The Cosmetic Industry: The Externalization of Women’s Identity
By Patricia J. Anderson
Dr. Midge Wilson, Advanced Psychology of Women, 561
De Paul University, Chicago, Illinois, November 15, 1995
Personal experience with the use of cosmetics led me to look at how the cosmetic industry got started and how it “hooked” women psychologically into believing that artificial beauty was a requirement of femininity. Patriarchal images of beauty have gone far beyond “powdered noses”. Beauty that was initially obtained through make up and hair care products led to surgical procedures like face lifts and breast augmentation. While cosmetic surgeon’s knives carve into a women’s physical body, the scars are actually inflicted much deeper, into a women’s core – her sense of self. For this reason, I also look at the “choice” involved in cosmetic surgery through a feminist ethical lens.
My reason for doing research on make up and cosmetic surgery was very personal. I started wearing make up around age thirteen, in response to peer pressure from my friend Iris. She applied mascara to my reddish-blonde lashes and eye brow pencil to my also light brows. What a drastic difference it made! For years I had lived with barely visible lashes and brows – how had I survived without make up? I was hooked. I could never again go back to being plain and colorless.
My dad’s initial response to seeing me with make up on was quite emphatic, “No daughter of mine is gonna wear that crap on her face! Go wash it off!” But dad wasn’t in charge of make up – it was mom’s thing and mom said okay.
A few months later I came to the breakfast table without make up on. Dad immediately threw up his hands covering his eyes (to shield himself from my ugliness) and said, “Jesus Christ, redhead go and put your make up on”! Dad was kidding, right? He WAS a kidder. I’ll never know.
At thirteen my beauty ego was very fragile, girls at this age are very influenced by what their fathers think of them. I was shattered! I really believed I was ugly without make up on. Despite the fact that my feminist consciousness was raised a long time ago and the fact that I’ve never had a lover express any negativity about my appearance without make up, I still rarely leave the house without make up.
Creating a Market for Make Up
According to Kathy Peiss (1994),Victorian times viewed women’s make up as illegitimate and unrespectable. Many women had refrained from wearing make up due to, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and cost. Most working class women who wore make up were prostitutes, so respectability was an issue. A boundary had existed between respectability and promiscuity, gentility and vulgarity – paint marked that boundary (Peiss 1994).
Things changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American women started wearing face powder, rouge, lipstick and other visible cosmetics – make up turned into an essential sign of femininity (Peiss 1994). Naomi Wolf (1991) says that since the industrial revolution, women’s “beauty” was used as a form of currency among men. Ideas about beauty and money became parallel economically (Wolf 1991). Capitalism set out to redefine a woman’s everyday needs; cosmetics became enmeshed within the mass consumer industry. The challenge was to define women’s external appearance and then make their cosmetics compelling to women (Peiss 1994). They did.
Making Beauty a Necessity
Women’s faces started to look different in the culture’s mirrors: motion pictures, women’s periodicals and advertising, store windows, fashion runways and department stores. National advertising in women’s magazines became a dominant force by the early nineteen twenties. Advertising stressed the safety and cleanliness of the products and even claimed product’s invisibility, guaranteeing women that they wouldn’t appear immoral or painted (Peiss 1994).
Egalitarian marketing techniques were employed. High priced items were marketed in exclusive salons aimed at wealthy customers; lower priced products were marketed to teenagers and working class women in drugstores and discount beauty outlets. There were also specific ethnic markets that targeted African American, Hispanic, Asian and other women of color (Peiss 1994).
To women who had devoted themselves to their families the message made beauty an irresistible duty. One cosmologist said, “Don’t be ashamed of your desire for beauty” (Peiss 1994, p. 375). The logic of the popular idea that everyone could be beautiful led to the assertion that all women should be beautiful–it was a duty to husband, children, necessary for business success and vital to the attainment of romance. If you weren’t beautiful, you had yourself to blame (Peiss 1994).
