Torontostandard.com - February 19, 2013
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Torontostandard.com - February 19, 2013

Living in a Plastic World

Written by Eva Voinigescu

Are plastic surgery TV shows really empowering women… and is this the sort of empowerment we want?

I’m 24 and I have wrinkles. I noticed them the other day for the first time. It was inevitable, really. For as long as I can remember, my mom would tell me to stop squinting or I’d get wrinkles. And eventually, days in front of a computer screen squinting (I squint to concentrate you see– glasses or no glasses, I can’t seem to help myself) finally produced the baby crow’s feet I had been warned against.

And for the most part, I don’t really mind. I have no intention of doing anything about these wrinkles, except maybe trying to cut back on my squinting (which makes me look like a crazy person anyways). But I realize that others, even others in their mid-twenties like me, might not feel as ambivalent as I do about this first sign of aging.

Let me back up a minute and explain what got me thinking about this in the first place. A few weekends ago I came across a new special on TLC, Plastic Wives. The show follows three wives (and one ex-wife) of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons and their cosmetic adventures. In the words of Frances Marques, the lone ex-plastic wife on the show who co-owns a practice with her former husband (he left her for a younger woman), the show’s goal is “to empower women to own their body, inside and out.”

For Marques, this empowerment means four boob jobs and keeping the ‘excess’ labia she had removed in a plastic specimen jar. I kid you not, you can watch it here. Another one of the show’s main characters, Dayna Devon (former host of Extra) hopes the show will help to destigmatize plastic surgery.

I highly doubt that showcasing the lives of four women who are clearly addicted to plastic surgery is the right approach to dispelling negative feelings people have towards cosmetic procedures– but even more importantly, I wonder if we, as a society, want to destigmatize the kinds of unnecessary cosmetic surgery featured on shows like this. I somehow doubt it’s the best way to empower women when it comes to their bodies.

I’m of the mindset that I will never get plastic surgery. I don’t plan on having anything tucked, injected, or nipped, and I don’t see that changing. I’d like to think that the reason for this is because I don’t put an unreasonable amount of importance on physical appearance as a source of happiness, but that’s not true. When I gained ten pounds gorging myself on pastries and baguettes in France a few summers ago, I was self-conscious about it for months. But in the big scheme of things, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never worried about my appearance to the point where it affected my quality of life, and, in that sense, I think I’m a bit of an anomaly.

As a female in our society, it’s all but impossible to not feel inferior compared to the images of perfect women we are faced with on a daily basis. Our resulting perceptions of who we want to be, and our insecurities about who we actually are, can lead us to change our appearance by doing anything from dying our hair, to piercing our tongues, to getting Botox.

Peer pressure is also a factor. Last week, a friend told me a story about going out to buy eye cream following a visit from another, younger friend who had asked to borrow hers. It occurred to her that if someone younger than herself was already using eye cream, she should be too.

In no way can the airing of shows like Plastic Wives, Extreme Makeover, and The Swan improve upon the pressure women already face to be perfect.

Even the ‘perfect’ women are susceptible to the pressure. Every time I see a new picture of Megan Fox, I feel like her face looks less real than the last. In an attempt to retain her beauty, Fox seems to me to be making herself look older and more like an over-inflated sex doll with each successive (denied) procedure. Should someone, like Fox, in her mid-twenties, even be having plastic surgery? It’s a question that I found to be surprisingly polarizing.

I recently brought up the issue while out to dinner with some friends, and the idea of someone my age having Botox caused an uproar. None of them have ever had anything done. To them, and to me, a show like Plastic Wives is pure entertainment, an opportunity to marvel at the crazy lengths people will go for their vanity. To others, the show might be a trigger for insecurities they have about their own appearance.

When I spoke Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist at DLK on Avenue in Toronto, about whether she had noticed an increase of patients that she thought could be tied back to the prevalence of plastic surgery on reality television shows, Dr. Kellett pointed out that the majority of her patients “do not want the overdone look of surgery” common to these shows but, rather, they want “a more rested version of themselves.” Dr. Kellett, who specializes in non-surgical enhancement, says that “with the advent of injectables, lasers, light sources and other technologies, there are treatment options that are non surgical and effective.” It’s an increase in people seeking these types of non-surgical procedures that she’s noticed in her practice.

I also spoke to another friend (also plastic surgery free) about girls in their 20s having work done, who pointed out that plastic surgery is motivated by the same desire to take pride in our appearance that drives dying our hair, getting our nails done, and buying new clothes. This drive manifests itself in different ways for different people. Who are we to put limits on the lengths that are acceptable for someone to take in order to be happy?

“Women are so quick to judge other women, but all anyone really wants is to feel pretty and feel good about themselves,” said a friend who recently underwent a laser resurfacing procedure to improve acne scars from her teenage years. Though she says she can’t relate to girls who have more drastic procedures such as rhynoplasty, she believes that if there’s something about someone’s appearance that “truly upsets them to the point where they shy away from life events and it really affects their self-esteem, plastic surgery could very well be the answer.”

And yet, is it not our responsibility to create a societal environment that doesn’t cause women to feel so insecure about their appearance that they think the only solution is surgery? In producing more shows like Plastic Wives we are destigmatizing plastic surgery, whether we mean to or not.

In one piece I read recently about women having plastic surgery in their 20s, a 22-year-old who had recently had her breasts done mentioned how a rise in plastic surgery shows had actually made her decision easier “I always used to look at those shows and thought that everyone looked so pretty after their operations,” she said. Is this the message we want to be perpetuating?

“I think that sometimes on these shows there is a very different perception of what the ideal woman should look like which is at odds with what I think true beauty is. In my mind there is no stereotypical ideal woman with a given height, weight and breast size.” says Dr. Kellett, who instead describes the ideal woman as one who “is happy in general with her appearance but wants to be the a better version of herself.”

If we approach plastic surgery as a means of improving our quality of life by decreasing insecurities, and therefore becoming better versions of ourselves, then I’m all for it. But what if it isn’t enough? For some, one procedure may restore their confidence and allow them to refocuses their energies on things other than worrying about their appearance. For others, non-surgical procedures can be the gateway to more extreme surgery and an unhealthy body image—just look at the Plastic Wives.

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