The Normalisation of Cosmetic Surgery in Popular Culture

Written by: Niyanthri

Edited by: Nichelle

Visual by: Macy

Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook. Nearly every social media platform is saturated with filters: filters promising to make noses look sharper, eyes bigger, and for people to look thinner. It’s important to note that these beauty standards pervading the online environment extend into real life as well. One of the most significant examples of this is cosmetic surgery, the term used for procedures that modify an individual’s appearance. For instance, procedures like face lifts that cause an individual to look younger have become more popular, along with lip fillers, jaw reshaping, and others. Previously associated nearly exclusively with the rich and the famous, the industry is now becoming more popular and accessible amongst the general public . There are many reasons why this is the case, with social media and influencers playing a large part in causing cosmetic surgery to appear desirable. The creation of the demand for surgery occurs to an extent because of the perpetuation of beauty standards and the upholding the ideal of being conventionally attractive. As influencers have a large audience, more and more people are being made aware of the availability of such procedures and are thereby encouraged to avail of them. 

As mentioned previously, cosmetic surgery is often considered to be most common amongst celebrities, especially those involved in modelling. But artists in the industry often begin working in it at a young age, and end up undergoing cosmetic surgery based on the advice of their parents or managers. This is a pattern that can be seen even among the most successful individuals in the industry; Bella Hadid is one of the most well-known models in the world, with a vast portfolio including campaigns for many famous brands such as Versace, Givenchy, and Calvin Klein. At the start of her career, when she was fourteen years old, she underwent a rhinoplasty, with the prompting of her mother Yolanda Hadid. However, at 25, Hadid revealed during an interview with Vogue last week that it was a decision she now regrets, saying, “I wish I had kept the nose of my ancestors.” This sheds light on how child stars like Hadid are often exposed to the strict conditions to succeed in modelling, at an extremely young age. Not only this, it  also opens up an important discussion about eurocentric beauty standards in the industry. Hadid is of Arab Palestinian and Dutch heritage. Through stating that she now wishes she had the nose of “her ancestors,” it is shown that the modelling industry has, to an extent, idealised certain features more, thereby excluding others and creating the conditions for cosmetic surgery to become more popular, as people believe that changing their appearance is a prerequisite to success in the beauty industry. 

The perception that fitting into beauty norms is a necessity to advance in society, at times by making use of cosmetic surgery,  amongst celebrities and other influential individuals has also had a trickle-down effect. The trickle-down effect refers to the phenomenon in which celebrities and other individuals in the upper echelons of society have a significant impact on how members of other socioeconomic status view a topic or issue. This has been especially evident in the way cosmetic surgery has become popularised among the general population in recent years, and particularly in South Korea. As a nation with strong collectivist ideals, wherein there is a greater emphasis placed on the beliefs of the society rather than the individual, and a colonial history that has led to the perpetuation of beauty standards and reasserted the influence of the rich and powerful. It’s important to also note that there are other factors, such as the belief that fitting into beauty norms will increase chances of employment, and also the desire for many young Korean women to look more like K-Pop stars and idols they see everywhere, from their phone and television screens, to advertisements in subways. Due to the impact these aspects have on making cosmetic surgery more readily available domestically, the country is known to be the cosmetic surgery capital of Asia, making it a popular destination for medical tourists – people travelling to a country to avail of medical services there. South Korea also experienced a surge in demand during the beginning of the pandemic; in the first 10 months of 2020, cosmetic surgery sales increased by 10% compared to the previous year, a significant jump in a country which already has the highest per capita rate of plastic surgeries in the world. The most common procedure performed in the country is a blepharoplasty, which creates a “double eyelid,” making the eyes look larger. However,  contrary to the common misconception that the cosmetic industry thrives due to Koreans desiring to emulate European, or Caucasian, features, many plastic surgery experts in the East Asian region assert that people do not get surgery to “Westernize” themselves, but to fit into beauty norms in their own countries. In South Korea, for example, having large eyes is often idealised, incentivising more people to get surgery to achieve this. Social media advertisements and a greater awareness of the procedures available have simply contributed to a greater awareness of plastic surgery, leading to it becoming more popular throughout the country. 

On the other side of the world is a place where plastic surgery is even more common: Brazil. In 2019, the South American nation was cited to have the greatest number of aesthetic (not medically necessary) procedures performed in the world. Where in most countries such non-essential surgeries would have to be paid for out of pocket, in Brazil, patients can avail of cosmetic surgery at very low prices, or even have procedures subsidised by the government. The apparent endorsement for the cosmetic surgery industry from the government brings up concerns that this further perpetuates the ideal that beauty is a necessity for women, that they must appear conventionally attractive in order for access to employment, to find a spouse, and to move up in societal status.  Regardless of such potential long term consequences, the steep increase in demand for such surgeries has been caused to a large extent by an increase in Brazil’s economic growth over the past decade, leading to more people being in possession of disposable income. Furthermore, as the number of women in the workforce has been increasing, more women are able to pursue cosmetic surgery – a popular choice for women as it is often perceived as a status symbol, showing that they can afford to spend money on their appearance. This shows yet another example of how cosmetic surgery has contributed to further social stratification along the lines of physical appearance. However, because of such beauty standards that existed even before the popularisation of plastic surgery,  Brazil’s cosmetic surgery industry has been able to thrive in line with its economic advancements. 

In conclusion, cosmetic surgery has evidently become more and more common worldwide, but its impact has varied from country to country. Where in one, South Korea, plastic surgery is commonplace and viewed as a way to conform to beauty standards in the society, the other, Brazil, views it as a way to differentiate oneself, though it is also highly popular within the country. However, as can be seen with the example of Bella Hadid, there are still potential drawbacks to having plastic surgery done – since a large percentage of customers are young women, it remains to be seen what the long term impacts of normalising cosmetic surgery will be for the consumers. As can be seen in the cases of Brazil and South Korea, cosmetic surgery has, intentionally or inadvertently, led to social divisions along the line of who can afford such procedures, and also prompts the question of to what extent colonial ideologies and influences have contributed to the popularity of the industry in these countries. The effect of such surgeries has social impacts on beauty standards as well – these must be taken into account when considering impacts beyond the individual. In terms of the popularisation of cosmetic surgery itself,  the factor of social media plays a large role: the constant pressure to appear conventionally beautiful and desirable online is capitalised on by companies creating filters promising to achieve these objectives. This not only makes cosmetic surgery more of a popular option as more people seek to look more like the individuals they see online, but also changes how people feel about their own body image. Overall, it has been seen in recent years that it has in some ways perpetuated the bias in favour of certain features and body types and has also become a sort of status symbol for more affluent individuals. Despite this, the broader implications of the popularity the industry currently has for individuals and countries less affected by this phenomenon, remains to be seen. 

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