The relationship between femininity and appearance was reshaped by a beauty industry that promoted the externalization of the gendered self to be achieved cosmetically (Peiss 1994). The multi-billion dollar industry convinced women using deeply imbedded feelings of fear, anxiety and self-hatred to seek “hope in a jar” (Peiss 1994, p. 391).
Cosmetics and African American Women
African American women’s lower economic status limited their ability to buy cosmetics. However, growing racial segregation and the migration of Black middle class to the cities led entrepreneurs to develop businesses marketed to Black consumers. One of the leading Black businesses pioneered with the development of beauty products for African American women (Peiss 1994).
Black women’s grooming centered around hair care. Entrepreneurs marketed hair tonics (straighteners for kinky hair) to Black women by way of almanacs and ad cards that used African American ministers and school teachers to promote the products (Peiss 1994).
Black women found good employment opportunities in a sex and race segregated market within the beauty culture. Here was a business that was in great demand, easy to learn and required little capital to get started. This resulted in the establishment of businesses in homes, small shops and door to door sales. High Brown face powder was sold door to door by an army of agents (Peiss 1994).
White racism in the beauty culture exploited issues like the natural inferiority of Blacks noting their unruly hair, promiscuity and sloppy dress and marketed toward the Black woman’s desire for respectability. There was controversy over the adaptation of white aesthetics, but the fact that products were marketed door to door among friends and neighbors fostered a web of support and assistance to Black woman’s culture (Peiss 1994).
Female Development of a Remade Self
The hospital nursery sweeps an infant girl’s hair into a curl, by age one year her ears are pierced, by age two her nails are polished, she has ribbons in her hair, and ruffles on her skirts. Femininity becomes associated with beauty, beauty becomes a part of a girl’s self perception; pretty is the framework for her self image (Freedman 1990).
Rhoda Unger and Mary Crawford (1992) discuss the fact that much of girls play revolves around glamour. Make up is flavored like candy and geared to girls as young as three. Toy stores market numerous hair and nail products especially for little girls (Unger & Crawford 1992). The prettiest, most popular fashion doll, Barbie, even has her own make up. Cosmetic kits for the girls themselves, reassure parents that they are suitable for children as young as three and promise to help their daughters create dozens of fashion looks. After all, she’s only putting on the same disguise that mommy wears. Parents approve of her beautifying herself; she learns that her own face, though pretty, is inadequate, needing to be made lovelier–a double message fostering negative body image and self doubt (Freedman 1990). Girls learn that their faces and bodies are not good enough and need improvement (Unger & Crawford 1992). Girls are surrounded with constant subtle demands for beauty that become invisible once internalized. They believe that beauty is something they want – it’s a fun choice they make.
Beauty contestants can be very young. Freedman (1990) discusses the opinions of pediatrician Lee Salk about beauty contests for girls. Girls feel tremendous pressure to accept and identify with exaggerated images of beauty. When they realize that they lack the winning look, suffer deep feelings of inadequacy. Nearly half of twenty thousand teenage girls in a survey said they frequently felt ugly (Freedman 1990).
Compared to boys, twice as many teen girls want to change their appearance and a greater number of girls are unhappy with a part of their body. Girls think other girls are better looking than they are; boys think other boys are less attractive than themselves. The smarter a boy is, the more satisfied he is with his looks; there is no similar correlation among girls (Freedman 1990). Freedman (1990) thinks that’s probably because the brighter a girl is the more she realizes “she can never attain the beauty ideal” (p. 390).
The socialization of girls teaches them to seek their identity through male attention. To obtain that attention they must conform to societal demands for beauty defined by white heterosexual males. Under these circumstances girls really don’t have a choice in seeking beauty. The connection between appearance and worthiness can be so deeply ingrained in puberty that a woman is insecure about her appearance (and herself) for the rest of her life (Freedman 1990). This is true of feminist women, as I serve to demonstrate.
