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Bretz 1 Shelbi Bretz Kathleen Lacey ENG 315B 15 March 2013 Plastic Surgery, Popular Culture, and the

Cosmetic Gaze In 2012, American plastic surgeons performed 14,629,276 cosmetic procedures on American men (9%) and women (91%). The most popular procedure by far was Botox, followed by soft tissue fillers, breast augmentation, and facelifts (“2012”). The 2012 numbers were a 98% increase from 12 years ago, speaking both to the increase in popularity as well as affordability. As more women—the overwhelming majority of recipients—choose to change their bodies through plastic surgery, popular culture produces increasingly “perfect” images of women, an ideal supposedly attainable only through surgical alterations. But it’s one thing to look at the ever-increasing numbers; looking at the effects of these numbers on women is something else altogether. I chose to speak with five real women—Michaela, Karoline, Renee, Jan, and Mackenzie—to get a glimpse into the thoughts of women across the age spectrum and examine how these images of perfection are altering women’s perceptions of themselves. I have allowed their responses to shape my argument; most of the ideas in this essay were brought up in our discussions, from the standard of beauty, to the extensive influences of popular culture, to the overwhelming access that young girls have to images of “perfection” through the Internet. It is clear that, no matter her age, these women understand the images they are seeing and the effects that they have on self-esteem, and yet, they do not escape the pressures of popular culture themselves. These five women, too, struggle with a desire to match up to the standard of beauty that American culture perpetuates, and here, they invite you to explore the implications of tying a woman’s appearance to her inherent value.

Bretz 2 Caitlin Moran in her book How to Be a Woman points out that women undergo extensive beauty rituals, not to look “scorchingly hot or deathlessly beautiful,” but to look normal (Moran 44). Our culture has made alterations of a woman’s appearance acceptable and even expected. Women constantly change their natural appearance—whether through make-up, hair dye, waxing, or surgery— just to be considered “normal.” But what is normal? Clearly, natural is not normal in American culture. And yet, women must be getting the idea of what is normal from somewhere. Jan, 66, believes that our society has a standard of beauty that comes from popular culture. The other women I spoke with agreed; without my prompting, every single one of them mentioned a standard of beauty or perfection. The youngest of the bunch at 14, Karoline said that women’s perception of what is beautiful comes from pop culture because “those people always look perfect and how everyone wants to look” (Senn). And she’s right. Americans look up to celebrities, otherwise Hollywood wouldn’t exist, but they also strive to be exactly like celebrities; they become the ideal. The picture of beauty that celebrities provide, however, is by no means a picture of reality. Because women so often see surgically altered and Photoshopped women, they can’t help but view women in their own lives through the same lens—the lens of the cosmetic gaze. The cosmetic gaze, as defined by Bernadette Wegenstein in her article “Physiognomy, Reality Television, and the Cosmetic Gaze,” is a gaze “through which the act of looking at our bodies and those of others is already informed by the techniques, expectations and strategies of bodily modification…a way of looking at bodies as awaiting an improvement, physical and spiritual, that is already present in the body’s structure” (28). In other words, seeing through the cosmetic gaze gives a picture of what could be, under the impression that perfection is, in fact, attainable with surgical alterations. Many women understand that what they see in pop culture isn’t real, and yet many still struggle with wanting to meet the expectations that popular culture sets for them. Michaela, 29, has struggled with self-image issues for many years. By seventh grade, she says, she “knew *she+ didn’t fit the status quo of what was beautiful” (Schleicher).

