Saturday, September 29, 2007

Plastic Feminism

Has Artificial Beauty Become the New Feminism?
By Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ms. Magazine. Posted September 29, 2007.
How the pitch for cosmetic surgery co-opts feminism.

This spring, Sideways star Virginia Madsen became a spokesperson for Allergan Inc., the maker of Botox." Quoted in People magazine, Madsen asserts that she's made "a lot of choices" to keep herself "youthful and strong": "I work out. I eat good foods. And I also get injectables."

In celebrity promos such as Madsen's, the current pop-cultural acceptance of cosmetic medicine is clear -- and is borne out by the rising numbers of customers. Since 2000, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reports a 48 percent increase in all cosmetic (elective) procedures, both surgical, such as breast augmentations, and minimally invasive, such as the injectable wrinkle-filler Botox.

Once considered clandestine and risky, cosmetic procedures are currently treated across a variety of media as if they were as benign and mundane as whitening your teeth. Advertisers, TV producers, publishers, PR personnel and even physicians themselves are touting it as an effortless, egalitarian way for women of all backgrounds to "enhance" their looks and "stay young."

Not only have cosmetic procedures become more acceptable, but they're being promoted in less sensationalized ways to whole new markets. Increasingly, reality TV's Cinderella tale of surgical transformation is being replaced with a smart woman's narrative of enlightened self-maintenance. While Extreme Makeover and its imitators shame and blame ugly-duck patients in order for prince-surgeons to rescue them and magically unlock their inner swans through "drastic plastic" (multiple surgeries), other media sources now compliment potential customers as mature women who are "smart," "talented" and "wise." Such women are supposedly savvy enough to appreciate their own wisdom -- but, then again, they should want to soften the telltale marks of how many years it took them to acquire it. "I am not using these injectables to look 25," Madsen insists. "I don't want to be 25. I just want to look like me."

Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times reporter and author of Beauty Junkies (Doubleday, 2006) calls these latest appeals "the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics." That ignores the work of feminists from Susan Faludi to Susan Bordo, who have argued for years against the global beauty industry and its misogynistic practices. Yet the cosmetic-surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty industry has done for years: It's co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed "consumer feminism." Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are selling elective surgery as self-determination.

Moreover, much of the media covering cosmetic surgery centers on the idea of choice. Parallel to Madsen's insistence that using Botox is just another lifestyle choice with little difference from working out and eating well, Cosmetic Surgery for Dummies (For Dummies, 2005) promises that the reader will discover how to "decide whether surgery is right for you," "find a qualified surgeon," "set realistic expectations," "evaluate the cons," "make the surgical environment safe" and ultimately "make an informed choice." The word "choice" obviously plays on reproductive-rights connotations, so that consumers will trust that they are maintaining autonomy over their bodies. Yet one choice goes completely unmentioned: The choice not to consider cosmetic surgery at all.

These days, with consumers able to "choose" from among a dizzying array of procedures and providers, even the most minute areas of the female body are potential sites of worry and "intervention." Surgical procedures have been developed to reduce "bra fat," to make over belly-buttons, to "rejuvenate" vaginas after childbirth or to achieve the "Sex and the City effect" -- foot surgeries to shorten or even remove a toe in order for women to squeeze their feet into pointy shoes.

Few seem immune to the sell, no matter what their income. In fact, according to an ASPS-commissioned study, more than two-thirds of those who underwent cosmetic surgery in 2005 made $60,000 or less. Easy access to credit and the declining cost of procedures has brought even the working class into the market.

The most graphic consequences of these trends are the stretched, alien, expressionless faces worn by certain celebrities and increasing numbers of "everyday" women. There are also the disfigurements and deaths that can result from surgeries gone wrong.

At the end of Beauty Junkies, Kuczynski asserts that "looks are the new feminism." Yet it's feminists who have led the fight against silicone breast implants when research suggested they were dangerous. It's feminists who have pointed out that a branch of medicine formed to fix or replace broken, burned and diseased body parts has since become an industry serving often-misogynistic interests. And it's feminists who have emphatically and persistently shown that cosmetic medicine exists because sexism is powerfully linked with capitalism -- keeping a woman worried about her looks in order to stay attractive, keep a job or retain self-worth. To say that a preoccupation with looks is "feminist" is a cynical misreading; feminists must instead insist that a furrowed, "wise" brow -- minus the fillers -- is the empowered feminist face, both old and new.

This article is excerpted from a longer piece in Ms. Magazine. To get the whole story, pick up Ms. magazine on newsstands now.


