Beauty is the Beast
An Argument Against Cosmetic Surgery
An improvised explosive device (IED) struck a taxi in Baghdad, harming 18-month-old Teeba Fadhil and her 3-year-old brother. The explosion killed Teeba’s brother and left her with second-degree burns on her hands and head. She spent the next 40 days in the hospital and was left with significant scarring. Dr. Gosain, and ASPS Member Surgeon, began treating Teeba by inserting a series of tissue expanders. These expanders harvest skin grown on healthy parts of her body to restore the burns on her face. He aimed to restore not only Teeba’s appearance, but also her confidence. Today, she lives in Cleveland with Barbara Marlowe, her foster mother who adopted her after the accident, and who helped her undergo reconstructive surgery. She’s living the life of a normal teenage girl in America. She’s attending school, is fluent in English, and has made many friends since her operation. Teeba said in a recent interview: “A lot of people were scared of me before my surgery, but now I don’t look any different, and people don’t notice my scars” (Reconstructing Lives).
Thirty-six year old Misty Lehman lives in Illinois, married, and has three children. “Most of my life I’ve felt that my nose doesn’t quite suit me. It was long, crooked, and had a bulbous tip. As for my breasts, a late growth spurt in my early twenties brought me to 5’6″ and a 38 baby B cup. I thought a nice bust would “round out” my figure. I have wide shoulders and hips, and tops that fit my shoulders are loose in my chest. So, I’ve decided to have a breast augmentation to a size D, as well” she stated. She decided to undergo cosmetic surgery, and got a rhinoplasty (nose alteration), and breast augmentation. Misty’s surgery was successful, however for months after the surgery she was on various anti-nausea, pain killing medications, was required to wear bandages, and limit her movement. “I know that recovery will be uneven and happen in spurts, but I’m patient because I’ve lived with my breasts and nose this long; I can certainly wait it out for a year to see what the results will be” (Face Forum).
Many people don’t realize that the term ‘plastic surgery’ is divided into two very different types of surgery: reconstructive and cosmetic. According to the definition adopted by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1989, “Cosmetic surgery is performed to reshape normal structures of the body in order to improve the patient’s appearance and self-esteem.” The AMA defines reconstructive surgery as surgery “performed on abnormal structures of the body, caused by congenital defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma, infection, tumors or disease. It is generally performed to improve function, but may also be done to approximate a normal appearance.” Both of these surgeries are so different in concept, that I find it hard to group the two together under the term ‘plastic surgery’. In Teeba’s case, she had reconstructive surgery to repair burn damage that was caused by an explosive. Her case is radically different from Misty’s, who chose surgery to “perfect” her body. Cosmetic surgery feeds unrealistic images of beauty, perpetuates cultural obsession with youth. It’s a health risk, addictive, expensive, and can cause psychological harm.
Standards of beauty depend on being special and unusual. That’s one of the reasons the ideal changes over time. When images of beauty change, female bodies are expected to change, too. For thousands of years aspects of the female body and varying images of each body part have been modified to meet the constantly fluctuating ideal (Freedman, 1986). The Chinese may have been the first to develop the concept that the female body can and should be altered from its natural state. The practice of foot binding illustrates the objectification of parts of the female body as well as the demands placed on women to conform to beauty ideals. Tribes in Africa wore neck rings, which over time push the collarbone and ribs down. The weight of the coils eventually causes the shoulder blade to deform and give the illusion of an elongated neck. The Maasai tribe would pierce their ears with thorns, and stretch the earlobe using twigs, stones, and elephant tusks. In the sixteenth century, European women bound themselves into corsets of whalebone and hardened canvas. A piece of metal or wood ran down the front to flatten the breasts and abdomen. This garment made it impossible to bend at the waist and difficult to breathe (Larratt). The search for beauty and eternal youth continues, and today modern technology has made radical changes possible. Fat can be literally sucked out of the body, body parts can be reduced or enlarged through surgery, and wrinkles can be erased.
