You think beautiful girls are going to stay in style forever? I should say not! Any minute now, they’re going to be out. Finished! Then it’ll be my turn!
– Funny Girl 
Beauty is subjective. Well, so they say. Every society, every era, has its own idea of the beauty ‘gold standard’; influenced by whoever is the star of that time. and increasingly, the media.
However, in the last thirty years, people seem to have become more desperate to meet the ideal. With the rise of photoshopping, apps like Instagram, and cosmetic surgery, it seems that people are more willing than ever to undergo drastic changes to look the way they deem attractive. But should this trend become the norm, or is there a deeper rooted problem?
It seems that no-one is truly happy with what they have – and that’s okay. It’s human nature to have insecurities. However, it becomes a problem when people equate how attractive or desirable they are deemed by others with their self-worth. Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more normal; particularly for women. But why? At a time when more women than ever are educated and have careers, why would there be such a archaic throwback to the practice of basing their worth on beauty alone? Put simply, we have never been fed as much bullshit as we are now.
“The Victorian woman became her ovaries, as today’s woman has become her “beauty.”
– Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Consider how many times the average woman is bombarded with images of ‘beautiful people’ every day: we check Instagram where we scroll through reams of filtered photos of celebrities being tended to by their hair and makeup teams, and health gurus with six packs. You go to buy a snack at the Spar and pass row upon row of magazines; each covered by a suitably preened, glowing, and edited cover star. You switch on the TV and everyone is glossier, more perfect, than anyone you’ve ever seen in real life. And so you compare yourself to these images and dream about what you would change.
We’re all guilty of it. But now, more than ever, people are acting on it. Over 20 million procedures were carried out worldwide in 2014, revealed the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
“Over a very short period of time, what is considered normal and required practice in terms of ‘routine maintenance’ has changed dramatically,” says Professor Heather Widdows from Birmingham University, who is researching her book Perfect Me!
“The assumption that a beautiful, more perfect self is a happier, more successful self is deeply ingrained in popular discourse and the language used is exceptionally value laden: we are urged to be ‘the best we can be’ and to strive for our ‘best selves’. We should do this because we’re ‘worth it’ – the implication being that if we don’t, we are culpable and blameworthy for ‘letting ourselves go.”
It would be hard to argue that feminist issues do not make up the base of the increased desire for cosmetic surgery – for as long as we can look back in history, there has been far more emphasis placed upon the way women look than there has on men. Obviously this is not definitive – the rise of men suffering from body image disorders and undergoing cosmetic surgery is on the rise – but it cannot be denied that women are, in general, critiqued more on their looks. In the UK in 2013, female patients accounted for 90.3 per cent of plastic surgery. Interestingly, Naomi Wolf points out that it is the things that define us most as female that have become ‘problematic’and in need of being removed or fixed.
“Whatever is deeply, essentially female–the life in a woman’s expression, the feel of her flesh, the shape of her breasts, the transformations after childbirth of her skin–is being reclassified as ugly, and ugliness as disease. These qualities are about an intensification of female power, which explains why they are being recast as a diminution of power. At least a third of a woman’s life is marked with aging; about a third of her body is made of fat. Both symbols are being transformed into operable condition–so that women will only feel healthy if we are two thirds of the women we could be. How can an “ideal” be about women if it is defined as how much of a female sexual characteristic does not exist on the woman’s body, and how much of a female life does not show on her face?”
– Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Polly Vernon, author of Hot Feminist, believes that women have the right to choose and take ownership of their appearance, but has concerns over the motives:
“I would say that at this point in time women are succumbing to cosmetic surgery because they feel a pressure to. When we inject our faces with stuff, that doesn’t come from the same place as putting on a colourful lipstick. We are navigating a new world, where we are much more conscious of our image, and we must own it and delight in it, rather than do things because of social pressure. Appearance should be an extension of who you are, not about trying to be someone you think society wants you to be.”
