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The curious case of cosmetic surgeries

Aggressive commercialisation of beauty reflects the failing standards of egalitarianism in our society today.

The curious case of cosmetic surgeries

History has been witness to a number of unhealthy beauty trends, many of which have been accepted as extremely irrational and cruel in today's times. 16th-century chopines and 20th-century hobble skirts restricted women's movement and increased their dependence on others. In the Elizabethan era, use of makeup made of lead and arsenic, and eating chalk reflected a blatantly racist obsession with white and pale skin. Lower classes faked gingivitis to ape tooth decays of the more privileged who had access to sugar. Even today, many ethnic tribes continue with practices which inflict bodily deformations. In the urban context as well, trends like high heels, skinny jeans and using excessive makeup dominate the fashion discourse. Cosmetic procedures are the latest addition to the kitty. Interestingly, the common thread connecting them all is the reinforcement of social norms and stereotypes. Forms of socialisation which lie at the intersection of race, class and gender-based prejudices.

Contemporary times: Desires and demands

In recent years, the number of individuals seeking cosmetic procedures has increased tremendously. In 2015, 21 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures were performed worldwide. In the United Kingdom specifically, there has been a 300 per cent rise in cosmetic procedures since 2002. 2016 witnessed a surge in the number of such treatments with the United States crossing four million operations. Presently, the top five countries in which the most surgical and nonsurgical procedures are performed are the United States, Brazil, South Korea, India, and Mexico. Demand surplus can be viewed from different perspectives. At one end, it can be regarded as a product of scientific progress, growing awareness, economic capacities and easier access; on the other, something along the lines of a self-inflicted pathology.

The social dilemma

Pierre Bourdieu's observation about social mobility still holds good in contemporary times where better 'looking' individuals are considered to be healthier and more accomplished. Such an understanding stems from a complete disregard of individual merit and fundamental freedoms. How have ideas, otherwise seen as deviant and problematic, retained control over the minds of millions of individuals? What motivates them to risk aspects of their lives to cater to self-limiting rules of 'acceptance'? The surprising part is that this anomaly is often placed in the illusory realm of 'free will'. However, when the entire socio-cultural setup and individual attitudes validate certain behaviours, there is very less space left for an alternate narrative. Let alone free will.

A gendered culture

Today, there is idolisation of celebrities, beauty pageants and advertisements by cosmetic companies over medical advice. An active and aggressive media has played a key role in forming societal perceptions of what is attractive and desirable. People who deviate from such norms are either stigmatised or ostracised from social spheres. The massive pressure to live up to some ideal standard of beauty, particularly for women, reeks of the patriarchal remnants of a male-dominated society. This kind of conformity further nurtures objectification, reducing women to the level of 'chattel' to feed the male gaze. Lifestyle changes reflect an image-obsessed culture, reeking of deep-rooted insecurities. It is also very hard to overlook the self-evident undercurrents of social prejudice and capitalistic propaganda. There has been a growth in the number of adolescents who take to cosmetic surgeries to become more 'perfect'. Presumably, there is an underlying dissatisfaction which surgery does not resolve. People continue to look for remedies in the wrong places.

Medicalisation of beauty

Attempts to normalise cosmetic procedures pose serious health dangers and psychiatric disorders which are often subsumed by the popular rhetoric. These include adverse effects due to cosmetic fillers like skin necrosis, ecchymosis, granuloma formation, irreversible blindness, and anaphylaxis. Other dangers like heightened susceptibility to cancer, mortality and increased suicide rates also loom large. There is no denying that advances in plastic and reconstructive surgery have revolutionised the treatment of patients suffering from disfiguring congenital abnormalities, burns and skin cancers. There are cases where medical-aesthetic inputs have been vital in restoring the morale by subverting stigmatisation. However, the increased demand for aesthetic surgery falls short of a collective psychopathology obsessed with appearance. I am, thus, apprehensive of this form of social consciousness that first generates dissatisfaction and anxiety and then provides surgery as the solution to a cultural problem.

The way ahead

'Beauty' is unfair. As a product of privilege, it often offends egalitarian values. The existence of male-supremacist, ageist, racist, class-biased and to some extent, eugenicist standards, reflect a failure of the society as a whole. We have to work towards a social order which embraces people as they are. We should open our hearts to the diversification of beauty and aesthetic. Let our entertainment, fashion, capital and media revolve around heterogeneity of ideologies and cultures. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent". So, let us all come together and create a better society. A society, where love and humanity override archaic ideologies of naive men. A society, where the individual will is truly free and discourse, a product of informed thought.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Tanushri Roy

Tanushri Roy

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