Why are we so willing to undergo cosmetic surgery?

Miss Plastic Surgery finals China
Miss Plastic Surgery pageant, Beijing
A recent article on cosmetic surgery in China observes that, despite the highly publicized death of aspiring pop star Wang Bei (see The death of Wang Bei: Cosmetic surgery as a moral choice), “the ugly side of Chinese obsession with beauty … is a gamble that millions of people are willing to take.” Why is that?

The high rate of cosmetic surgery in Asia has been widely discussed, including an article in The New York Times. What caught my attention in this more recent piece was the postmodern/feminist spin.

Susan Feiner, a feminist economist, offers these comments: (emphasis added)

Parents are caught between a traditional world view and a postmodernist world view. On the traditional side especially, your daughter is your property and potential to social advancement. … On the postmodern side you have this idea that western beauty, this imported beauty ideal, is really a sign of your family’s openness to the future. So those two impulses – a very traditional impulse and the more modern neo-liberalism impulse come together at the moment of submitting your own daughter to the knife. …

On one hand we have all of this acceptance and even approval for women to become doctors and lawyers and political leaders and at the same time what’s been held up to women is this Walt Disney notion of our lives. That really even if you are a doctor or a lawyer or a political leader the best you can really do is to be beautiful and get some wealthy rich man to take care of you, so the best possible outcome for any women is to be both hugely successful professionally and be knock-down beautiful.

Why so much willingness to reshape the body?

What drives the popularity of cosmetic surgery? As bioethicist Carl Elliott notes in one of my favorite books, Better Than Well, medical enhancements, along with body size, are part of the logic of consumer culture: “You cannot simply opt out of the system and expect nobody to notice how much you weigh.”

Sociologist Arthur W. Frank would agree with Elliott about the logic of consumer culture: the body is a bankable commodity. He offers an explanation of how cosmetic surgery functions in contemporary society, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of field and capital.

In our daily lives, we move among various “fields” — settings or arenas of life such as job, family, romantic relationships, politics. Our success in a particular field depends on how much “capital” we have. Capital can be economic, social, cultural, symbolic, or physical (the body). Capital is our “clout” in a given arena, so to speak.

Different fields give varying weight or value to each type of capital. The entertainment field places a high value on physical appearance, for example. Capital determines power relationships within a field and location in a social hierarchy. An athlete’s physical ability brings the power to demand more money and creates celebrity status in the social hierarchy.

Consider a woman who wishes to surgically alter the shape of her feet (creating “designer” feet). Frank writes: (emphasis in original)

This woman’s capital, in at least one of the multiple fields of her life, includes being able to go barefoot or wear sandals and have her feet look a certain way. … This woman, in her field, is doing with her feet what all members of any society … do with our bodies and with our talents: we shape and allocate them in order to make them count as capital. Feet can be a form of capital not only in dating and marriage markets, but in job markets as well.

What counts as capital goes well beyond the feet themselves. Reshaped feet display the willingness to reshape one’s body to conform to the demands of the field. The woman’s feet mark her ability to read properly what counts as capital and to endure what has to be endured to accrue that capital. This interpretive skill and the complementary endurance are the woman’s real capital. Any self-reshaping … is properly brought off when and because it demonstrates the person’s attunement to the demands of a specific field. … Members of traditional societies accepted being told when and how to reshape their bodies. Their decision was binary: either participate or leave the group. In contemporary society, each individual is responsible for choosing and effecting her own reshaping, thus demonstrating her fitness for membership within a given field. Hierarchical position depends on displaying attunement to the field …. including what kind of body counts as right. The right body demonstrates having made the right assessment of capital, and thus becomes a potent display of rights to participation and position.

If you think this is merely abstract postmodernist theory, I recommend you read any number of recent news stories, including Beautiful people cash in on their looks (USA Today), When cosmetic surgery is a marker of ambition (The Guardian), Cosmetic surgery helps people to get ahead at work (Private Healthcare UK), Older workers nip and tuck to stay competitive in job market (Chicago Tribune), and – one of my favorites — Firm to Female Lawyers: Wear High Heels, Embrace Your Femininity (The Wall Street Journal). The message to maximize your physical capital could not be more clear.

