How Promoting Plastic Surgery Waters Down Feminism

December 15th 2014

Julie Doubleday

Feminism has had something of a banner year – and I mean that literally. Beyoncé stood in front of a banner proclaiming herself a FEMINIST during this summer’s On the Run tour, and suddenly everyone is asking what, exactly, the word means and the ideology entails. If we define feminism as the belief in social, cultural, and professional equality between the sexes, we must define feminist acts as those which would promote that equality or attack entrenched inequality. Of course, there is no “feminist handbook”; feminism is by its nature contradictory in places, because misogyny itself is so contradictory. For example, the men who watch porn, but find porn actresses “gross” embrace a perverse mixture of lust and disgust. Porn actresses thus, face a similar dichotomy. In a sense, it is empowering to take the money of those who call you degraded and laugh all the way to the bank. In another sense, it is empowering to refuse the money of those who would see you as an object. Thus, self-determination, the ability of the individual woman to determine for herself what is or isn’t empowering, has become an accepted tenet of modern feminism. 

In the context of cosmetic surgery, this principle manifests itself as the oft-repeated “do whatever feels good” mantra, and this apparent feminist silver bullet is supposed to apply to any and all choices we make. Whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, the logic goes, it’s feminist and empowering because you’re doing what you want, how you want. What this logic ignores entirely is the context of the choices we’re making, the environment we’ve grown up in, and the social rewards associated with promoting male-controlled values. 
Reducing any philosophy, particularly one intended to be revolutionary, to “do whatever feels good” is simplistic and flattening. It also places the onus of the feminist movement on external forces; rather than encouraging women to actively parse their motivations and explore the broader social consequences of their actions, it tells them to carry on doing whatever they’d “like” to do passively. In this sense it strips women of agency, because it implies that no actions are “right” or “wrong”; therefore, our decisions are inconsequential to the advancement of feminism. It is easier to say “do whatever feels good” than to argue over the nuanced issues of feminism, like cosmetic surgery, and it is much, much, easier to do what feels good than to do what feels right. 

We cannot divorce our desires from their context. In a society that encourages women to derive their worth from their physical appeal, pursuing beauty will “feel good” because successfully packaging oneself as an appealing commodity is socially rewarded. To ignore completely the roll that decades of marketing, media, social messages, and interaction play on the psyche of someone who “just feels better” with bigger breasts is disingenuous at best. 

While many articles completely ignore this dimension – like this How-To Guide for lip plumping over on xoJane - others both discuss and disown it. In this article on Jezebel, the author decries the “judgment” of cosmetic surgery and lists the “real” reasons women want to get plastic surgery, writing: 

1. Because they want to. 2. Because they feel like it. 3. Because they think it would look nice. 4. Because it's their body and they can do what they want with it. 5. Because they had an injury or illness that altered their physical appearance. 6. Because they were pressured into it by some dickhead. 7. Because they were pressured into it by the culture at large. 

Number 4 is true, but “because I can” is not a reason or explanation. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are all just outgrowths of Number 7, “they were pressured into it by the culture at large,” and here is where I really take issue with the logic of this piece. What does that culture consist of? Only men, and the actions of men? Only men can be misogynists, and only men can fight misogyny with their choices? Yes, it is difficult to overcome the influence of misogyny as a woman, as I presume it is difficult to overcome the influence of misogyny as men; we are all part of the same sexist culture. But to claim that it’s just too hard for women to examine their influences, consider their actions and work to be a force for positive change in a misogynist world, is to promote an overtly passive breed of feminism. 

Often when we enter this territory, those who defend cosmetic surgery as “feminist, if you want to,” will point out that surgery is analogous, if more extreme, to wearing make-up, waxing body hair, or wearing high heels. In other words, it is impossible to criticize those who undergo surgery if you make any concessions to patriarchal notions of feminine beauty yourself. Broadly, I agree that they are analogous, but I would argue that there is no “perfect” feminist, entirely devoid of patriarchal influence. But that doesn’t preclude us from discussing the social repercussions of various choices, including ones so widespread as to be expected, like wearing make-up. I do not mean to criticize specific individuals who have undergone surgery, rather, I want to call attention to the philosophy that regards surgery as feminist in and of itself. The fact that my own valuation of plastic surgery as something that does not directly contribute to the advancement of feminism could extend to everyday actions like wearing make-up or heals is what makes the debate surrounding this issue so confusing and fraught. As with any complex idea, it is something that deserves discussion, not dismissiveness. 

