Cosmetic surgery and the co-opting of feminist language: an excellent new Ms. article

The summer issue of Ms Magazine is on the shelves this week. I was raised on Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, and though it has gone through many transformations in the years since, it remains one of the indispensable serious reads for feminists and their allies.

One particularly noteworthy article is Extreme Makeover, Feminist Edition: How the pitch for cosmetic surgery co-opts feminism. Written by Jennifer Cognard-Black, it’s a superb and timely response to the increasingly common strategy of marketing plastic surgery to women under the guise of “empowerment”.

… the cosmetic surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty
industry has done for years: It’s co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed “consumer feminism.”
Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are
selling elective surgery as self-determination.

Those who are eager to make a fortune out of women’s fear of growing older use the language of the pro-choice movement over and over again: “it’s your body, shouldn’t you be in charge of how it looks?” The precious right to be sovereign over one’s flesh becomes, in the hands of the beauty industry, the duty to battle against the onset of ageing. Feminists who critique cosmetic surgery are accused of inconsistency, of refusing to allow women the full range of “choices” to which they are entitled. Cognard-Black:

The word “choice” obviously plays on reproductive-rights
connotations, so that consumers will trust that they are
maintaining autonomy over their bodies. Yet one choice
goes completely unmentioned: The choice not to consider
cosmetic surgery at all.

One of my first posts to attract a lot of attention appeared in April 2004: Surgery, Sex, and Shame. I compared liposuction to nineteenth-century clitoridectomies (which were done far more often in the USA than many realize). Excerpt from my post (not Cognard-Black’s article):

…clitoridectomies were regularly performed on young girls in America and England to cure them of what one doctor called “the moral leprosy” of female masturbation. My students are always stunned to hear that; they falsely assume that female genital mutilation was never a Western practice. Young women were shamed for the inevitable (menarche) and the normal (masturbation) to a far greater degree than they are today.

But what occurs in the 20th century is a shift from morality to aesthetics, with shame being the constant. Though public discussions of menstruation and masturbation (even in an academic setting) are still sometimes awkward, most of my students seem to consider themselves far more educated and enlightened on those subjects than their Victorian sisters. But all too frequently, my students loathe their bodies with the same puritanical intensity as their forebears. They may not be as ashamed of their sexuality as their great-grandmothers were (though some are still understandably shy), but they are still ruthlessly critical of their own flesh. The negative judgments however, are now rooted in aesthetics. Fat has replaced desire as the primary enemy to be contained and controlled. If self-control and exercise fail, there is always the surgical removal of the offender (fat) through liposuction and body sculpting.

I try — with limited success — to make the case that Victorian clitoridectomies and contemporary plastic surgery are remarkably similar procedures from a feminist analysis. Yes, the former were performed on the young and the vulnerable, often against their will. But I’m not sure that the young students of mine who save and scrimp and go into debt for liposuction and breast enlargements (and I can think of quite a few who have done just that) really have much more agency and autonomy than their forebears. Slicing up the body to conform to a societal ideal is inherently a woman-hating act, whether the offending body part is the clitoris or thigh fat. There is no progress in moving from a culture that shames sexuality to a culture that shames any divergence from an unrealistic aesthetic ideal.

Yes, I have heard from my students who say they feel better about themselves after their surgeries. But the number of women in Somalia or Mali who support female infibulation are high as well. The fact that some women feel personally empowered by cutting up their bodies (or allowing their bodies to be cut) does not vitiate the essential horror of the practice. Some feminists are so in love with the notion of “choice” that they will defend any action a woman takes to alter her body. But choices are only exercised within a cultural context that decrees that certain choices are better than others. In this culture where even slight physical imperfections are seen as barriers to happiness, most young women who choose plastic surgery are not making a genuinely free choice

Feminists must be careful to walk a thin line — judging and condemning those women who do “choose” cosmetic surgery isn’t helpful, even if (as my use of quotation marks suggests) we are doubtful about the feminist authenticity of their “choice.” Our anger and our energy, rather, ought to be directed at those who repackage feminist language to market their wares. Feminism critiques the very standards of beauty that the cosmetic industry seeks to uphold; the surgeons offer women (at least the ones with money) the freedom to choose to alter their bodies to chase an ideal; feminists want women to have freedom from that very ideal.


…it’s feminists who have emphatically and
persistently shown that cosmetic medicine exists because
sexism is powerfully linked with capitalism—
keeping a woman worried about her looks in order to
stay attractive, keep a job or retain self-worth. To say
that a preoccupation with looks is “feminist” is a cynical
misreading; feminists must instead insist that a furrowed,
“wise” brow—minus the fillers—is the empowered
feminist face, both old and new.

