same white model.
Yet while it’s clear that increasing numbers of women are choosing plastic surgery as a cure-all for aging or low self-esteem, what’s less clear is how such surgeries offer the promise of individual beauty when they tend to erase bodily difference in favor of a single, American ideal. This new culture of permissive plastic promotes a world in which all women can look “American”—and this particular American idol, as E. Ann Kaplan has noted, is an icon that stands for the nation-state, one that is created and sustained by pop culture but that only exists in the realm of fantasy. While this iconic woman’s body might wear many colors of skin, the most popular surgical procedures show that it will have the following “American” look: large, firm breasts; a thin waist and boyish hips; curved buttocks; long legs; symmetrical toes; a double eyelid; a smooth brow; a perpetually surprised look; bee-stung lips; and a nose like a small, pinned butterfly.
Such a limited and limiting ideal also means that these cosmetic procedures work to erase ethnicity. Caucasian women are prone to wrinkles caused by sun damage, and according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more and more are choosing brow lifts and Botox injections. When Connie Chung had eye surgery before her brief stint as an evening news anchor, she made a procedure that shapes Asian American eyes from ovals to orbs all the more acceptable, and its popularity continues to grow. In turn, more African Americans are having rhinoplasties to slim their noses, liposuction to diminish their waists and buttocks, and breast reductions to mold their cleavage into the standard shape and size, while Hispanic women are undergoing ever more breast augmentations to achieve the same outcome.
In fact, even though some plastic surgeons claim they suggest aesthetic “improvements” to women of color that are specifically geared to maintain ethnicity, the popularity and end result of the most fashionable procedures tell a different story. Regardless of a patient’s ethnicity, race, age, or nationality, women are being cut into clones. As Kim Gandy, the President of the National Organization of Women, points out, “The ‘standard’ created for Latina and African-American women’s bodies was established [in] much the same way that standards are created for women in the US and Asia—through music videos, magazines, television, and movies.” The inherent assertion of plastic surgery is that the body can be re-shaped into a single, American ideal that all women have the possibility—even the right—to achieve.
It’s frightening stuff, and it gets even worse when you take a look at the actual procedures being performed:
Walk down any urban street in any major metropolis worldwide, and the thin, tall, buxom, small-nosed, round-eyed woman you will see on billboards and storefronts is both the motivation for and the promised result of plastic surgery. In South Korea, even for girls as young as fourteen, eye jobs are the rage. An incision is made above the eyes in order to create a double lid and a wide-eyed look. In Brazil, women purchase new buttocks with silicone implants that add volume and curve. In Japan, a nerve is severed behind women’s knees to “repair” what the Japanese call daikon-ashi, or radish-shaped calves. The muscles atrophy and reduce the calves to super-slim proportions. In China, women want to be taller. To this end, their shin bones are sawed through, metal braces are affixed, and as the shins heal, the bones are slowly and painfully stretched into longer legs. And in various countries throughout Africa, not only do female genital surgeries continue to occur—including the partial or full removal of external genitalia as part of cultural and religious rites—but some African women who keep their “American” vaginas are now modifying them to resemble those found in Playboy and Hustler (easily accessed via the Internet). They’re shortening their labia minora, reconstructing their hymens, and plumping up their labia majora with injections of fat or silicone.
These trends are more than just Global Editions of Extreme Makeover; they represent a tyranny of “American Beauty,” one that is designed, exported and sold as any other US commodity. As Gandy puts it, “the United States exports a variety of mass media products that reinforce the ‘beauty standards’ established by predominantly male-owned corporations. . . . [Even] the concept of a ‘standard’ is a US export.”
So not only are we teaching women to hate their bodies, which is certainly bad enough — we’re also teaching women of color to hate their ethnicities.
And it’s not just the billboards and commercials and lack of models that aren’t white. Even when we try to praise the beauty of women of color we fuck it up. Women who are Arab, Asian, Hispanic, black with very dark skin, bi/multi-racial or of an immediately indiscernible ethnicity are often referred to as “exotic” — as though being told that you look like an immediately foreign (even when you’re not), peculiar commodity is somehow a good thing, and as if the world has somehow forgotten that “white” is not, in fact, the default plane of existence (oh wait, it has).