10 comments:

The Filthy Titan said...

Man, I hate plastic surgery. It ruins people, forces them to fit some stereotype of what is a beautiful person- it turns people into Barbies.

Still, I digress. In some ways, it's not so much that the plastic surgery has co-opted feminism, as the merchants are trying a new tactic out. Still, I can't help but see some sexist language in the middle of all this- "stay young!" as if youth was the ideal of perfection for all women- despite the cover of women being "wise". It's bull, to be blunt.

It also terrifies me, because there are few stronger things than lies told repeatedly, and it looks to me like so many people are buying into it. Using Botox is not the same thing as working out. Working out requires dedication, requires perserverance, takes the person that was and makes them into somebody tougher and stronger- not just physically, but mentally, too. Working out gives strength.

Getting Botox requires a doctor and money. Unlike working out, there is no net benefit to the person *other* than looking good. So it's not the same at all- compare a strong, healthy, active woman who is connected with her body to a woman whose face is mostly poison and plastic, and see which of them is the most complete, whole person.

And as a last aside: what the heck is "bra fat"? What in the world does that even mean?

feMENist said...

Madsen insists. "I don't want to be 25. I just want to look like me."

What is that about? When I think of me, I think about the inward me you cannot see, which is the way I think it should be! It's disturbing to me that when she thinks about "me," she thinks about what I as a male want her to see. I think this can be seen as an aftermath of male treatment and subordination of women.

I actually have a personal story along the lines of this. I have a family member who recently underwent breast augmentation. She come from what I would consider to be a poor family and currently is in an economic situation I would argue that is little better than before. She ran on too a little money and the first thing she did was to get this surgery. Instead of paying off bills or saving money for her children's college, she claimed to have mis-shaped breasts that had cost her so many opportunities in life. It all seemed bewildering to me, considering I have known her 21 years and had never noticed any physical defects of her body. The only chance she missed was the chance to live a better, more fulfilling life in which she can learn to embrace and love herself and spread this to others.

kydemocrat said...

Sadly, it is not uncommon in our society for women to feel constant pressure to look a certain way. Not only is this idea perpetuated in popular media, but also at schools, social events, and even within the family.

Although the pressure on adult women to undergo various plastic surgeries and other procedures are very real, the pressure begins much before that. Often, in its earliest stages, it is done by parents.

In my hometown, beauty pageants are very common. Therefore, parents are very eager to dress and style their little girls in a way that they think will make them win.

As a result, it is not uncommon to see little girls well under age five with a pile of fake hair pinned into their own, makeup, skimpy clothes, and even fake eyelashes.

As girls get older, they are expected to dress a certain way, dye their hair a certain color, use more and more makeup, have multiple piercings, etc. As girls approach their teenage years, there are even more look-changing techniques for girls to employ, such as contacts that change one's natural eye color.

Then, as mentioned in the article, when girls grow up, they are expected to have weight-loss surgeries, various plastic surgeries, and continue with other "beauty regimes".

Therefore, the older a girl gets, the more they are expected to do to contribute to their looks, and thereby, their "sex appeal". This process and socialization starts in many cases before a girl's first birthday, when many are already getting their ears pierced, and continues until women are expected to participate in procedures to make them look younger and more attractive. Sadly, it is a process that takes up the better part of one's life.

freedom-is-slavery said...

Virginia Madsen can do whatever she pleases with her body. I believe most of her motivation to continue to appear youthful and attractive comes from the industry she in which she works. However, to be sure, there is also pressure from society. I feel Ms. Madsen is under more pressure than the rest of us just because of her line of work. The film industry merely mirrors society - women strive to keep their youthful appearance because we are socialized to believe that is where our worth lies, while men become more distinguished and wiser as they get older. Men's wrinkles signify experience.

I did feel that Madsen's comment, "I don't want to be 25. I just want to look like me" was an incredibly stupid statement. "Me" is the natural self.

I understand why feminism is against plastic surgery and makeup, but it would be incredibly difficult to disgard our concern with our appearance.

As the class discussion went the other day, we can "buy in" or "buy out." I want to pick and choose what I buy into and buy out of. I do not want to go buy completely ALL OUT, just some OUT. It's just too hard on the mind. No one wants to be lonely and despised.

ladylawyer said...

This article was a bit more dramatic than some of the other articles I think. It seemed to draw deeper inferences from its statistical data and to be one sided at best. Although i agree that plastic surgery is usually an unnecessary and dangerous procedure for women to subject themselves to--i do hold strong feelings about the issue of "choice" and the fact that feminists seem to be oppressing women whom choose to do these procedures--which is totally anti-feminist in the first place! I think that more research could have been done and presented within this article to show both sides of this debate.

andsoitgoes said...