Bretz 3 That status quo, the standard of beauty she looked up to, came directly from popular culture: “You see the different women who are ridiculously thin and yet have gigantic breasts, and genetically one percent of the population can achieve such a thing naturally,” Michaela says (Schleicher). And she is not alone. All four other women expressed frustration with the unrealistic expectations that pop culture creates for women. Mardia Bishop explains that women are in pursuit of “a ‘natural’ beauty ideal that is not natural” (137). We see women who are enhanced either through plastic surgery or Photoshop, and then expect to look the same way. In American pop culture, normal is not natural, and natural is never good enough. Renee, 41, believes that while Americans have always had a standard of beauty, it was not always so unattainable: “It was a much bigger, more natural standard of perfection. Even Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman was a natural-sized woman, and that’s not acceptable anymore” (Meyer). Florence Williams agrees, arguing that America’s standard of beauty has changed, but the focus on Hollywood has remained (61-62). Women have always been pointed to the faces of Hollywood for a picture of ideal beauty, but the ideal has shifted away from natural beauty to an unrealistic perfection. Thus, the plastic surgery industry was born, giving women across America the ability to look “perfect,” even as celebrities use the same mechanisms to achieve “ideal beauty.” However, while the cosmetic surgery trend may be centered in Hollywood, its popularity stretches far beyond magazine covers and television screens. Karoline may be young, but she understands exactly how appearance works in American culture. “If you don’t look a certain way, then you aren’t accepted as much,” she says. “People get plastic surgery so that other people will like them more because they look perfect” (Senn). Karoline’s layman logic pinpoints exactly why so many women choose to change their bodies: to better measure up to the societal standard of beauty. Susan J Douglas echoes this sentiment, saying, “it was better to no longer see your true self in the mirror than to fail to conform, to measure up” (225). Indeed, as a society, Americans have focused their attention on women’s beauty, and this focus has helped to create and

Bretz 4 sustain the cosmetic gaze. The cosmetic gaze leads the majority of women and girls to follow common beauty “rituals” such as make-up, hair dye, waxing, shaving, facials, etc., but plastic surgery is also becoming an accepted method of changing one’s appearance. When women see each other, and themselves, in light of what they “should” look like, insecurities abound and become the justification for alterations as extreme as plastic surgery. The problem, then, is not the fact that the cosmetic surgery industry exists, but rather the effects that the industry and the imagery it perpetuates have on women. Girls grow up learning that their value comes from a man’s attention, says Renee. And the best way to get that attention? Visual stimuli. Pop culture tells females exactly what to look like to attract a man; all other appearances are deemed unattractive. But the real danger, it seems, comes not from a desire for men, but from constant comparison to other women. Not only do women compare themselves to female celebrities, but they also compare themselves to women in their every day lives. All five women I spoke with emphasized the importance of approval from the female population. Mackenzie, 18, explains that from middle school until very recently, she had trouble accepting that everyone looks different. “There was that moment of desperation, like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m never going to be her’” (Miller). The other women agreed. Renee recalled friendly banter with her sister about their breast sizes that, though a joke, reflects the focus that women have on comparison of appearances: “She’s convinced that I came first and took all the boobs! Yes, God was handing them out and I took them all!” (Meyer) Female family members were also named as influential figures in the development of a girl’s self-image. Michaela remembers her grandmother telling her to eat less, and says that before family gatherings, she considers fasting so no one will ask her if she is pregnant (Schleicher). Women are encouraged by pop culture to compare themselves to other women; magazines would not sell as well if readers were viewing mirrors of themselves. And although many women can verbalize the fact that what they are seeing is fake, or, at the very least, touched-up, the images in

Bretz 5 popular culture can still be harmful to one’s self-image and self-esteem. Michaela believes that while a woman’s insecurities about her body are internal, they are created by external pressures (Schleicher). Wegenstein agrees, saying that women internalize the thoughts and opinions of others to formulate the cosmetic gaze; women begin to see themselves through the lens of what could be, and then expect to find their identity in this altered appearance (48). Indeed, a woman’s selfhood is inextricably linked with her bodily self, not because women are shallow creatures, but because at a young age, identity is defined by what is concrete, and then extends deeper as a girl develops and can understand her identity in more abstract terms. Psychologically, this is normal; however, when an entire culture begins tying value to appearance, women are thrust into a competition for the biggest boobs, flattest stomachs, and most perfectly proportioned profiles. But Moran believes that this ideal is, in harsh terms, “total bullshit” (106). Moran sees being what she calls “human-shaped” as perfectly satisfactory for being a woman, pointing out that “if you look recognizably, straightforwardly human—the kind of reasonable figure a ten-year-old would draw, if asked to sketch a person in under a minute—then you are fine” (106). Sadly, many women are not convinced of this, and popular culture perpetually churns out images of “perfect” women to compare themselves to. Nora Ephron claims that our society is wrought with “breast worship” (13), while the Botox King, Dr. Jean-Louis Sabagh, believes that female faces should be perfected at a young age—using Botox—to preserve one’s youthful skin and muscle tissue so future surgeries will yield better results (Sebagh). Indeed, nearly every figure of beauty that women are shown is either youthful in age or youthful in appearance. Renee agrees, saying that she believes that our culture worships youth as the highlight of life. At the same time, however, she understands the difficulty that comes with aging for any woman: “I feel like it’s just hard to know and remember; there’s a point where your skin starts to go backwards. And you’re just like, ‘These aren’t my eyes. What happened to my eyes?!’ And it’s just a weird thing” (Meyer). While there is no real way to know if women would feel this way without the images of popular culture, it is clear that with the emphasis on