Body modifications in the past caused harm to the human body: Chinese women could hardly walk due to their broken toes. European women were left with crushed ribs, organ deformation, and relied on the corset structure for support. Cosmetic surgery today has just as many, if not more, risks that can lead to discomfort, or even death. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) statistics reported over 15 million surgeries were given during 2011. According to plastic surgeon Dr. Yoho, one in five-hundred people die from plastic surgery a year. That means that during 2011, thirty-thousand people died from plastic surgery. Side effects come alongside surgery, that may lead to various other health problems. According to M.D. cosmetic surgery anesthesia expert Barry L Friedberg, anesthetic used during cosmetic surgery is a risk in itself. “General anesthetic, the predominant choice of anesthesia for cosmetic surgery, includes many unnecessary, unavoidable and potentially fatal risks to patients choosing to have surgery for non-medical reasons.” These risks include: blood clots in the lungs, airway mishaps leading to lack of oxygen in the brain, postoperative nausea and vomiting, and postoperative cognitive disorder. In 2004, novelist Olivia Goldsmith checked into well respected Manhattan’s Eye Ear and Throat Hospital for a minor surgery – a chin tuck. Goldsmith opted for general anesthesia, and within four minutes she was in a coma from which she’d never awake (Gardner).
By participating in cosmetic surgery, people flee from the realities of aging and seek change because traits associated with age are deemed unattractive by society. They want to avoid being themselves, but they claim to do it for themselves. Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, insists that such individuals both deny themselves the opportunity to understand our shared human condition of physical vulnerability, mortality, and impermanence. By changing their bodies they also reinforce harmful conceptions of normality through their actions. In effect, their actions increase pressure to fit the norm.
Our society enforces ideals of beauty through the workplace. According to economist Daniel Hamermesh, attractive people make an average of $250,000 more than average looking people in a lifetime. In 2004, Charles Baum of Middle Tennessee State University, reported in the journal Health Economics that obesity could lower a woman’s annual earnings by as much as 6.2% and a man’s by as much as 2.3%. Youth appearance is also enforced in our media: movies and television we watch, magazines we read, billboards we see – all showcase attractive people without wrinkles or signs of aging. In a New York Times article by Dominique Browning titled “The Case for Laugh Lines”, he discusses cosmetic surgery, and why so many are getting work done.
“This is about the birth of yet another “ism” among boomers: ageism. We’ve crossed a line; we are angry that we’re growing old. We’re angry at people who remind us what aging looks like. We are colluding in an elaborate social compact to convince ourselves that we don’t have to go there. And no one wants to say that the Emperor and Empress look better with naked faces.”Under the pressures of the media, workplace, and our peers, many people subject themselves to a single surgery. This leads to another surgery. And another. Some people don’t realize before the first procedure that it will, in fact, need to be replaced after several years, or it will wear off and wrinkles will show again (Louis).
Not only will the procedures wear off, some may rupture, scar, or need further surgery for replacement. A study led by Drs. Teri L. Hernandez and Robert H. Eckel of the University of Colorado, revealed that a year after liposuction, all fat lost returns to the body. In the study, the researchers randomly assigned non-obese women to have liposuction on their protuberant thighs and lower abdomen or to refrain from having the procedure, serving as controls. They monitored the patients, and after only a year all of the fat returned to their bodies. However, it did not reappear in the women’s thighs. Instead, Dr. Eckel said, “it was redistributed upstairs,” mostly in the upper abdomen, but also around the shoulders and triceps of the arms (Kolata). The most common cosmetic surgery is breast augmentation, receiving 364,000 patients a year according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. “Many of my first-time patients come in thinking breast augmentation is like a rhinoplasty or liposuction—you do it, it looks good and then you forget about it,” says Foad Nahai, M.D., a plastic surgeon and author of The Art of Aesthetic Surgery: Principles & Techniques. “One of the first things I tell them is ‘This implant is not permanent and it will inevitably fail and have to be changed.’ It’s remarkable how many people aren’t aware of that” he says.
Many people who consider plastic surgery have various psychological disorders, or may develop them after a procedure. One of the most common is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or when a person sees various flaws of their body. Most individuals with BDD often describe their preoccupation as “tormenting” or “devastating” and difficult to control (Mayo Clinic). University of Pennsylvania psychology professor David B. Sarwer explains that body dissatisfaction has to cross a line to be considered BDD: “It’s when it begins to interfere with daily functioning. Patients with more severe BDD struggle to maintain social relationships and have difficulty getting to work or staying employed.” Cosmetic surgeons prior to surgery are supposed to check patients for BDD and other disorders, but many turn their heads and operate anyway.
