Cosmetic Surgery and the Mask of Aging in Western Societies
"Nature isn't always the best. I have the money to improve on nature
and I don't see why I shouldn't"
(Cher, as cited in Glasgow Evening Times: 24 April 1992)
"We hadn't seen or heard from each other for 28 yearsâ€¦Then he
suggested it would be nice if we could meet. I was very nervous about
it. How much had I changed? I wanted a facelift, tummy tuck and
liposuction, all in one week."
(A woman, age forty-nine, being interviewed for an article on "older
couples" falling in love; "falling in love again" 1990)
In late modernity, the exterior territories, or surfaces, of the body
have become symbols of the self, and in a society where capitalist
exchange is the dominant system, the body and its parts become
commodities to be desired and acquired. People are increasingly
overwhelmed with messages of youthful ideals of how to stay young or
how to get old without signs of aging, and women's appearance in
particular seems to pay a key role in self and identity in Western
society. Chapkis argues that "a woman is made to feel continually
insecure about her appearance, and simultaneously so dependent on it"
(1986: p.140). Consequently, it would seem that women (and quite often
men) are willing to go to dangerous degrees and to endure painful
procedures to 'improve' and alter their appearance in order to
maintain these ideals of youthfulness.
In a world in which people are so often judged by how they look, the
belief that we can change our appearance is in many ways, somewhat
liberating. We all supposedly harbour internal norms of appearance and
behave as if these are both fixed and accurate. To become someone else
or to become a better version of ourselves in the eyes of the world is
something we all desire. Whether this is achieved through ornaments
such as jewellery or through the wide range of physical alterations
from hairdressing to tattoos to body piercing, we respond to the
demand of seeing and being seen. Such visual judgements are ubiquitous
in western society, and perhaps even necessary, yet they also trap us,
as seen in the past hundred years where we have increasingly turned to
those whom it is believed can permanently alter the way we look to
others - cosmetic surgeons.
Throughout the ages women in particular have undergone pain to attempt
to conform to the current cultural ideals of beauty and youth. This is
clear in relation to procedures such as foot binding and the wearing
of restrictive corsets, where women suffered discomfort and immobility
in the name of particular fashions. In recent decades, Western society
have replaced these practices with strict...