Stephen R. Munzer. “Cosmetic Surgery, Racial Identity, and Aesthetics.” Configurations 19, no. 2 (2011): 243-286. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 10, 2016).
In considering body image and the measures that women have taken to conform to societal trends of physical aesthetic, race is an influential and important factor. Societal expectations for beauty and physical appearance are not universal. Cosmetic surgery represents one method that women of various races have resorted to increasingly in order to alter their appearance to conform more closely with a western ideal of beauty that seems to emphasize large eyes and slim noses. However, such a decision is not one of little consequence as cosmetic surgeries are often expensive, painful, a health risk, and a demand of time and commitment. Like other decisions women make about their appearance, the motives to undergo cosmetic surgery have racial dimensions. Not all women choose to undergo cosmetic surgery solely because of societal pressures, but cosmetic surgery has become an increasingly frequented decision for women who want to change aspects of their physical appearance to make themselves appear more or less like a person of a race other than their own. This post examines some racial trends and societal expectations from the twentieth century that may influence women’s decisions and cosmetic surgeries today.
Munzer studied some of the reasons why women have chosen and continue to choose plastic surgery to redefine their features. He also summarized some historical trends of cosmetic plastic surgery, in general. While various forms of “plastic surgery” appear to have been around for centuries, they became increasingly widespread after the first World-War, when doctors attempted to use these surgeries to help those who had been injured or burned in combat. As medical technology and anesthesia improved, plastic surgery also became more available for aesthetic purposes. Along with the eugenics movement, western culture emphasized physical and racial perfection, and surgery increasingly became one option to achieve that. Gradually, cosmetic surgeons also learned new ways to augment breast shapes and sizes in women, providing another option for women who were already trying to alter their natural shape in order to appear as the feminized “fertile” ideal of the mid-century. While breast surgeries had been done experimentally since the nineteenth century, it was not until silicone injections were discovered that it became widely desirable. However, it was not until near the end of the twentieth century that these techniques grew to become as ubiquitous and “commonplace” as they seem to be in our culture today.
Because it has become so widely available, this type of surgery has been given its own name: ethnic plastic surgery. It is defined as plastic surgery intended to change an individual’s appearance to look more or less like a particular race or ethnicity. A frequently-referenced example in pop culture (although a man, not a woman) is Michael Jackson.
In this news report from 2014, various women explain why they are willing to spend tens-of-thousands of dollars on plastic surgery in order to change their features. Some plastic surgeons have specialized in ethnic surgeries, as it has become a widespread trend. The fact that women feel the need to surgically remake their facial features or body at all is evidence of societal pressure on women to have and maintain an “ideal body” (see previous posts).
This type of surgery is elected by women far more often than it is by men and it is also marketed towards them. There are also popular plastic surgeries designed only for women such as breast augmentation and the (relatively) new labiaplasty. Both of these surgeries focus on societally-sexualized body parts of women. Because surgery usually decreases or eliminates feeling in the body part, women who elect for these surgeries often do so to provide rather than receive sexual pleasure, thereby objectifying themselves. Body image in society has indeed become a responsibility for women rather than a right (see post #1).
According to the report, “Plastic surgery is more popular than ever now. Numbers for racial minorities turning to cosmetic procedures have doubled in the past decade, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. From 2005 to 2013, cosmetic surgery procedures performed on Asian-American patients has increased 126 percent, in African Americans, 56 percent and Hispanics, 84 percent.”
The debate over whether or not this practice is ethical is largely related to gender. Many feminist scholars have split views on the subject. While some have argued that if it’s okay for persons to change their gender, it’s okay for persons to change their race, others say that race is more inherent than gender because it’s ancestral. Either way, it is clear that societal ideals continue to lean toward anglo features and coloring. Even before surgical trends emerged, skin lightening was trendy among non-white women.
Individual women share how they felt insecure about themselves and therefore decided to get plastic surgery. In this clip Andrea says, “The whole reason I had this surgery done was to make myself more comfortable in my appearance.” Even though most men would not feel uncomfortable with a less-than-ideal nose, it is apparent that many women feel uncomfortable pressure to change. In this video a plastic surgeon explains why it is difficult and/or impossible to construct Caucasian features on people of other races. On Tyra Banks, a woman who underwent double-eyelid surgery to appear more caucasion describes why she elected to do so. She said that from what she understood to be beautiful, she did not fit the description. At that age she wanted to look more caucasion. She also said that her eyes were getting “droopy” and looking too old even though she’s only twenty-five. Tyra herself talks about how she has a hair weave and could not have been “a sexy Victoria Secret model” with her natural hair. The plastic surgeon on the show admitted that “there is a Europeanization of beauty standards” and that most people get surgery “without much thinking about it” because “the just feel double-eyelids are prettier.” Women have even resorted to daily using a sort of sticky tape to create a double-eyelid for themselves. It is apparent that for these women, and many more, race often conflicts with the image of an ideal woman.