Is cosmetic surgery a quick fix for problems of self-esteem and body-image?

This is the first in a series of posts about the complex relationship between cosmetic surgery and body image . Here Sherri Irvin, Presidential Research Professor of Philosophy and Gender Studies, and Co-Director of the Center for Social Justice at the University of Oklahoma, gives her thoughts. If you would like to contribute to this discussion then please email your response to Jan Kandiyali.

Question: Cosmetic surgery is regarded by some as a 'quick fix' for more deep rooted problems of self-esteem and body-image. How far do you agree with this assessment of elective cosmetic surgery? If surgery is undertaken for reasons of self-esteem and/or body image do you think this is problematic?

The way the question is posed, asking whether cosmetic surgery is “a ‘quick fix’ for more deep rooted problems of self-esteem and body-image,” suggests that these deep-rooted problems are located in the mind of the person seeking surgery. But we are operating in a global culture that tells us that almost no bodies are acceptable in their natural, unadorned state. The message that we should constantly be viewing our bodies as a project, rather than simply inhabiting them comfortably and enjoying them, comes from the media, from advertising, and from our parents, teachers, bosses and friends. Standards of bodily acceptability are racialized; in the US, for instance, physical features associated with Blackness tend to be devalued by a white-dominated culture. Signs of aging are regarded as ugly. And, of course, people with “unusual embodiment,” to use an expression of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s, are constantly subjected to stares, rude remarks, and other forms of dehumanizing treatment. All of these standards of bodily acceptability, and the forms of social disciplining associated with them, are disproportionately applied to women.

In this context, most cosmetic surgery is of course connected to self-esteem or body image rather than simply being an uncoerced form of creative self-fashioning. But the individual mental states that motivate the surgery are merely symptoms of the core problem; they are not the problem itself. As for the surgery, it (like many consumer products) is an individual solution to a problem it contributes to on a systemic level: when people – especially celebrities – seek surgery to comply with standards of bodily acceptability, they contribute to the impression that bodies that don’t comply with these standards are aberrant. Cosmetic surgery is expensive, so it is accessible only to the privileged, and it is also painful and physically risky. But a campaign against cosmetic surgery alone would scarcely chip away at the much larger problem, which is that bodies are treated fundamentally as objects whose appearance must be tightly regulated and which are to be loathed insofar as they elude this regulation.

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