Puberty is the time when differences in self esteem between the sexes starts to take place (Unger & Crawford 1992). The enactment of the beauty role is shaped by the way a girl’s father reinforces her appearance (Freedman 1990). I now understand why my dad’s behavior had such a powerful impact on my emerging sense of self.
Make up has become an essential prop necessary to the development of womanhood. Babysitting money is spent on mascara and bust developers (Freedman 1990). When I was eighteen I told my friends that I didn’t need much money while I lived at home – my only expenses were make up and hair spray! Little did I realize just how true and how sad that was.
A newspaper printed an ad to potential advertisers from a teen magazine: “Seventeen readers don’t love you and leave you. As adults 34% still rinse with the same mouthwash and 33% use the same nail polish. Talk to them in their teens and they’ll be customers for life” (Freedman 1990, p. 392). Cosmetic advertisers have been shown to affect the “conception of reality” of teen girls; a girl learns rather than to ask the mirror, “Who am I?” to ask, “What should I look like?”, illustrating a distorted identity that sees its goal as packaging the self as product (Freedman 1990, p. 392).
Susan Brownmiller (1984) said it well, “Cosmetics have been seen historically as proof of feminine vanity, yet they are proof, if anything, of feminine insecurity, an abiding belief that the face underneath is insufficient unto itself.” (Brownmiller 1984, p. 158-159).
Even cosmetic surgery is directed at young girls through advertisements in teen magazines. Parents pay for girls, not boys, to have plastic overhauls, provided by a medical system that reinforces myths about female beauty (Freedman 1990). Girls learn that their desirability is measured by their looks, and that they can never measure up, no matter how hard they try (Unger & Crawford 1992). These societal messages will keep cosmetic manufacturers and cosmetic surgeons in business.
Patriarchy profits financially and perpetuates its control of women through this psychological phenomenon. Women who are beautiful, don’t see themselves such, but their so-called success makes them vulnerable to exploitation – because of their beauty (Freedman 1990). Women really can’t win.
Cosmetic Surgery: A View of the Knives
Morgan (1991) displayed a page of knives, scissors, needles, and sutures used in cosmetic surgery in her essay, “Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women’s Bodies”. She suggested that her readers look at them carefully, for a long time, and to imagine them cutting into your skin (Morgan 1991). I did.
As a nurse, my first glance simply revealed surgical instruments – no big deal. Then I looked at them with care, for a long time, and imagined them being used on me as the author suggested. When I looked through my feminist lens, I saw mutilating, controlling devices used by patriarchy to manipulate women, to make women fit the image of beauty defined by white men. I saw how far beyond powder the industry had come and how enormous the greed for profit and control had taken patriarchy.
The technological beauty imperative gives cosmetic surgeons the powerful and explicit mandate to explore, breakdown, and rearrange women’s bodies (Morgan 1991). Cosmetic surgery is an example of the medical system’s power to define, not only what is normal or pathological, but what is beautiful. No aspect of medical training certifies physicians to evaluate beauty. The message is: “The ideal woman is made, not born, with a little help from the surgeon’s scalpel” (Unger & Crawford 1992, p. 334).
Kathryn Morgan (1991) quotes a plastic surgeon (director of plastic surgery education at a university): ” … I think people who go for surgery are more aggressive, they are the doers of the world. It’s like make up. You see some women who might be greatly improved …, but they’re, I don’t know, granola-heads or something, and they just refuse.” (Morgan 1991, p. 26). Frightening, this man teaches future surgeons and no doubt perpetuates these attitudes.
Weight standards for attractive women have been reduced in our society (Unger & Crawford 1992). Even Barbie has gotten thinner than since her appearance in nineteen fifty nine (Unger & Crawford 1992; Freedman 1990). In such a society, puberty itself has negative consequences for girls whose normal development includes increases in fatty tissue. Girls are seen as lacking what’s defined as normal – boys lean bodies, also causing a girl to deviate from the “ideal” thin female image (Unger & Crawford 1992).