On an episode of Natural Geographic’s documentary television series Taboo, part time model Sheyla Hurshey confesses to her addiction to cosmetic surgery. “I had five procedures on my nose, I do Botox every month, I had liposuction, butt implants, I had a tummy tuck, and two ribs removed to have my tiny little waist!” she exclaims. When she was nineteen she had her first breast augmentation, and every six months she went back under the knife to get her breasts enlarged. After twenty-two surgeries thirteen years later, she now has a triple K cup size, which is 85 fluid ounces of saline in each breast. During an enlargement surgery in Brazil, she contracted a potentially lethal bacterial infection in her breasts. Sheyla refused to have the implants removed at first, even though she would lose her life if she did not have the procedure. “Before I had my implants, people would tell me I was a fat person. They would make fun of me and tell me I had a flat chest. I was unhappy with myself, so that’s why I changed. I don’t think I could live without my breasts” says Sheyla. “This childhood trauma was most-likely the cause of her body dysmorphic disorder, and the reason why she’s undergone so many surgeries” says Dr. Boucek, after examining Sheyla’s infection. Boucek removed her implants, cut out the worst of her infection, and cleaned the cavity with saline solution. Her life was saved, and many people complimented her on her new size, but she was still distraught. Fifteen months after her infection, she had another cosmetic surgery to bring her back to size triple K.
Imagine an American society where the quality and meaning of life for humans isn’t dependent on self-image. Imagine a society where bodies are decorated for fun and to express creativity rather than for self-control and self-worth. Cosmetic surgery is one of the prime enforcers of the unrealistic view of beauty. It causes health risks, it’s addictive, can cause psychological harm, and it’s entirely unnecessary. So much time and effort is spent trying to be beautiful; imagine what would happen if humans liberated all of the energy that had been absorbed in beautification.
“Reconstructing Lives: A Journey from Chaos to Calm.” Teeba’s Story:The American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.plasticsurgery.org/articles-and-galleries/patient-stories/reconstructing-lives/reconstructing-lives-teeba-fadhils-story.html>.
“Misty’s Story.” Nose Reshaping (Rhinoplasty) in New Jersey,. Face Forum. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.faceforum.com/personal_experiences/visitors/Misty-202-story.aspx>.
“Medical Science.” American Medical Association. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-science.page>.
Freeman, Jo. Women: A Feminist Perspective. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 1986. Print.
Larratt, Shannon, and Philip Barbosa. Modcon: The Secret World of Extreme Body Modification. [Canada]: Bmezine.com, 2002. Print.
Report of the 2010 Plastic Surgery Statistics. ASPS Public Relations, 2011. PDF.
“Estimated Death Rate for Cosmetic Surgery Related Procedures.” Liposuction Los Angeles. Dr. Yoho. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.dryoho.com/dr-yoho/clinical/deaths-cosmetic-surgery.cfm>.
Gardner, Ralph. “New York Magazine.” The Death of Novelist Olivia Goldsmith. New York News & Features. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. <http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9852/>.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2003. Print.
Hamermesh, Daniel. “Futurity: Discover the Future.” Futurity.org â Pretty Is Profitable: $250,000 on Average. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://www.futurity.org/society-culture/pretty-is-profitable-250000-on-average/>.
Browning, Dominique. “The Case for Laugh Lines.” Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 26 May 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
Louis, Cathrine. “Skin Deep: When Plastic Surgery Calls for a Do-Over.” Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/fashion/29Skin.html?ref=plasticsurgery>.
Kolata, Gina. “With Liposuction, the Belly Finds What the Thighs Lose.” Nytimes.com. New York Times. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/weekinreview/01kolata.html>.
Welch, Liz. “What No One Ever Tells You About Breast Implants.” Glamour. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.glamour.com/health-fitness/2006/10/breast-implants>.
Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Definition.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 05 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/body-dysmorphic-disorder/DS00559>.
Morris, Abraham. “Taboo Beauty.” Taboo. National Geographic. 2010. Television.