What we’ve been doing here, for a long time, is setting up physical goals for women that are unattainable, but with the right products and/or surgery, look attainable. When that goal is based upon white standards — which it almost always is — it becomes even more unattainable for women of color. I imagine that most feminists would agree that this (the beauty myth) is a mode of oppression against women. And I have to say that I have little patience for those who don’t:
[. . .]Kathy Davis and others have found that the stories women tell once they have undergone plastic surgery are almost always about empowerment. Patients feel more attractive, more self-assured. Provided the surgery is successful, to listen to one woman discuss her new, designer vagina isn’t all that different from listening to another talk about why she wanted to have female genital surgery as a girl. Both are no longer ashamed of their wayward body part and finally feel as though they are “normal”—as though they belong.
Well yeah, but that’s precisely the point. If women need to surgically alter their bodies, or reach an unnatural and constructed state of beauty in order to feel like they belong, or are simply normal, that is in no way a good thing. It’s coercive to those who do participate, and often insufferable, or at least highly discriminatory experience for those who don’t.
If we can accept (as I hope that most of us do) that the one beauty ideal is oppressive towards women, we need to be able to recognize that it is at least doubly oppressive towards women of color. Whereas white women are expected to forgo their natural appearance, women of color are also asked to erase their ethnicity, and therefore what is generally an important part of their identity. Since this is a phenomenon that has spread outside of the U.S., it’s also asking people to erase their local cultural notions of beauty. Since I’m opposed to any beauty ideals, I have difficulty seeing it as too huge of a loss. But I also think that if we’re going to have beauty ideals (and I imagine that we will for some time), recognizing that they are varied and culturally-constructed is important, as is allowing people to actually break down barriers instead of merely replacing one model with another, globalised and capitalist version.
I don’t think that this absorption of the white, American beauty ideal is a conscious process by any means. While there are some women who will walk into a plastic surgeon’s office with a picture and say “I want Jessica Simpson’s nose,” most use rhetoric of “evening out their features” or merely “making themselves better.” Most don’t consciously want to look like an airbrushed magazine cover. And I strongly believe that most women of color do not sit around thinking “I wish that I looked white.” But, for example, when a black woman with a broad nose sees hundreds of images of beautiful white women with thin noses, and that most famous black women also have thin noses, the message starts to seep in, not necessarily that black is ugly, but that broad noses are ugly.
Would that thin nose make her life easier? I don’t know; I haven’t seen studies on the issue, and perhaps some anecdotal evidence in the comments would be helpful. My immediate guess is no — but if it is yes, that’s even more fucked up, isn’t it?
And of course, when structuring social power by beauty ideal, most women of color are going to be at an immediate disadvantage. Not only because the beauty ideal is going to be more difficult to reach through plastic surgery, but because plastic surgery costs money. And white women are are statistically much more likely to be able to afford plastic surgery than women of color are, particularly black and Hispanic women, who are significantly more likely to be poor and have a much lower average income — which is saying a lot, since most white women can’t afford it, either, and do ridiculous things like take out loans to pay for it.
My suggestion is that if we keep going down this path, appearance is not only going to become a form of social currency. And looking “white” when you’re not (and shouldn’t want to) is not only going to become a form of social currency. Appearance is also going to become an indicator of economic class.
And in America, couldn’t refusing to get plastic surgery also become another way to blame many groups of women of color for their own poverty, just like they’re blamed now for having “too many kids” or “kids too young?” I don’t put it past racists to eventually use this as a way to claim that “the playing field has been leveled out,” when nothing could be further from the truth. On the other hand, once it becomes well-known that this kind of appearance has become popular among women of color, particularly black women, racism might also cause it to fall out of favor, like many things do once whites realize that they don’t belong to them anymore. — But that still doesn’t help women of color, now does it?
The article closes with this advice:
US feminists can no longer assume that plastic procedures are a local phenomenon—nor take for granted that only Cher and rich housewives engage in elective surgeries. Rather, we must take into account the new, global culture of plastic acceptance and counteract the impression that surgery is safe or expected. We must recognize that the rhetoric of individual choice and personal expression is often used in the service of “consumer feminism.” We must be sensitive to the fact that women’s individual experience with plastic surgery may feel empowering and figure out how to critique the institution of elective surgery without bad-mouthing specific women and their choices. And, finally, we must resist buying into a invented American standard that collapses female beauty into a single, global ideal.
I couldn’t agree more.