The most popular cosmetic surgery in nineteen ninety was lipo-suction. Fat cells are vacuumed from beneath the skin – never to return. Women risk their lives in surgical procedures that promise to make them fit the imposed image of a lean body. Lipo-suction has resulted in at least twelve deaths from hemorrhages or embolisms (Morgan 1991).
Facelifts (an umbrella term for several procedures) are recommended to women in their early forties with subsequent repeats every five to fifteen years, costing $2,500 to $10,500. Various styles of rhinoplasties (nosejobs) are available and styles go in and out of fashion from time to time. For $2,000 to $3,000 they will whittle down your nasal bone or add a piece of bone from another part of you body that will answer fashion’s call (Morgan 1991). In one study thirty percent of women said they would have a face-lift if they could afford it (Unger & Crawford 1992).
Dr. Robert Mendelsohn (1982) says women frequently ask him about getting plastic surgery, women he knows are looking to cure problems in their marriages that they attribute to their inability to qualify as a model for Vogue. He doesn’t encourage plastic surgery and thinks its use other than in correcting true traumatizing disfigurement, ” … is the biggest rip-off on the medical scene” (Mendelsohn 1982, p. 39). Mendelsohn (1982) mentions one female plastic surgeon who said that some of her peers act as if they’re hairdressers and “give the field a bad name” (Mendelsohn 1982, p. 39).
Feminist Biomedical Ethical Perspectives
One of the reasons Morgan (1991) gives for writing about cosmetic surgery is that the field of bioethics has been relatively silent about the issues present in this area of medicine, feminist or otherwise. Morgan (1991) thinks that feminists need to ask why women would reduce themselves to potentialities to fit the heterosexual image, illustrated by an enormous and growing demand for cosmetic surgery. Women invest years of their savings to fix natural flaws through dangerous and painful operations to make their bodies fit images designated by fashion editors (Morgan 1991).
The relationship between the means and the ends is no longer unilinear, it has becomes circular, with the new technologies presenting the possibility of new ends. The possibility of what one might desire has new objectives added. Technology’s role has become to transcend, control, transform, exploit and destroy; its object viewed as inferior, thus justifying it’s higher purpose in providing a fix (Morgan 1991). This is congruent with what traditional bioethics has historically done – used rationalization to justify what doctors are already doing (Sherwin 1992).
We’ve become technological subject and object, transformable with the ability to literally create ourselves with biological engineering. Technology plays the role of transcendence, transformation, control, exploitation, or destruction of the object, viewed as inferior. A higher purpose is served in perfecting the object because it’s harmful or evil. To the Western medical model the body is a machine whose parts can be replaced (Morgan 1991). One plastic surgeon clarifies his role, “Patients sometimes misunderstand the nature of cosmetic surgery. It’s not a short cut for diet and exercise. It’s a way to override the genetic code” (Morgan 1991, p. 31).
Most women are socialized to accept the knives of technology in Western societies. Knives can be used to heal: saving a the life of a baby’s in uterine distress, removing cancerous growths, straightening crooked spines, or giving back functioning to arthritic fingers. But other knives perform episiotomies and other types of genital mutilation, remove our deviant tendencies by cutting out our ovaries, unnecessarily amputate our breasts with prophylaxis used as justification or in cases where less drastic measures could have been employed, slice out uteruses of women beyond child bearing age or of those of undesirable color, and perform unnecessary cesarean sections so doctor’s time isn’t delayed by nature (Morgan 1991).
The skin is nature’s vital protective barrier that protects and contains our body’s integrity; any time skin is broken you are at risk. It should never be taken lightly (Morgan 1991). Morgan (1991) refers to the knives of cosmetic surgery as, magic knives, in a patriarchal white supremacist culture. I’m afraid of these knives that have historically illustrated great ease in penetrating and controlling women – beyond the skin.
