Reflections on Cosmetic Surgery

On May 3rd, the day I was supposed to help my group give our presentation, I woke up with the stomach flu. Since I couldn’t attend class, I agreed to write a blog post of my thoughts on our readings for the day. Being the genius that I am I decided to wait until now (exactly one month later – yikes) to do so.

In all seriousness, though, Haiken’s Venus Envy and Davis’ Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences brought up many salient points about what it means to navigate the complex decision-making process that goes into receiving cosmetic surgery (ethnic or otherwise) and how these decisions are inextricably mired in history.

One common thread I followed through both readings was the notion of suffering. Kathy Davis discussed how women make decisions to alter their bodies based on how much suffering they can tolerate. Embodied difference feeds this decision-making, as “individuals have specific histories of suffering with their bodies, born of their interactions with others” and that the effects of these histories “require ongoing negotiation” (1). When this suffering is inflicted on the body, it only seems natural to look to alleviate it through the body, altering whatever difference precipitates these harmful or otherizing interactions.

Talk about suffering – yikes!

This theme of suffering points to a larger shift in medical discourse today. The boundaries between medicalized cosmetic surgery like laser eye surgery and other more “frivolous” or “vain” procedures like breast implants or nose jobs is often a blurry one, and it is unclear why we draw the lines where we do. Attitudes towards plastic surgery have shifted from a view of these procedures as entirely vain to one in which “plastic surgeons have come to see their work as facilitating patients’ total mental and physical health rather than merely removing a distressing flaw” (2).

Plastic surgery is increasingly discussed as a way to achieve wellness by boosting mental health through the alteration of the physical body

The flip side of this view, however, is the suffering that may result from changing the body – specifically, the loss of the body’s history. As Haiken discusses in her examination of Michael Jackson’s multiple procedures, “Jackson’s haunting face… suggests that something larger has gone awry in twentieth-century North America” (3). His surgeries speak directly to a history that has oppressed, devalued, and attacked him for his appearance. If Jackson’s surgery was in fact a direct response to that history (whether consciously or not), in changing his appearance he exposed its psychological effects and in doing so disclosed the intense suffering inflicted by that history.  Most reactions were “not entirely comfortable with what [was] being changed, and why, and what is lost in the process” (4), particularly because it pointed to larger systemic inequalities and atrocities continuing in America.

This caricature demonstrates the discomfort surrounding Jackson’s plastic surgery.


What is lost in the process? Regardless of one’s motivations for receiving plastic surgery, is there an essential something housed in the body one is born with, a quality lost through alteration? Is the loss an emotional loss, a capitulation to the pressures of culture, a failure to love oneself? Or is the loss one of fellowship, of community with people who look like you, who have experienced the same history of suffering, and can offer comfort in shared understanding?


(1) Kathy Davis. Dubious Equalities and Embodied Differences. New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003. pp. 8.

(2) Elizabeth Haiken. Venus Envy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. pp. 6.

(3) Elizabeth Haiken. Venus Envy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. pp. 177.

(4) Elizabeth Haiken. Venus Envy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. pp. 177.


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