Bretz 6 youth that is currently in place, women feel that simply aging gracefully is not enough. Jan explains her difficulty with aging gracefully and setting an example for her 10 granddaughters: I have this desire to not be so concerned about my physical appearance and set that example that you can accept your aging…and yet, you know, as I say that, there are things about these lines on my face that have always bugged me. Every now and then I see a picture of myself and I think ‘Oh my gosh, who is that old lady?’ It isn’t that I can accept it all real gracefully. But I want to. (Bretz) Jan points out one of the key issues with our culture’s focus on youthfulness: the example it gives young girls. Girls are constantly told that they are in the prime of their lives, that they will never be as beautiful as they are now. Yet, they are also bombarded with images of girls their own age or a bit older who, like women in the media, perfectly meet popular culture’s standard of beauty. Young girls, when presented with this paradox, grow up learning that they are at the peak of their appearance, but that same appearance does not come up to par. Moran explains what is so important about popular culture, especially to young girls, and why it is so influential in shaping a girl’s opinion of herself: “It is the main place where our perception of women is currently being formed” (141). Indeed, young girls who are constantly shown images of “perfect” women, who preserve their youthfulness through surgery, are given a message that being a woman involves remaining young forever, something that is, quite obviously, unattainable. The advent of the Internet has increased this problem, as young girls have more access than ever to the influences of popular culture. One click, one Google search, and tween and teenage girls can view a whole host of images articulating exactly what they are “supposed” to look like. The danger here, as Michaela explains, is that “if you’re told at that age that that’s what you’re supposed to believe, then that’s what you believe!” (Schleicher) Young girls who are told that they aren’t good enough most likely won’t question the statement unless they are given good reason to believe otherwise. Karoline, a young teen herself,

Bretz 7 recognizes that youth is important to beauty, emphasizing the need for perfect skin—a faculty of a young body, perfect hair, and skinniness (Senn). Mackenzie, an older teen, points out that beginning in middle school, girls begin to look for ways to change their appearances to match the standard of beauty provided by popular culture. She argues that the issue actually comes back to the insecurities created by pop culture; the images are internalized and create self-image issues, which then manifest in the changing of appearances not just to match the status quo, but to assert control over one’s body. “In middle school, girls started to talk about their hair, and I have never met a girl who loves her hair. Every girl just hates her hair; it’s like a requirement or something. But they have to learn how to control it, because that is part of what makes a girl beautiful” (Miller, emphasis mine). Perhaps she is right; pop culture provides a standard of beauty that is seemingly impossible to attain, but young girls and women alike can assert control over the situation by changing their appearances. However, Andi Zeisler in her book Feminism and Pop Culture argues that a woman’s choice to change her body to assert control is not empowering, but degrading, explaining that “the monolithic beauty industry that to thrive depends on perpetuating a cycle of women’s insecurity,” is preying on the weaknesses of women, after creating them itself (105). Women may think they are empowered by taking control of their appearances, but on what level are they actually responding to the messages pop culture is sending? The women I interviewed all expressed concern about this question. On one hand, women should have the freedom to do what they want with their bodies; they should not, however, feel pressured into doing anything with their bodies simply to achieve a standard of beauty that a multibillion dollar industry is creating. At the same time, though, there are very real consequences in our culture for not looking a certain way that can have significant effects on a young girl or woman. Jan and Michaela both noted that, while they would never encourage a woman to have plastic surgery to match up with the standard of beauty, they understood the idea that a woman who has been often insulted or ridiculed for something that is “wrong” with her body may, indeed, be empowered by the ability to

