How Plastic Surgery Has Co-Opted Feminism

I have been greatly disappointed by what I’ve seen of online conversations about breast implants. For example, here at Care2, and even here at BlogHer (Keep Your Opinions Outta My Boobs).

First of all, whether pro- or anti-implant, participants bring up everything from popular culture to body image to parenting (rising trend in teen plastic surgery), but only superficially address health. This tells me that the general public is woefully uninformed about the real and serious health risks associated with these medical devices.

A second frustration is that it is often the people thinking it’s perfectly fine for breast implants to remain on the market who use the message of feminine empowerment to support their argument.

Arghhh! I have spent years of my life battling the breast implant industry and the government bodies responsible for regulating them because breast implants are just plain dangerous, and NOW and Our Bodies Ourselves have been in the trenches with me every step of the way. These venerable organizations fought and continue to fight the hard fight to teach society the value of women, to give us the opportunities we enjoy today, and to show us our value and potential so we can make the most of those opportunities. To see the feminine power they did so much to unleash used to support or promote breast implants, something they deeply oppose, is outrageous and quite frankly painful.

In the Summer 2007 issue of Ms. Magazine, in an article entitled “Extreme Makeover: Feminist Edition,” Jennifer Cognard-Black, does an excellent job explaining how plastic surgery has co-opted feminism.

The article starts by telling us that Allergan Inc., the maker of Botox, has secured Sideways star Virginia Madsen’s to endorse Botox in its latest advertising campaign, “Keep the Wisdom. Lose the Lines.” In People magazine, Madsen says, “I don’t want to be 25. I just want to look like me. I am 45, and I am in the best shape that I have ever been in my life.” This is an example of how cosmetic procedures are being promoted “in less sensationalized ways to whole new markets.”

Increasingly, reality TV’s Cinderella tale of surgical transformation is being replaced with a smart women’s narrative of enlightened self-maintenance. While Extreme Makeover and its imitators shame and blame ugly-duck patients in order for prince-surgeons to rescue them and magically unlock their inner swans through “drastic plastic” (multiple surgeries), other media sources now compliment potential customers as mature women who are smart, talented and wise.

Alex Kuczynski, author of Beauty Junkies, calls these latest appeals “the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics,” which ignores the work of feminists like Susan Faludi and Susan Bordo, who have argued for years that the practices of the global beauty industry are misogynistic. And like the cosmetic industry,

[The plastic surgery industry] is 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-determinism.

In addition to the message of empowerment, the industry also appeals to the power of sisterhood. In the blurb for her popular book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Plastic Surgery, Jean M. Loftus is described as a female plastic surgeon who offers “compassionate advice for…any woman considering plastic surgery.” The cover of the Internet Guide to Plastic Surgery for Women is a collage of women’s faces of every make and color, “suggesting that the reader is in this with her sisters.”

The implication is that the male physician, advertiser, network producer or cosmetic-medicine mogul has been sidestepped, and women are empowering each other to be more informed consumers.

And then there is the idea of “choice.” Using “what’s right for you” language suggests that plastic surgery is “just another lifestyle choice with little difference from working our and eating well.” And,

…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.

To read more, please visit Beauty and the Breast.


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