This is the crux of the issue: it’s not a problem that people want cosmetic surgery, it’s why. If something about your appearance makes you deeply unhappy and you want to change it for you, I don’t think that’s a problem. If, however, you want to change something because you think it will make society look at you in a different, more positive way, it’s pretty certain that any tweaks you make won’t make you happier in the long-run.
“Now, every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. This is why everyone is struggling.”
– Tina Fey
At its core, cosmetic surgery has, in general, become a gateway for us to fit in. In nature, that which is ‘average’ is deemed to be best, as it often signifies good health. Are we then idealising the average? Every society holds certain features and traits in high esteem; so in a world where we are becoming increasingly exposed to different races – to each other -, are we simply cherry-picking these features and amalgamating them into an international ideal? Dr Michael Jones, speaking to NY Mag, believes so.
“As we travel more, we have more interracial unions. Essentially, in 200 years, we’re going to have one race. I see that even now, people just picking things they like from different ethnicities and calling that the ideal for the moment.”
This makes sense when we look at the face of future Americans, as captured by National Geographic; deemed by publications and websites such as Mic. and Bustle as ‘beautiful’. Jia Tolentino, however, disagreed with this consensus in her article ‘Cancel “What Americans Will Look Like in 20150″‘ for The Hairpin:
“…maybe it’s good that people keep writing pieces like this, so impossibly shallow and shortcut-minded that the subtext is clear as anything: look how nice we look, as a people, when white gets to be more interesting and minorities get to look white. Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate.”
I agree with her. So often, cosmetic surgery is used to erase individuality such as ‘overly’ ethnic features. This idea that a certain type of look – mild, unimposing, and without any standout feature – is not only boring to me, it’s sad. It upsets me to think of all the time wasted over conversations with my friends about what we would ‘fix’ if we had the money; it upsets me to imagine us all without features that define us. Most of all, it upsets me to think about people I love engaging in any sort of self-loathing. The ironic thing is that when we used to list of our dream surgeries, it was often the things that people wanted to change – a bump in the nose, a gap between their front teeth – that I loved most. These are the features that add character, the features that have been familiar to me since I was 11.
“I don’t like standard beauty. There is no beauty without strangeness.”
– Karl Lagerfeld
Unfortunately, loving your own quirks is often harder. For years I used to assert that ‘one day I’ll have a nose job’, the same certain, determined way someone would say ‘one day I’ll be a teacher’. It was only through the very vague findings of a genealogy search that there may possibly be Russian, and the even more slight chance that it may be Russian-Jewish, ancestry on my mum’s side of the family that I started to accept it.
“There is something a bit Jewish about your nose,” my sister decided, as multiple people have since.
It’s hardly concrete evidence, but it somehow made me feel a bit more connected and protective of a body part I used to dream of redesigning.
Similarly, there were a few years where I was dead set on getting cosmetic dentistry to sort out my gummy smile. Now, when I see my sisters have the exact same smile, it makes me feel part of a little pack – it’s our smile.
Katherine Wright, assistant director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, recognises this need to clarify that people are making these huge decisions to change their appearance for the right reasons; that it isn’t a decision made on a whim:
“The Nuffield Council hosted a workshop on ‘professionals, practitioners and beauty norms.’ We brought together academic experts on body image and fashion, psychologists, philosophers, lawyers, surgeons and GPs to debate the role of professionals in responding to the changing requirements of ‘beauty’ and the consequent changing uses of procedures that have traditionally been regarded as ‘medical’ in order to attempt to achieve beauty norms.”
When we look back over time, we can see how much the beauty ideal has changed. A strong Roman nose is now a button nose; the thin arches of both the twenties and the nineties have become Cara Delevingne’s thick brows; heroin chic moved towards Kardashian curves. It is impossible to fit the beauty ideal because we’re constantly moving the goalposts, so chasing it will always be a fruitless endeavor.
There is no definitive cure all when it comes to insecurity. But a good way to start is by trying to love yourself – focus on what you bring to the table, what you bring to this world, as opposed to the things about yourself that you wish you could change. I think Naomi Wolf put it perfectly in The Beauty Myth (a cornerstone text for this essay) when she said:
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights.”
It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.