Bretz 8 change the object of that unwanted attention (Bretz and Schleicher). However, this again stems from the insecurities perpetuated by popular culture, illustrating that the root of the problem is still the same. The cyclical effects that pop culture and the plastic surgery industry have on women, then, leave our society with a rather puzzling problem: how can women resist the standard of beauty without constantly being compared to the very standard they are against? A large part of the solution may be to start raising our young women to accept who they are, regardless of what they see on television. Educating young girls about the danger of consuming too much media without a filter is the first step in creating a population of women who understand where their value truly comes from. In addition, teaching young girls and women about the cosmetic gaze will give them insight into why they see themselves and other women the way they do, and help them to formulate their opinions based on interaction rather than appearances. All five women I spoke with concurred: eliminating plastic surgery would not eradicate the problem of self-image and self-worth. Women and girls must realize that what they are comparing themselves to is an unrealistic expectation created by a culture that is fueling the beauty industry. Renee believes that “if there weren’t people making money off of convincing women that they aren’t good enough, then women would struggle as much as they do” (Meyer). Indeed, women and girls need to understand that linking appearance to value creates a downward spiral of insecurities and lies. Instead, as Renee says, we should work to ensure that “every woman thinks that who she is is enough” (Meyer). Right now, our culture proposes a solution to the insecurities it creates that only camouflages the true issue: the fact that women and girls are never told the truth about their inherent value. If we can teach young girls and women to find their value in character, talent, and being who they are, then we can raise a generation that is not controlled by the imagery of pop culture and does not turn immediately to plastic surgery to repair internal self-esteem issues. Michaela, Jan, and Renee all brought up Dove commercials as active solutions to the problem of self-image and where a woman finds her value. All five women I spoke with advocated teaching girls and

Bretz 9 women how to love themselves for who they are, not for what they could be. Karoline put it very simply: “It should be expressed that you don’t have to look that way and you don’t have to get plastic surgery to be pretty. That’s not the only thing that matters” (Senn). She’s right. And while a complete overhaul of popular culture is highly unlikely, reeducation of America’s women and girls is not. It is possible to teach women that their value lies in who they are, not in what they appear to be, and this education is only the beginning of shifting our culture’s focus away from a standard of outer beauty to a standard of inner beauty. It is important to remember Karoline’s sentiment, and to echo it to women and girls across America: Beauty is not the only thing that matters.

Bretz 10 Works Cited "2012 Cosmetic Plastic Surgery Statistics." Table. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. ASPS, 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. Bishop, Mardia J. "The Mommy Lift: Cutting Mothers Down to Size." Mommy Angst. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009. 129-44. Print. Bretz, Jan. Personal interview. 4 Mar. 2013. Douglas, Susan J. The Rise of Enlightened Sexism. New York: St. Martin's, 2010. Print. Ephron, Nora. "A Few Words About Breasts." Esquire May 1972: 6-14. PDF file. Meyer, Renee. Personal interview. 8 Mar. 2013. Miller, Mackenzie. Personal interview. 2 Mar. 2013. Moran, Caitlin. How to Be a Woman. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print. Sabagh, Jean-Louis, Dr. King of Botox. Interview by Sophie Shevardnadze. RealSelf. N.p., 11 Apr. 2009. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. <http://www.realself.com/blog/90-percent-celebrities-get-work-done-should they-reveal>. Schleicher, Michaela. Personal interview. 7 Mar. 2013. Senn, Karoline. Personal interview. 3 Mar. 2013. Wegenstein, Bernadette, and Nora Ruck. "Physiognomy, Reality Television, and the Cosmetic Gaze." Body and Society 17.4 (2011): 27-55. Print. Williams, Florence. Breasts. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print. Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture. Berkeley: Seal, 2008. Print.