After listening to the voices of women who underwent cosmetic surgery, Morgan (1991) gives examples and assessments of their various reasons: “I’ve gotten my breasts augmented. I can use it as a tax write-off” – professional advancement and economic benefit (33); “There will be a lot of new faces at the Brazilian Ball”, – class and status symbol (33); “If your parent had puffy eyelids and saggy jowls, your going to have puffy eyelids and saggy jowls”, – control, liberation from parents, avoid hereditary (33); “… we want a nose that makes a statement, with tip definition and strong bridge line”, – domination and strength (33); “A teacher who looks like an old bat or has a big nose will get a nickname”, – avoid cruelty and aging (33); “I’ll admit to a boob job” (Miss America 1986), – competitiveness, attain prestige and status (33); “People in business see something like this as showing an overall aggressiveness and go-forwardness the trend is to, you know, be all that you can be”, – success and personal fulfillment (33). Her list went on to include reasons such as: a gift to self, erasing a decade of hard work, economic gain, possible denial of grand motherhood, emotional control, and happiness (Morgan 1991).
Sixty to seventy percent of cosmetic surgery patients are female. Why, when the risks are so great, are women willing to sacrifice other parts of their lives to have reconstructed bodies? Risks that include: bleeding, infection, embolism, unsightly scars, skin loss, blindness, disability, pulmonary edema, facial nerve injury, and death. Despite these facts medical ethics doesn’t discuss these issues (Morgan 1991). As a feminist health professional, I feel that our silence on the issue makes us complicit in enlarging the scope of avenues to patriarchal power.
The extent that patients and cosmetic surgeons are committed is shocking to what Morgan (1991) sees as, “one of the deepest of original philosophical sins, the choice of the apparent over the real” (p. 28). Technologically created appearances are perceived as being real (Morgan 1991).
Morgan (1991) thinks we are technologizing women’s bodies in Western culture. Cosmetic surgery is moving out of the sleazy, suspicious, deviant or pathologically narcissistic, to the norm. With this shifting it may actually become deviant not to have cosmetic surgery. This changing societal perception has the potential to lead viewing those who don’t elect cosmetic surgery as deviant (Morgan 1991). Cosmetic surgery has gone far beyond the “duty” that make up became in the nineteen twenties. Morgan’s prophecy is not at all far fetched.
Silicone Breast Implants
Breast augmentation with silicone implantation is the second most frequently performed plastic surgery. Over one million women have had these implants, costing from $1,500 to $3,000 (Morgan 1991). “Jacobs (a plastic surgeon … ) constantly answers the call for cleavage. `Women need it for their holiday ball gowns'” (Morgan, 1991, p. 25).
Augmented women appear to have a higher incidence of breast cancer (Morgan 1991). To date there have been seventy two deaths and ninety one thousand injuries related to silicone implants (Winfrey 1995a).
Plastic surgeons and manufacturers rationalize that silicone breast implants are a matter of a woman’s free choice, after all it’s an “elective” procedure. However, women should think seriously about trusting physicians and manufacturers who not only stand to profit significantly by satisfying women’s “choices”, but who are the very same white males who dictate the patriarchal beauty images that women “choose” to comply with.
Oprah Winfrey (1995a) recently did a show on the controversy over breast silicone implants; she had Dow Corning’s Stephanie Burns, Manager of Women’s Health and FDA Issues and Dow’s chairman and CEO Richard Hazleton on the show. Audience members described symptoms they began to experience soon after receiving silicone breast implants: migraines, numbness in hands and fingers, terrible rashes on chest, axilla, and down their sides, rock hard breasts, and burning pain in the breasts and armpits (Winfrey 1995a).
Other than migraines, these signs directly relate to the areas of the body near the breasts. However, doctors told these women they didn’t know what caused their symptoms and mammograms failed to show abnormalities (Winfrey 1995a). Recent studies demonstrate that mammograms are very difficult to interpret because implants block X-rays by casting a shadow on surrounding tissue (Morgan 1991).
