Facing the Unavoidable: Plastic surgery tells us much about society

Chang

By Eugine Chung

Extreme cases of plastic surgery are often the source of mockery found in television shows, movies, and daily conversations. Consider E!’s “Botched,” and you get a sense of what I mean by “extreme cases.”

We’re strangely drawn to the unflattering “before and after” pictures of celebrities and point fingers at people who apparently won’t love themselves for who they are, for wanting more. To us, we find that people who have procedures that go wrong deserve what they get because natural beauty is so treasured within our society. Anything that questions such importance is selfish and goes against the natural order. And indeed, we should love ourselves for the person we are inside. But the current rise of plastic surgery is a much more complicated topic.

Plastic surgery cases are not only about egotism and wealth anymore; they’re about individual self-worth versus societal expectations of beauty and media’s influence versus a desire to be valued.

In the United States (U.S.), around $10.1 billion was spent on cosmetic procedures including collagen and Botox injections, breast implants, buttock lifts, and nose jobs, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Additionally, as of 2012, around 236,356 clinical procedures were conducted on teenagers from 13 to 19 years old.

Such numbers are bound to elicit some criticism such as what are 13-year-olds doing getting nose jobs? However, a poll from the American Academy of Facial and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) found that social media activity may be influencing the rise of plastic surgery requests.

“It’s not surprising that people tend to be influenced by the images they see most consistently, which in the past have been of celebrities, but increasingly may include friends as well. And constant reminders of their appearance on social media may be spurring a desire to improve perceived flaws,” Alexandra Sifferlin wrote in her article “Looking Good on Facebook: Social Media Leads to Spikes in Plastic Surgery Requests” for TIME magazine.

True, for some people, a desire to fix a certain imperfection can quickly morph into an unhealthy obsession. And yes, plastic surgeries can go terribly wrong and hurt an individual physically and mentally. However, if the media and society’s focus on beauty and perfection largely influences the way we think about our physical appearance, then is it really fair to place full blame on the plastic surgery patient? Not everyone is motivated to cut skin, to patch up flaws, and conceal vulnerabilities from completely irrational, seemingly “egotistic” wishes.

Covered by CNN in 2012, the then 14-year-old Nadia Ilse received plastic surgery funded by the Little Baby Face Foundation to fix her “elephant ears,” a source of the bullying she enduring at school.

“I look beautiful. This is exactly what I wanted. I love it,” Ilse reported to CNN after the procedure.

In addition to bullying, this need to be beautiful and simply accepted within society can lead to adverse health risks. According to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, exposure to idealized beauty in mainstream magazines causes increased levels of depression, stress, guilt, shame, and insecurity.

Indeed, that is not to say plastic surgery is a healthy remedy to bullying or self-deprecation. Plastic surgery is not an infallible option that can effectively and ethically cure so much of the depression and lack of confidence found in our generation. But we ought to consider the intentions of the patient because societal values drive the very thing we don’t like: generally unneeded change to someone’s physical appearance.

We may believe that some plastic surgery procedures were unneeded and begin to judge the plastic surgery patient, but if we are at the same time ranking people on beauty or jokingly musing to friends, “She’s not pretty enough to be an actress,” then we’re just setting up an unjustified double standard, an unjustified sense of righteousness. Instead of attacking the issue of physical appearance simply on the superficial, surface-level implications, our society should try addressing the reinforcing standards of beauty steeped within our world.

Instead of condemning 14-year-olds for going under the knife at such early an age, we should be deconstructing and fixing the harmful bullying so pervasive within our social culture first. Instead of degrading others who supposedly care too much about outward appearance, we should also be more empathetic members of humanity, go beyond face value concerns, and understand the core and universal need for acceptance and inclusion.

 

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