Pick up the new issue of Ms. at your local newsstand, or better yet, subscribe. And visit these sites:

Love Your Body
About Face
Real Women Project

0 thoughts on “Cosmetic surgery and the co-opting of feminist language: an excellent new Ms. article

  1. Very well said. It is disturbing that these procedures are being marketed as an empowered ‘choice’ for women, along the lines of reproductive choice, or the choice to work or the choice to cut one’s hair. As a woman, and a personal perfectionist, I know that when something is fixed (my hair/my body etc.) then something else rises to fill the void. That’s why I rarely believe when I read/hear about an individual’s sudden personal fulfilment after getting breast enlargement, for example. Something else will become the problem and need to be fixed.

    You can’t open a women’s fitness magazine without seeing an ad for Botox or articles about diet (how am I expected to satisfy a snack craving with 5 almonds–who counts these things? Would six through me over the edge?) which really just make most women feel badly about their bodies, their faces, their habits etc. The articles have a ‘you go girl’ vibe, and scream ’empowerment’, but often it really revolves around a product pitch.

  2. Consumerism is so much at the heart of this. Entire industries would go broke if women (people!) felt good about themselves.

  3. Isn’t this just a microcosm of the whole consumer society? As pisaquari states, if people felt good about themselves, our society would collapse!

    Just look at commercials, they work on the concept that “you are not as good as others unless you have/do X.” Why would we have people waiting a whole week to get an iPhone other than to try to prove they have worth in the world. How sad.

    I, as a clergy memeber, would like to think that we get our worth from God, but I know that that message is being lost. We just have to look at the one-upsmanship that occurs on Sunday morning to know that this is not happening. But as long as we lack the ability to derive self-worth, unscrupulous people will take advantage of our self-doubt.

  4. I agree that consumerism is problematic, but there’s a difference between marketing an iPhone and marketing cosmetic surgery. The marketing of cosmetic surgery suggests that a woman’s body, her very flesh, is “not okay”; the marketing of the iPhone simply makes clear that having an iPhone would be a lot more fun. No other sector of marketing plays so explicitly upon women’s (and it mostly women’s, still) fear — and that makes it categorically worse than other areas of consumer advertising.

  5. I would agree that cosmetic surgery is bad. Especially when it is aimed at 18 yos and younger. But I guess I don’t see iPhones as just “more fun,” I see the whole iPhone phenom, meaning those who would wait for a week in front of a store to be the first to get one, as “I am not acceptable as I am, I must be the first to have this thing so that I can be acceptable.” I guess I see similar motivation. Both groups are looking for a way of being special. Unfortuantely, when the cosmetic surgery group find out it really doesn’t work, they have not only emotional scars to deal with but also physical scars.

  6. Hugo – While I think you and Ms. Cognard-Black are fairly consistent, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons would point out there is a difference between plastic and cosmetic surgeries.

    Reconstructive/plastic surgery is performed on abnormal structures of the body caused by birth defects, developmental problems, trauma, injuries, infections and tumors, such as as skin cancer and breast cancer.

    Aesthetic or cosmetic plastic surgery is performed to reshape or restore normal structures of the body to improve appearance or self-esteem.

    I believe your reference to female genital mutilation in Africa is a rather tenuous comparison. Would you really argue that the case of women over the age of informed consent who voluntarily elect to alter their body for personal reasons compares to women (really girls) who are involuntarily forced to have their body altered not for personal reasons? Even if you believe the former are not making “genuinely” free choice due to societal/cultural influences, the magnitude between their choice and the latter’s seems so vast that I can understand why you only have “limited success” in making the case of “not much more agency” (even using the Victorian area example)

    You can get facts here (according to the ASPS, the gender split on cosmetic procedures is 90/10 male/female)

  7. I agree with your critique of the beauty industry, and certainly the media presents an unattainable and unrealistic ideal for what beauty is, but I’m with Col. Steve on your comparison of the decision to get cosmetic surgery with female genital mutilation or with the clitoridectomies in Victorian times. While you may think that a woman’s decision to get plastic surgery is a bad choice or an anti-feminist choice, it is still a CHOICE. We’re all, men and women both, constrained by our culture and society to some extent, but if you claim that men are supposed to reject the dominant constructs of masculinity, shouldn’t women should do the same with the dominant constructs of what constitutes feminine beauty?

    I don’t think it does young women a favor to posit “the media” or “society ” as this thing that controls them over which they have no power – and I can assure you from personal experience that there is a rather LARGE difference between someone doing something to your body against your will and the “pressures of society.” Really really HUGE, in fact. We buy the magazines and the boob jobs and the diet pills and get the Brazilian bikini waxes (well, I don’t but a lot of women do. ) Rather than saying that the women who do these things are hapless victims of society, I assume that they have different values than I do. Rather than telling young women that they are not making a genuine choice, I think it might be a better idea to tell them that they ARE making a choice and help them figure out why they are making that choice, what that says about what they think is important, and what that has to do with the kind of world they want to live in.