It’s now common knowledge that Dow Corning suppressed negative data about the safety of their silicone gel implants. Women who have received the implants say that they have led to the development of autoimmune diseases; diseases in which the bodies own cells attack itself. A disease that may very well correlate with the psychological phenomenon involved in the negative body image that led women to obtain implants. It’s almost as if the body was speaking out metaphorically through the development of autoimmune responses; the body’s way of expressing the evil it has experienced.
Audience members (Winfrey 1995a) knew their doctors thought they were crazy because they couldn’t find answers their symptoms; the women felt like they were loosing their minds. Miraculously, their symptoms went away when implants were removed. Some women who had had implants learned, after having other types of surgeries, that their surgeons found silicone gel on their livers, uteruses, and ovaries. Autopsies have revealed gel in the brains of implanted women (Winfrey 1995a).
Stephanie Burns (Winfrey 1995a) said that the implants can cause local complications: infection, capsule formation around the implant, hardening of the breast and rupture, and that when rupture outside of the capsule occurs, the gel can migrate. Burns (Winfrey 1995a) also admitted that when migration occurs the gel and implants must be removed. One woman showed the actual gel that had leaked out of her implant into her rib cage and lymph nodes. It was obvious that the sticky, stringy material would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove from the inside of the body (Winfrey 1995a). Burns (Winfrey 1995a) said that eighteen studies have come to the same conclusion, there is no correlation between the implants and autoimmune or other diseases. Burns (Winfrey 1995a) said this despite the fact, (brought out by audience members), that the package insert actually LISTS scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis (autoimmune diseases) as possible side effects. Women in Winfrey’s (1995a) audience said that they didn’t see package inserts – the packages are opened in surgery and physicians have not shared the package inserts with them. I wonder if the physicians themselves read the inserts? My guess is that the good old boy network mentality could allow some doctors to simply trust the manufacturer.
Richard Hazleton said he doesn’t believe the implants are causing the women’s problems. Hazleton suggested that women needed to get beyond their anger and really need to understand the facts. He repeatedly referred to women’s choice in having the implants (Winfrey 1995a).
Many of the women said Dow did not follow ethical standards because women were not informed of the possible dangers. According to an audience member, the FDA said that it’s up to the company to prove that the implants were safe, not the responsibility of the medical community to prove that they’re not safe (Winfrey 1995a). I think both the manufacturer and the physicians are responsible. One woman in the audience said that “buyer beware” is not an acceptable practice (Winfrey 1995a). Both of Dow’s representatives kept citing the evidence from the studies that claim no correlation between the implants and any disease. A woman in the audience said, “We are the evidence. Study us!” (Winfrey 1995a). A great idea!
Historically women have been socialized to use beauty as a power (Morgan 1991). Morgan (1991) includes a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft from 1792, “Taught from infancy that beauty is a woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison” (p. 34). Morgan (1991) asks, whether women today are making free choices to have cosmetic surgery or are they too simply adorning their prisons?
Psychological Aspects of the “Choice?”
An inexcusable tragedy is that women expect that the plastic surgery will fix their lives, not just change their features. They soon discover that even fixed, they’re not good enough and the same problems still exist. The psychological impact is likely to produce a even deeper depression than before the surgery when the subsequent disillusionment sets in (Mendelsohn 1982).
Women receive complex negative messages about their bodies and can lead to low self esteem and alienation from one’s physical and sexual self. These negative attitudes remain throughout a woman’s life and can result in constant worry over weight, looks and feeling unsatisfied with her physicality. Despite the fact that these negative body images are distorted one researcher claims that there is an “epidemic of `flesh loathing’ among women (Unger & Crawford 1992, p. 333). Cosmetic surgery is increasingly viewed as a cure for aging and body variance (Unger & Crawford 1992).