On an individual level, I don’t believe it is my business to dictate the choices other women make about their bodies. On a cultural and social level, I believe it is everyone’s business to ask why women are choosing to spend ever more time, money and energy on the pursuit of physical perfection. The question here isn’t “well, does it make her feel good about herself?”, the question is, “why does it make her feel good about herself?” We have not only internalized conventional standards of beauty, we’ve allowed a patriarchal society to inform us that conforming to those standards- by any and all means necessary- can be a revolutionary act. As long as you’re happy to do it. 

Revolutionary change is not easy, and I doubt it ever “feels good”. For example, it’s not enough to claim you want to end the objectification of women if you then allow yourself to be sexualized over and over again on the covers of magazines. Again, there is room here for interpretation and debate. It’s not a blanket statement or a command: “don’t be naked, women!” The female body, like the male body, is not inherently sexual, even naked; it is only a body. But when that body is sexualized through marketing it in a photograph, the woman, formerly the subject of the photo, becomes the object. The story of the picture now contains two characters, the woman, and the presumptive man who desires her. This is referred to commonly as “the male gaze”, and it is present in a huge proportion of photographs of female celebrities. This is also where the term “objectification” comes into play. The unseen subject of the photograph’s story is judging her to be sufficiently sexy and appealing, while she becomes the objectified recipient of implied desire and adulation.  

My point here isn’t that no women should ever pose for sexual photos in magazines, it is that we should be discussing the reasons women feel good about sexualizing themselves so ubiquitously. It’s not the individual; it’s the culture. We aren’t talking about a few women here and there, now and then. We’re talking about almost every single magazine cover, almost every single female celebrity in almost every single photo spread. To say “that’s what they want to do” and consider the subject closed is to ignore willfully the connection between the patriarchy we claim to want to overthrow and the mysteriously aligned desires of all the women we’re encouraged to emulate, all the women who are held up as worthy of acclaim and attention and love. 
Even as children, the first women we’re taught to admire are the Disney Princesses; they are any number of things, but they are uniformly thin and beautiful and seeking romance. The movies never use the word “sex” but the stories focus primarily on adult, romantic love; almost all of them culminate with the marriage of the heroine, which, when you think about it, is a very tiny percentage of the stories we could be telling our daughters. Do we ask why the heroines of these stories are all attractive- and here attractive is a euphemism for yes, sexually appealing- or do we just accept that yes, princesses in fairy tales written for children should be sexy. And before anyone accuses me of reading that wrong, I dare you to argue that Pocahontas or Ariel or Jasmine are not drawn like a cartoon embodiment of the perfect male fantasy. Why would a 5 year old want to hear stories about getting into adult relationships? Is it any wonder why it’s accepted knowledge that women grow up “wanting” to be in relationships more than men? 

Attacking the structures that encourage women to see themselves as objects to someone else’s subject, to think of themselves as participants in their story rather than narrators, won’t necessarily feel as easily breezily good as getting boob jobs and posing for sexual photos in awesome, hot clothes. Why? Because attacking those extant social structures will require doing things that, by necessity, are not socially rewarded. Helping to create a world that sees women as dynamic, diverse individuals rather than a number between 1 (worthless) and 10 (very worthwhile) requires not only the understanding of men, it requires the effort of women. It requires women who will say “I am not more worthwhile if I am more sexually appealing. My happiness is not contingent on my looks, because my worth derives from my sense of self.” That’s a difficult thing to do, believe, and enact, because it directly opposes overwhelming social pressure to feel otherwise. We can’t help the way we feel; but we can work to understand the true source of those feelings. When we understand that the unhappiness underlying poor self-image derives from the very social norms that encourage extreme measures like surgery, we can work to break that cycle. We can understand that surgery won’t “make” anyone happy, not in the long-term, because the dissatisfaction which led to it hasn’t been addressed; only one superficial expression of it. 