First of all how did it ever become okay to put poison in your body to be beautiful. Sure, people do it to be high but that is condemned by society. So how is botox socially okay?

Why do women like Madsen think that plasitc surgery be it invasive or injected makes them look anything like themselves? By living in this scalpel slave world I have seen many women with "work" done and none of them look like themsleves or the way the did before. Minor changes are still taking a drastic toll on your body and all for society to tell you your beautiful.

Its horrible that women must go through procedures to be okay with how they look. Though I would never personally resort to this I can see truly how hard it is to live in this culture and to want to be the worlds view of beautiful and how easy it is to slip into plastic surgery. It fixes all the things you tell yourself are wrong with you. This is what we as women are made to feel like we need to do in order to be accepted, wanted, and sadly, loved.

All in all I think no matter how storng a woman might be she is never truly untouched by the media or by the harsh words of others around her. The need to change, fix and mend are a constant and I must agree with LadyLawyer when she said feminism is about choice and in some wierd way these women have the right to chose, even though the seed was planted by someone else.

Katie said...

It's really sad all the people that actually undergo plastic surgery. I've seen many documentaries and films about it, and with plastic surgery in it.
We watched a video in one of Barton's classes about a porn star, and she was pretty from the beginning, but instead of doing some crunches or walking a few blocks a day, she got plastic surgery.
I feel like she got it because of the pressures of society and especially the media she was involved in, like this article discusses.
I do agree that women should have the choice to make the decision of having any kind of plastic surgery. But she should look closely at her decision in doing it. I bet the majority would realize it's not worth it, it's only for society, the media, or the jerk of a boyfriend or husband. People are far too materialistic anyways, we don't need to be turning ourselves into materials.

whitney said...

I think plastic surgery has a lot to do with how our society is so anti-aging. A lot of the time, elderly people are seen as useless at worst, and cute at best. I know lots of young people that are more afraid of getting old than they are of dying, especially girls. As bad as getting old is for everybody, its even worse for girls. This is because the most important thing about a girl in our society is the way she looks. Either people don’t realize the extent of it, or they don’t want to think about it, but the way a woman looks has a lot to do with every aspect of her life, and the way people perceive and treat her. That’s why so many women go to drastic measures to look good. They “choose” it because of these sexist ideas, not because they are “feminists.” Feminists choose to believe that a woman is more than an image or a decoration. As long as this goes on, the “beautiful” female body will become more and more unattainable, so that more and more procedures are necessary to get the look, so that women have to spend more and more money to look like it.

Anonymous said...

Keith-
I’ll just go ahead and say up front that I am not a fan of plastic surgery; I think it promotes a culture and a society that is unfit to live in. When we become more concerned about looks than anything else we have become intolerable. And the sad part about this whole thing is that some people want to say this falls under the feminist guise. I have always said that there cannot be one definition of feminism because it is too broad to mean only one thing. But when plastic surgery has become a way to empower women and when we are calling it feminism, we may to reevaluate the situation. Those who would call this phenomenon of plastic surgery feminism are probably the ones who are making the money off of the plastic surgery. Keeping women focused on plastic surgery is just a way to keep their focus off of the real issues that face women. As long as men keep them focused on how they should look and not on the way they are being oppressed the social norms will remain the same and women we continue to be oppressed. I think women should take the lead in saying no to this materialistic lifestyle that promotes superficial behavior.

Scottye said...

Look this way, walk that way, chew your food with your mouth closed and keep those breasts nice and perky! The homogenization of women continues. Beauty is more and more being defined by some nearly psychotic and more importantly plastic standard. Women have to look like dolls that men can just take off the shelf and have sex with.

As a society we have a great contradiction on our hands. The problem is not that we pressure women to look a certain way. The problem is that we try to hide the fact that we do it. We say looks don’t matter on a one on one basis, yet we consume magazines, television, and movies filled with these outrageous and unimaginably distorted images of ideal feminine’s.


This duality serves to alienate women from one extreme to the other and they can never truly feel good about themselves. We need to take a nice big societal breath and say “Let It Be.” Women are naturally beautiful and shouldn’t feel pressured to look 25 when they are 45.

These plastic, nearly clown faced dolls that society seems to want to generate are not attractive in any sense of the word. They lose their humanity and become nothing more than symbols of male sexual desire. So, what does that say about male sexual desire?