Beauty’s affirmation brings with it privileged heterosexual affiliation which includes forms of power not available to the plain, ugly, old or those unable to reproduce. Women who seek cosmetic surgery have compelling voices; their voices tell of their search for transcendence, achievement, liberation and power. The youth and beauty artificially created by the surgery doesn’t only appear to, but often actually does (emphasis added) give a woman a sense of identity that she, to some extent, had a choice in. By increasing her desirability to men (especially white men) it offers the possibility to raise her status socially and economically (Morgan 1991).
A woman’s beauty is a valued commodity. Beauty may be a kind of power for women, their looks can be used in exchange for financial and material gains. Further more, when males treat females well it validates her beauty and enhances her social standing (Unger & Crawford 1992).
In the commitment to pursue beauty, a woman integrates her life with a consistent set of values and choices, bringing with it societal approval which results in an increased sense of self esteem. The process of acquiring cosmetic surgery may expose a woman to people who treat her body in a caring way, something women frequently lack in their lives on a daily basis. The pursuit of beauty through transformation is frequently associated with experiences of self-creation, fulfillment, transcendence, and being cared for – powerful experiences. At the same time that beauty can confer an increase in self esteem to a woman, it also involves being entrapped by its interrelated contradictions (Morgan 1991).
According to cosmetic surgeons, women come to their offices demanding: “Bo Derek” breasts, nose reductions, frequently sought by Jewish women to obtain an Aryan look, Western eyes, sought by Asian women and light skin, through the use of toxic bleaching agents, sought by Black women. The goal isn’t simply beauty, but to mold oneself to fit racist, anti-Semitic, White, Anglo-Saxon, and Western images (Morgan 1991). For women, this molding is at the expense of her precious self.
Initially one might argue that it’s a choice, but Morgan (1991) argues what appears to be the result of reflection, deliberation and a self-creating choice signals conformity at a deeper level. The images of male identified beauty sometimes live as ghosts in the reflective awareness of women clothed in a diffuse manner. It’s not always obvious to women that their bodies are being viewed as raw material, primitive entities, seen only as potentials for exploitation by the colonizing culture (Morgan 1991).
Sometimes the culture’s power source is explicit, it’s brothers, fathers, male lovers, or cosmetic surgeons who offer free advice on how they can cure deformities and problems at women’s gatherings. Sometimes the diffuse power dominates a woman’s consciousness without an apparent outside source (Morgan 1991). That unapparent source is her own internalization of patriarchal values.
Women who are involved in self-surveillance behaviors, like fixing their make-up all the time, or monitoring everything they eat, are maintaining obedience to the patriarchal powers that be. The men that women transform themselves for are male-supremacist, heterosexist, ageist, ableist, racist, anti-Semitic and classist (Morgan 1991). Women don’t see this because their so-called decision comes out of internalized values that tell them they’re not pretty enough. The same self blame that occurred in the nineteen twenties in regard to the use of make up, happens to women today in regard to cosmetic surgery. The basic phenomenon is the same, the behavior that results from the internalization digs in deeper today.
Coercion and domination are frequently camouflaged by theories and rhetoric that appear benevolent, voluntary and therapeutic. Technology’s ideological manipulations serve to destroy and disadvantage aspects of women’s integrity. Rather than escaping the constraints of their given physicality they are becoming more vulnerable, in seeking independence they are actually more dependent on male assessment (Morgan 1991).
The woman who seeks cosmetic enhancement seems to fit the paradigm of making a rational choice, but she makes that choice at significant cost to herself in terms of lengthy post-operative pain and in terms of financial costs (health insurance doesn’t cover elective cosmetic surgery). The term elective has a seductive role in the ideological camouflage regarding apparent choice (Morgan 1991).
