Catch 22: The complicated sociopolitics of plastic surgery



The concept of ‘growing old gracefully’ is something that most of us happily aspire to. However, the media’s oversaturation of bodily ideals is fuelling a worldwide beauty addiction, spearheaded by the billion dollar plastic surgery industry.

Women in the public eye who have, or are suspected to have had, plastic surgery are often shamed for doing so by the media and certain members of the public. But when the idea of perfection is sold to us left right and centre by adverts, magazines, and movies, can we really blame those who strive for physical perfection; artificial or otherwise?

The media are to blame for a culture of plastic surgery shaming

Shaming those in the public eye for having plastic surgery is nothing new. A-Listers from Renee Zellweger to Lana Del Rey have become unfortunate victims of media speculation. The former endured a great deal of sexist critique and skepticism surrounding a now infamous appearance at Elle’s Women in Hollywood party in 2014. Having been out of the public eye for a couple of years, Zellweger emerged with a startling new look. Of course, the media latched onto this claiming surgery must be to blame.

Zellweger’s Bridget Jones co-star, Patrick Dempsey, leapt to her defense, claiming “she should not have to face such scrutiny.” Rose McGowan also came to her defense, penning an article for The Hollywood Reporter damning one particular article as “vile, damaging, stupid and cruel.”

It’s true. Regardless of whether someone has had work done or not, people have a right to their privacy just as they would with other medical procedures. You don’t see many articles out there debating whether or not Lana Del Rey has had her tonsils removed, but articles about whether or not she’s had botox or lip fillers abound.

Ageism in Hollywood is adding fuel to the fire

Even if Zellweger did get a facelift, aside from the fact that it’s none of our business, speculating as to if and why they would do such a thing is a waste of time. The answer is obvious; social and professional pressure.

Maggie Gyllenhaal was recently told by producers that, at 37, she was “too old” to play the romantic interest of a 55-year-old man. If the pressures in the business to be young and beautiful are so intense that an actress must be at least over 20 years her male co-star’s junior to be considered for a part, then what choice does an actress have other than to look as young as possible for as long as possible?

This is not a unique phenomenon – over a third of Hollywood films feature a male actor who is ten (or more) years older than their female co-stars. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Dame Helen Mirren described ageism in Hollywood as “outrageous”, while Liv Tyler said that at her age (40), “you’re usually playing the wife or the girlfriend, a sort of second class citizen.”

Even Monica Bellucci thought she was going to be asked to replace Judi Dench when she was called up by Spectre director Sam Mendes to play the oldest of Bond’s love interests to date. While the apparently revolutionary concept of James Bond being sexually attracted to a woman roughly his age is a step forward in the right direction, the fact remains that the franchise has a very long history of casting women half Bond’s age, including the woman who played his main love interest in Spectre, Lea Seydoux.

It’s not just celebs who feel this pressure

Sometimes the quest for ‘perfection’ can have shocking or even dangerous results. Going under the knife or having certain procedures is a huge risk. Before his death in 2016, Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns revealed that he had had 300 plastic surgeries, 200 of which were corrective procedures. One botched surgery resulted in Burns fighting for his life in hospital after developing blood clots and pulmonary embolisms in his legs, heart and lungs.

Meanwhile in India, dangerous, unregulated and illegal surgeries are increasing in number as a result of unrelenting societal pressures. In a country where height is considered attractive, expensive and complex limb lengthening procedures are growing in popularity with young Indians who are desperate to improve the career and marriage prospects.

Dr Guichet, a pioneer in limb lengthening surgery, notes that limb lengthening procedures are often safely performed to alleviate bone deformities. However, without the proper safety procedures that exist in places like the US and Europe, the surgery could be incredibly dangerous.

But who can blame patients for taking the risk. In a world where children as young as five aspire to be anatomically impossible Disney characters and Barbie dolls, is it any wonder why the desire to somehow achieve perfection persists once we’re all grown up? When we’re told by the media, and even at times by our loved ones, that we must look a certain way, and then shamed for using whatever methods at our disposal to achieve this, what we are left with is the definition of a catch 22.


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