    Well, that would be my approach if it were my class, which it isn’t. I’m just more than a little leery of any language that implies that women are powerless over the culture. We are half the population, after all…

  8. Hugo – Yep, good bad.

    Even with the ASPA distinction, there remain grey areas. Where does “tweaking one’s nose” during rhinoplasty to correct a deviated septum for breathing difficulties fit? Where do procedures by transgender people fit? Is breast reduction to alleviate back problems cosmetic or plastic?

  9. Christy, I think there’s a healthy middle ground between the faux commercial feminism that simply says “You go, girl, you can do anything you want and don’t let the media affect you” and a message that tells women that they are powerless.

    I don’t tell my students that they are powerless. I do invite them to consider the possibility that “autonomy” and “choice” are, in a media-saturated culture, a more complex set of terms than they might have considered. One very old and very slick marketing strategy, after all, is to repackage what is oppressive as what is liberating.

  10. I accept the “cosmetic” versus “plastic” surgery distinction.

    It’s not quite as much of a distinction as you might think. If an A-cup is “abnormal” and “impairs functioning” (because a C-cup is valued in our society), it blurs the line between cosmetic and plastic surgery.

  11. Monsieur Funt, I haven’t added a tatt or a piercing since Clinton was in office. That said, that form of body art (at least for me and for most others) is about an explicit rejection of society’s standards for beauty. Women who pierce their lips, for example, are invariably told “but you look so much prettier without it.” To which the feminist reply usually is, “Cripes, that’s the point.”

  12. So it’s okay to mutilate yourself as long as you’re being contrary rather than people pleasing?

    I’m fairly certain you don’t mean that but that’s certainly what that last remark sounded like.

    I happen to consider it all mutilation but hey that’s just me……..and my tribe.

  13. So it’s okay to mutilate yourself as long as you’re being contrary rather than people pleasing?

    I think the way I’d put it, Bill, is that tattoing/piercing began as a subculture that explicitly rejected normative beauty standards. It was intended to be genuinely liberatory; rather than trying to live up to the dictates of Big Fashion, Big Pharma, and the cosmetic surgery industry, folks who engaged in body modification were creating their own independent aesthetic. It wasn’t about being contrary as much as it was about a refusal to be compliant.

    Of course, as with rock music and every other rebellion, it was quickly co-opted by the very forces it was designed to oppose.

  14. I’m just trying to wrap my head around these ‘forces’ that sent out the message that having a body without pictures of anchors and hearts that read ‘mother’ was the height of conformity. ; )

  15. Of course, as with rock music and every other rebellion, it was quickly co-opted by the very forces it was designed to oppose.

    Which would explain the giant multinational tattoo conglomerates. *eyeroll*

    Don’t continually mistake of assuming that your motivations are everyone’s.

  16. The fact that there aren’t any “multinational tattoo conglomerates” doesn’t mean that the act of having oneself tattooed hasn’t flipped 180 degrees from being something only people on the rebellious fringe of society did to being something that many people do in the mainstream, something that is now far more socially acceptable than it once was–much like men getting an ear pierced.

    I too have a problem with the definition of “feminism” that says that anything a woman or girl chooses to do is “feminist” as long as it appears to be something she is freely “choosing.” In which drastically altering her body to conform to society’s standards of beauty is fine so long as it’s what she “chooses” to do. In which staying at home with her children while her husband goes to work is fine so long as she “chooses” to do so. I think in many cases, not as much “choice” is really going into the “choosing” as these individuals think. There is a certain pressure to conform to expectations of women in this society, and some make the decision that conforming is easier than creating or dealing with alternatives. This, they call “choice.” But I’m not so sure it really is.

  17. While I have no doubt there is a lot of money being made pushing plastic surgery services, I seriously doubt the advertising creates the demand. The demand is in our culture, perhaps in our genes — wanting to look good. What “good” is gets skewed in various ways, but I think once someone is actually reading a plastic surgery ad, they’ve already made the decision.

    Meanwhile we have an industry many many times bigger that is doing much worse for us — all of us — in terms of health and beauty and body consciousness, and that is the fast-food industry. When you add up all the crap people put into their bodies — sodas, drive-through grease, potato chips, energy drinks, processed meats more like plastic than food — it’s small wonder that our country is so obese and unhealthy.

    And it’s not easy to eat well. For one thing, you can’t eat much but garbage if you’re working a zillion hours just to get by.

    The beauty industry is trivial compared to what we’re doing to ourselves through our food. And yet few people talk about it. In fact, talk about obesity, especially in children, often gets push-back from what could only be called fat advocates.

    Some people have medical issues, but most Americans are creating medical issues for themselves. I couldn’t care less about botox ads in magazines, but I find myself getting angry every time I see an obese kid in a commercial.

    /semi-off-topic rant

  18. Pingback: Her Fall From Grace « When She Speaks I Hear the Revolution

  19. Pingback: Operar el éxito « Feminismo vivo