Cosmetic surgery is a booming industry.
Cosmetic surgery is becoming normalized. Year on year, getting “work done” becomes more accessible and more acceptable.
In other words, we are becoming normalized, both by delaying the impact of ageing, and by tweaking young bodies into conforming.
In 2002-3, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons carried out 10,700 procedures. Ten years later, they carried out 50,000 procedures of which the most common was breast augmentation.
The association’s members carry out only about a third of cosmetic procedures in the UK, so the total number is much higher.
But even so, the UK are not in the global premier league of body modification, which is the US, Brazil, Japan and South Korea. In the US, there were more than 10 million cosmetic procedures performed in 2015.
One South Korean survey found that more than 60% of women in their late 20s and 40% of women in their early 20s had had a cosmetic procedure.
There is increasing pressure to look young and beautiful, especially for women, who are still more likely to be judged on appearances, particularly in the workplace. The media is full of makeover programmes glamorising cosmetic surgery and celebrities who look ever more perky. Subliminally and not so subliminally, our culture is changing how humans feel they should look. People believe they will be happier and more successful if they conform more closely to these cultural norms.
Overall, 85% of people who have cosmetic surgery are women. Most of those women will be trying to appeal to men. So we men must ultimately take the blame. We undermine women’s self-esteem. And then we make money out of that dissatisfaction.
Surveys show that young people in Britain are increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies. For example, a 2013 survey of Girl Guides’ attitudes suggested that a third of 11-21 year olds were unhappy with the way they looked, and more than a quarter would consider cosmetic surgery.
There is a known psychological condition called body dysmorphia disorder (BDD), and several studies suggest that about 10% of people who go for cosmetic surgery have this condition. But if you have BDD, cosmetic surgery will be ineffective in making you feel better about your body.
According to campaigners, more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. One of these conditions, anorexia, has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
As well as psychological issues, there are also health issues. Maybe you remember the recent scare about Poly Implant Prothese, where breast implants were filled with the wrong sort of silicone. But there are adverse events associated with many procedures. While cosmetic surgery is mostly conducted in the private sector, correcting complications often generates costs for the NHS.
So it seems to me that it would be preferable to solve the body image problem with psychological and cultural actions, rather than medical or surgical fixes. Rather than normalizing cosmetic procedures, maybe we should show many kinds of beauty.
By BBC’s Magazine