Is Plastic Surgery (Anti)Feminist?

Joyce Aerts

In recent years, plastic surgery has become more and more mainstream. Clinics offer payment plans to make expensive procedures accessible for the masses, and package deals attract people into getting more work done for less money. A recent submovement of feminism calls undergoing such cosmetic procedures a feminist act, with the idea that feminism is all about choice. But what if the choices you're making are not your own?

Disclaimer: When referring to cosmetic procedures in this article, this does not include plastic surgery in the case of gender affirmation.

Photo by Victoria Rokita

Social media influence

Photoshop, good angles, and flattering filters on social media have largely contributed to the rising popularity of cosmetic procedures. Women are comparing themselves to other (often edited) images of women and filtered versions of themselves. These altered images drive women into going to extreme lengths to live up to society’s beauty standards.

Some influencers are very open about the work they’ve had done. They get sponsorships for cosmetic procedures, and post pictures and videos of them getting work done as an ad, which helps normalize plastic surgery. Other influencers deny getting work done, which might be even more harmful. Influencers may even make surgical changes to their face and then try to sell their audience a product, saying it will give them the same effect — remember Kylie Jenner’s Lip Kits?

Even though these influencers probably keep their cosmetic procedures quiet because of stigma and fear of backlash, it’s still false advertising. They use their face and body to sell you something that will never get you similar results. In Norway, they came up with a solution for this. A new law states that influencers can’t post modified photos without declaring they were altered.

Snapchat dysmorphia

The rise of social media and photo editing has had an immense impact on the popularity of cosmetic surgery. Filters and Facetune apps confront us with what we could possibly look like in real life, with only a few little tweaks. This led to the recent phenomenon called Snapchat Dysmorphia, a body dysmorphic disorder where someone feels the need to edit their pictures on social media to a large extent.

In some cases, this disorder leads people to seek out cosmetic procedures to look like their filters on Snapchat or Instagram. More and more young women walk into a beauty clinic showing an edited or filtered picture of themselves, asking the surgeon to make them look like that in real life. 

Capitalist beauty standards

A big butt, tiny waist, large breasts, sharp jawline, full lips, small nose and fox eyes: those are some of the ideals of female beauty that exist today. This results in the increased popularity of cosmetic procedures for those results; think lip fillers, boob jobs, Brazilian butt lifts and nose jobs.

However, these beauty standards are constantly changing and evolve at a rapid pace — and this is largely deliberate. Corporations make money off the insecurities of people. As long as beauty standards keep changing, companies have new products to market and sell. They convince people that completely normal features like dark circles or wrinkles are wrong. They provide the so-called solution in the form of a product or surgery.

Take body hair, for example. Women are told that a razor is a hygiene product instead of a beauty product in spite of the fact that having body hair isn’t unhygienic at all. Men are admired for their masculinity when they have body hair, so why is it considered unhealthy on a woman? Buying a product like a razor doesn’t make you less of a feminist, but it's essential to understand why you feel the need to shave and where that need comes from.

Women often think that they do cosmetic procedures for themselves because they are able to achieve what they believe is “beautiful” and feeling beautiful makes them feel good. However, there are outside influences we often don’t think about. It’s strange to realise that what you consider “beautiful” is an image someone else put in your head — but what’s even scarier is that we internalise this image to the point where we think it is our own.

The argument of choice

Choice feminism is a subsection of feminism that believes that female empowerment has everything to do with choice. No matter what a woman chooses, that choice is inherently feminist because a woman herself made it. This idea comes from the patriarchal past when women’s choices were made for them — choice feminists feel that making their own choices means going against the patriarchy and empowering women.

Whether a woman chooses to go for the career she wants or be a stay-at-home mom to look after her kids, both the options are feminist because it’s the woman’s decision. The same goes for cosmetic procedures. If women want to change something about their appearance, it’s their own choice and therefore feminist.

But this theory doesn’t take into account why people make certain choices. Sometimes women choose to stay home with the kids because they feel obliged to, not because that’s what they want the most. Most of the time, women go under the knife because they feel like they don’t live up to society’s beauty standards — they fit into their clothes wrong, can’t attract partners or don’t feel confident enough. It makes little sense to reason that women want bigger boobs just for themselves and under no influence of society — it’s the validation of others, both verbal and unspoken, that they seek.

Photo by Joeyy Lee

Purple washing

Some people say plastic surgery is a feminist move because it makes them feel empowered; that going under the knife doesn't mean you can not be a feminist. However, cosmetic procedures in themselves cannot be considered a feminist act. Spreading the idea that plastic surgery is empowering just makes it more interesting to women. They take it as an excuse to justify the procedures and fix things about themselves that aren't broken.

Even if plastic surgery was wholly the women’s choice, it would still not be empowering to all women. The cosmetic procedure industry has created a very high, classist and elitist standard of beauty; one only attainable for people who can afford expensive procedures. If only this exclusive subcategory of wealthy women are able to access the “empowerment” that comes with surgery, cosmetic procedures inherently do the opposite of empowering all women. 

Is plastic surgery feminist? 

No, it is not. We need to recognize cosmetic procedures for what they are: an extreme means to adhere to current beauty standards. These standards are forced on women by making them feel insecure about completely normal facial or body features. These insecurities are created by companies, men and other women who undergo plastic surgery or heavily filter their pictures. 

Society imposes near-impossible beauty standards on women; standards most can only reach through cosmetic procedures. Conflictingly, it’s that same society that is very critical of women getting plastic surgery. While women shouldn’t be ashamed of getting plastic surgery, and getting work done doesn’t exclude them from the feminist movement, plastic surgery in itself is not an act of feminism.

Joyce Aerts

"Saying “don’t compare yourself to others” is easy. It’s inevitable, we all do it. Therefore, there’s great power in the realization that others aren’t as perfect as they appear. Edited online images don’t have dimples, bumps or wrinkles, but humans do. In order to protect ourselves, we need to change our mindsets. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then that is where we’ll start."
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