Heather Widdows on Advertisements for Cosmetic Surgery and Beauty Practices

Professor Heather Widdows
Heather Widdows

This is the fourth in a series of posts about whether advertisements for cosmetic surgery and other beauty practices should be banned. In this post, Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, and Principal Investigator of the Beauty Demands project, gives her views. If you would like to contribute to this discussion please email your response to Jan Kandiyali.

Would you be in favour of banning all advertisements for non-invasive beauty treatments and/or cosmetic surgery? If you are not in favour of banning all advertisements would you be in favour of banning some - for instance for certain types of procedures? If so can you explain why for some and not all and how you would determine which should be advertised? Would you differentiate depending on where adverts were placed; for instance would you accept adverts in women's magazines where the intended audience is adult women, but not in public places where they would be seen by children? Alternatively do you think that any banning advertisements would be wrong and why?

I would be in favour in further regulation of adverts and reporting of beauty procedures and cosmetic surgery. In particular, I would like to remove adverts which make promises about how the person will feel advertisements – so anything which suggests that the ‘self’ will change – ‘reveal the real you’, ‘be the person you’ve always wanted to be’. Included in this would be the regulation of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs which tend to change not just the body part which was being operated on, but the whole look of the person. Adverts which present such procedures as  social gatherings or communal pastimes (such as ‘botox parties’ or buying ‘packages’ for more than one person) are particularly worrying as they minimise the risks involved and increase the pressure to undergo such procedures. However, to address this kind of presentation of cosmetic surgery - as a ‘fun-practice’, for mothers and daughters together or as ‘gifts’ - requires not just an advertisement ban, but attention to the reporting of cosmetic procedures in magazines. More wariness of the risks attached might reduce this kind of presentation of cosmetic surgery as ‘fun’ and similar to going to the hairdresser or nail bar. Better documenting of figures – or both operations and of complications – would make it easier to make this case.

It may be the case that a complete ban would be counter-productive and possibly result in driving such procedures underground and result in even less accurate information being accessed by those who wish to buy such procedures. However, simply because there are risks it does not mean that some kind of ban (or stronger regulation) should not be considered. The risks need balancing: a ban would likely lead to cosmetic surgery being regarded as less ‘normal’ (a life-style choice similar to other beauty norms) and so reduce the numbers engaging, but it may prove more risky for the lower number who do take this path.


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