In other words, even if today you claim that your boob job and nose job and botox and chin job have made you “happy”, what you mean is, you are temporarily satisfied with your ability to fulfill a misogynist projection of an attractive, desired, worthwhile woman. I don’t challenge the notion that some women feel their quality of life has been improved by surgery; rather I’m concerned that, as women, our quality of life varies based on our looks. Even the most beautiful among us has only a limited tenure as a desirable woman- all the more limited by the fact that beauty standards explicitly favor youth over age. If becoming more attractive has made you “happy”, in 20 or 30 or 40 years when those gains- and then some- are lost- you may very well find yourself similarly “unhappy.”   

I know many will react sharply to my characterization of cosmetic surgery. I don’t dislike or judge women who have had cosmetic surgery, but I do consider them, like all of us, victims of a culture which has married their self-worth to their physical appearance. I also consider the act of plastic surgery to be one which reinforces the entrenched standards of beauty. If, tomorrow, I undergo a procedure, and years from now, my 11 year old daughter stands in front of a mirror, prodding at the bump in her nose or bemoaning her flat chest, how do I convince her she does not need to change herself? How can I counteract rampant cultural messages that inform her that her greatest priority should be addressing her physical flaws? How can I help her see that her mind is too full of thoughts, and the world too full of jobs to be done, for her to obsess over the ways in which she doesn’t fulfill an arbitrary standard of beauty designed to satisfy men? Would you ask her “will plastic surgery make you feel better” or would you ask, “why will plastic surgery make you feel better?” 

Some will argue that, as victims of misogynist culture, it is unfair that women should be asked to shoulder the burden of fighting to be seen – the way men are seen- as 3-dimensional beings whose merits and interests run to things beyond the physical. I agree that it is unfair, but that doesn’t make it unnecessary. Sexism is unfair. Having to fight sexism, constantly, daily, is unfair. But if we want to live in a less sexist world, it is necessary for us not only to participate in this fight, but to lead the charge. We won’t all agree on what actions promote patriarchal values and enshrine sexist tradition, but we can at least acknowledge that our actions have meaning. That our actions can and do perpetuate our climate or create change. 

Not everyone, of course, has the means to make high-minded decisions with an eye to social justice. Plenty of women participate in sex work because they have no economically viable alternatives; those victims can’t choose not to propagate the sexist environment that confuses women for merchandise. We are not allying ourselves with them when we call ourselves “liberated” and bend over backwards to fulfill the social role of Ideal Woman, the mythical Perfect 10. The patriarchal system which enslaves those women is the same one we promote when we kowtow to its demands of our appearance. 

This piece isn’t meant to be a referenda on people who’ve undergone plastic surgery. It is a critique of the passivity of modern feminism that seeks simultaneously to indict a culture of misogyny and excuse all of us from working to participate in its destruction. As a woman, I am aware that sexism victimizes me in a variety of ways; I am also aware that, being intelligent and being capable, I can choose to reject sexist values that invite me to measure my worth by my looks. When I feel unhappy with my appearance, I can choose to focus single-mindedly on changing the way I look- a never-ending and ultimately pointless pursuit- or I can explore the source of that unhappiness intellectually. For feminism to succeed, we don’t need all women to make the latter choice. But we do need women to discuss which choice is the superior one, rather than shrugging, “whatever,” and expecting progress to arrive in the night. 

And make no mistake, progress on this front will not be handed to us; not because we say we want it, not because we repeat it, not because we demand it. Feminism is a fight for equality, and as we’re so fond of saying, it’s not men versus women. It’s misogynists versus those who work to dismantle misogyny. I want to work to dismantle the system that invites me to focus on my appearance before I focus on my world. I want to work to dismantle the system that tells me I will be happier with bigger breasts and smaller thighs. I want to work to dismantle the system that encourages me to see myself as an object with a price tag, whether that feels good or not. I am not for sale. I am not a 1 or a 5 or a 10. I am a person, and a feminist. I am working to understand this strange, exhausting world, and I will work to change it.