Sunday, February 8, 2015

Conforming or Rebelling-- Women, Plastic Surgery, and Tattooing

When approached objectively, cosmetic plastic surgery fits completely within the definition of traditional body modification. It serves to beautify the subject according to one set of socially common aesthetics; it's a status symbol, typically indicating a degree of wealth; it's painful, but has a relatively slim margin of danger. Most people, however, would never classify liposuction or breast implants with other American body modifications like nose piercings or tattoos. In Western culture, the former implies vanity and a place in the upper echelons of "the establishment," while the latter is more often associated with rebellion and defiance. One caters to photoshop-esque contemporary beauty standards, while the other gives such archetypal ideals the middle finger.

Is one of these pictures so different from the other?

One major factor that affects the way we view cosmetic surgery, as opposed to tattooing or piercing, is that a vast majority (95% or so) of those who get optional plastic surgery are women, while the gender gap in tattooing is now closing fast, though it still slightly favors men. Since most plastic surgery patients are women, and since plastic surgery helps patients conform more closely to societal beauty norms, people often assume that women who get cosmetic surgery are vain, superficial, insecure, and operating under social pressure rather than independent agency. That Victoria Pitts-Taylor is aware of these stereotypes is clear from the beginning of her book, where she plays into them by describing a repeat cosmetic surgery patient as an "affluent widow." Would a man seeking cosmetic surgery ever be described in terms of his marital status? And since women's body types and appearances affect them every day, is it fair to assume that a woman who makes a conscious choice to enhance socially-approved characteristics is weak-headed, foolish, incapable of making her own choices? 

The degree of truth in such stereotypes is impossible to determine. However, I think it only fair to start with the presumption that the same degree of rational agency exists in women who modify themselves to suit societal norms as in women who modify themselves to pursue nontraditional ideas of beauty.  

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