Loni Anderson discussed her cosmetic surgeries on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Loni admitted to having two breast reductions and having her eyes done. Winfrey (1995b) asked Loni, “You believe if you can do it – do it?” Loni answered, “I think it’s maintenance, it’s not changing, it’s maintenance” (Winfrey 1995b). Like car maintenance, if you don’t change the oil every three thousand miles you’re engine will be destroyed. What will happen to women’s identities if they don’t do maintenance? Maintenance is certainly a frighteningly harmless sounding description of what is increasingly becoming an expectation for women.
Morgan (1991) quotes an article marketed toward homemakers, “For many women, it’s no longer a question of whether to undergo plastic surgery—but what, when, by whom and how much” (28). Just as make up came to define femininity in the nineteen twenties, today’s cosmetic surgery is becoming necessary for “maintenance” of femininity.
As cosmetic surgery becomes more and more normalized in the media, women who refuse to submit will be viewed in one way or another as deviant. Their stigmas will include being viewed as unliberated, uncaring about their appearance, which is considered a disturbed gender identity by some health care professionals, and as refusing to be all they can be (Morgan 1991). Imagine an ad where therapists offer to help women to overcome their fear of cosmetic surgery: “Gentle, caring therapist will help you overcome you fear of plastic surgery. You just need a little help – we can help you to attain YOUR dream of ultimate beauty!”
“… the technological imperative and the pathologic inversion of the normal are coercing more and more women to “choose” cosmetic surgery (Morgan 1991, p. 41). Normal variations in women’s bodies are redefined as deformities, ugly protrusions, inadequate breasts, unsightly fat areas, all designed to magnify feelings of shame, disgust and see relief in what cosmetic surgeons offer (Morgan 1991).
Although admittedly not likely to ever be achieved, Morgan (1991) says that women could collectively chose to exercise their power, and refuse cosmetic surgery. Refusal holds the possibility of drastically affecting the market, possibly leading surgeons back to healing (Morgan 1991).
Morgan (1991) suggests that feminists not turn away from women who chose cosmetic surgery, as this decision may be one of the only decisions that she perceives as having power over in her life. It is essential that we acknowledge the power of the gender-constituting, identity-confirming role femininity plays in bringing a woman into existence, while at the very same time makes her a patriarchal defined object. Under these circumstances, refusal may mean renouncing one of the only life-conferring choices a woman may have. While cosmetic surgeons are flooded with new clients and new research in the field is rapidly leading to more body parts becoming objects of redoing, it may be that the best we can hope for is to increase awareness of the numerous double-binds and compromises that affect all women’s lives (Morgan 1991).
Morgan suggests that women could protest in a culturally liberated manner with events such as Ms. Ugly/America/Canada contests utilizing cosmetic surgery to attain the right look (Morgan 1991). If we cringe at the idea of women altering themselves to win a Ms. Ugly contest, Morgan (1991) says it may just make the point of how strongly the beauty imperative has us all hooked. One might think of these surgeries as mutilations, but Morgan (1991) says it’s just as mutilating to de-skin and alter healthy tissues to go with the flow of fashion.
A revolt Morgan (1991) suggests is to parallel the current market for breast implants with commercial protest booths (set up at health conventions and outside of cosmetic surgeons offices) with before and after photos of penises, the display signs might read, “The Penis You Were Always Meant to Have” (p. 46).
Perhaps feminists could also develop a continuum of handsomeness for males, similar to the one to ten model devised to judge female beauty. It might be fun for feminists and has the potential to even raise the consciousness of non-feminists. Women might be more inclined to see how ridiculous and damaging the beauty imperative is.
Cosmetic surgery’s language fits with the surreal images that women are expected to comply with. Another word for cosmetic surgery is plastic surgery, the word “plastic” is actually more descriptive of the image imposed. Even the word augmentation is revealing to one with a feminist consciousness. Wolf (1991) summed things up well, “The beauty myth generates low self esteem for women and high profits for corporations as a result” (p. 49). The cosmetic industry demonstrates how very personal the political/economical really is.
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