Neoliberal medicine

The feminist economist quoted above describes the acceptance of neoliberal ideas by Chinese parents as an openness to the future. This may be a realistic assessment of the future, but — as she points out — not an entirely satisfying one for women. In his discussion of surgically shaped feet, Frank goes on to point out that Bourdieu – who opposes neoliberalism — is by no means offering a neoliberal defense: What else can a woman do?

Neoliberal medicine asserts that medicine should be a for-profit business, ideally controlled by corporations. Corporate dynamics turn medical services into consumer products. When a woman seeks designer feet worthy of her designer shoes, she may be operating under the neoliberal assumption that personal choice should prevail over all other considerations. But that does not mean we should applaud the underlying assumption.

What Bourdieu’s concepts offer is an understanding of this woman’s motivation. Given the world we live in, it allows for a more “generous” view of her dilemma. Frank: “Unless this woman leads a charmed life, she will have other experiences that will shift her scale of what counts as humiliation. But for now she is doing what we all do: she is trying to hold her own. And so is her podiatrist.”

As I’ve written before, when we choose to have cosmetic surgery – on our faces, our feet, our thighs – we tell ourselves this is entirely a personal and private decision that affects only the individual. But in fact, our decision changes the standards of acceptable appearance in which everyone else must live. “The personal is communal.” Ultimately the decision is a moral one.

To quote Frank, paraphrasing Foucault, the woman seeking designer feet “knows what she is doing, but she seems to have little awareness or interest in what her doing does.” She has demonstrated her “fitness for membership” in modern, neoliberal society. But is that the society the rest of us want to live in?

Related posts:
The death of Wang Bei: Cosmetic surgery as a moral choice
Character, personality, and cosmetic surgery
Bibi Aisha: Fixing what can be fixed
Why do we feel bad about the way we look?
Even dictators need a facelift
The complex signaling function of hair
Imagine a future without cosmetic surgery
Feeling sorry for plastic surgeons
The politics behind personal responsibility for health


Image: Zimbio

Sharon LaFraniere, For Many Chinese, New Wealth and a Fresh Face, The New York Times, April 23, 2011

Rebecca Valli, Getting Sexy in China, Asia Sentinel, May 11, 2011

Carl Elliott, Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream

Arthur W. Frank, Emily’s Scars: Surgical Shapings, Technoluxe, and Bioethics, Hastings Center Report, March-April, 2004

Sharon Jayson, Study: Beautiful people cash in on their looks, USA Today, March 31, 2011

Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, When cosmetic surgery is a marker of ambition, The Guardian, February 14, 2011

Cosmetic surgery helps people to get ahead at work, Private Healthcare UK, January 2011

Bonnie Miller Rubin, Older workers nip and tuck to stay competitive in job market, Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2010

Dan Slater, Firm to Female Lawyers: Wear High Heels, Embrace Your Femininity, The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2008


4 Responses to Why are we so willing to undergo cosmetic surgery?

  1. What’s really depressing is that so many people have so readily bought into the idea that they must resort to surgery, botox and other interventions to make them viable members of the workforce and society. Yet the people who stand out are those who resist this kind of group-think or, on the other side of the equation, those who go overboard and end up looking shiny and smooth and strangely creepy. There’s nothing sadder than a good actor with a frozen face who is no longer capable of emoting.

    • Hi Kate – I know what you mean. I’m interested in cosmetic surgery as an example of how we do things without being fully aware of why we do them. The change in consciousness after Betty Friedan is an example. If we can become aware of something, then there’s the possibility of choice. But it can be very hard to become aware of the things that are so taken for granted we don’t see them.

      Nice avatar!

  2. Do we have cosmetic surgery because we don’t like our opinion of ourself? Or do we do it because we don’t like society’s opinion. Singular pressure vs peer pressure. I am going with society pressure and the pressure to conform.