New Internationalist

Can plastic surgery be liberating?

July 2014

Feminist blogger Danielle Leigh and filmmaker and former model Susan Hess Logeais go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Danielle

I am a feminist. I believe that, although our patriarchal society does place an extraordinary amount of pressure on women to look a certain way, there is nothing inherently oppressing or wrong about having plastic surgery, whatever your gender. Plastic surgery can be liberating, assuming that the person undergoing the procedure can be sure that they are doing it for their own reasons and not because they feel as though they have to, just to fit in, in a society that favours the white, cisgendered* norm.

Of course, some would argue that particular surgeries, such as breast implants, are the result of a male-dominated, sexualized society that sees women as nothing more than objects created for men’s sexual pleasure. However, is this really all that there is to the debate? Even with procedures such as this, and the ever-controversial labiaplasty, is it not extremely presumptuous to assume that liberation cannot be found as a result?

YES: Danielle Leigh is a recent English Literature and Creative Writing graduate. She writes about women’s issues from a sex-positive feminist viewpoint and is currently interning at Charee magazine. She also produces a weekly radio show for shockradio.com.

It is almost undeniable that gender reassignment surgery can liberate transpeople, allowing them to live in the body that they feel they were supposed to be born into, but I believe that all forms of surgery can be liberating, and that surgery is not worlds apart from other ways of changing one’s appearance, such as bleaching hair or getting a tattoo. Also, as the term ‘liberation’ is so subjective, if someone believes that their surgery has liberated them then we must surely take their word for it. When we begin to challenge a person’s ability to decide for themselves whether or not their surgery has had a positive impact on their lives, we tread on very dangerous ground.

Susan

Like you, I believe that everyone is unique and has the right to be themselves. At the same time I recognize how difficult it is to feel good in one’s skin when our culture has intentionally unattainable ideals of beauty, sexuality and attractiveness. And although you acknowledge the objectified portrayals that lead both men and women to opt for plastic surgery, I don’t believe you are taking into account what actually happens to the body after aesthetic surgeries. The consequences are far from liberating, and can even be enslaving.

As a former breast implant recipient, I know what it is like to have two hard lumps under my skin that are pulled asymmetrically by thickening scar tissue. Thanks to comprehensive health insurance, I was able to get them removed without having to pay $10,000 for the surgery and overnight stay. Other women are not so fortunate. Many save for years to pay for implants, but once they encapsulate with scar tissue, or leak, they can’t afford to get them out.

NO: Susan Hess Logeais is a filmmaker. After years of performing – first as a student dancer, then as a fashion model and actress – her focus is now behind the camera. Her company Hot Flash Films PDX produced the award-winning film Not Dead Yet and is in post-production on Soar, a documentary about two sisters.

Rhinoplasty, or nose jobs, can also be an eventual headache for the recipient. If cartilage was replaced with silicone, the tissue can shrink over time – picture Michael Jackson – and require repairing. Just do an online search for ‘problems with plastic surgery’ and you’ll find a plethora of examples of botched surgeries or rejected implants. We are not machines. When something is substantially altered, or implanted, there is always the risk of an adverse reaction. Even Botox and fillers leave people looking worse unless they are continued over time – paralysed nerves cause muscles to atrophy and sag; fillers plump skin and stretch it, causing additional sagging. For many plastic surgeons, breast implants and the non-surgical procedures I just described are like cash cows: patients are obliged to come back for future fixes. I don’t consider that liberating.

Danielle

It is indeed terrible to see surgery gone wrong, and I cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of botched surgery.

However, just because surgery can go wrong it doesn’t mean that it always will. With everything in life there is risk. Take a flight to an exotic location. Everyone that steps on a plane is aware that there is a degree of risk, but most people are willing to take that risk for its potential advantages, something not dissimilar to plastic surgery.

If somebody can find happiness and an elevated sense of self-esteem from investing in their physical appearance, then I see nothing wrong with that – Danielle

A friend of mine underwent a breast reduction last summer; pre-op she was [UK size] 34HH. Not only did she suffer sexual harassment whenever she left the house, but she also had to spend a fortune on larger bras because the high-street stores didn’t stock her size. She found it impossible to find dresses that fit properly because she had a [UK] size 10 waist but was size 14 on top. She suffered from social anxiety and dreaded leaving the house in summer because she wasn’t able to cover up with big jumpers and coats. Since her operation she has found it much easier to buy clothes and underwear that fit and her confidence has shot up. Her back pain and bad posture have completely disappeared, as has her social anxiety. For her, the risk was undoubtedly worth it.

The idea of the cash cow is an interesting and valid point, but any good surgeon will inform patients of the possible need for further procedures and if the patient is still adamant that they want the surgery, then surely it is their choice? We all have choices when it comes to how we spend our money, and if somebody can find happiness and an elevated sense of self-esteem from investing in their physical appearance, then I see nothing wrong with that.

Susan

Breast reduction surgery can be very helpful for women whose breast size reduces their quality of life. It is, however, quite different from implantation surgery, in that with breast reduction, no foreign object is implanted in the body. As for risks, a surgeon once told me that general anesthesia is one of the most dangerous aspects of any surgery. And even breast reduction surgery is not without its consequences. The point I’m making is that our bodies are not machines. Severing tissue results in scarring, which in turn impacts fascia [fibrous tissue] layers, muscle function and nerve conductivity that can create long-term and irreversible problems.

Plastic surgery doesn’t produce the long-term results people are seeking. It tries to pin us to a moment, but our bodies refuse to remain constant – Susan

In addition our bodies are constantly changing; the nose we think is too big today might change shape as we age. Breasts that seem small at the age of 18 may grow as we have children or go through the menopause. The biggest mistake we can make is to see ourselves as fixed in time; this is why surgery doesn’t produce the long-term results people are seeking. It tries to pin us to a moment, but our bodies refuse to remain constant.

If we didn’t live in a capitalist society that places making money above all else, then I imagine that plastic surgeons would be more honest about this reality. Unfortunately, few of them are. Just look at their websites for the possible risks associated with the procedures they offer; you will have to dig hard to find them. Perhaps that is why you believe that the risks are few and not serious enough to deter someone from going under the knife. I argue that most people are too ashamed to speak up. Surgery is dangerous and should only be considered under dire circumstances, not as an aesthetic option.

Danielle

I understand your point about inserting foreign objects into the body and agree that our bodies are not made to accommodate such objects. However, the fact that you have acknowledged that other forms of surgery such as breast reduction can be helpful surely agrees with the argument that plastic surgery can be liberating to some.

I am not asserting that all forms of surgery are helpful, that they are without risk, or that they should be the first option for somebody who is dissatisfied with their appearance. However, I do believe that in some circumstances – such as in the case of gender reassignment surgery or breast reductions – not having surgery would be the more oppressive course of action. For girls born into strict religious families where remaining a virgin until marriage is insisted upon, hymen repair surgery could save them from being disowned, even killed. On the topic of vaginal surgery, women whose bodies have changed through giving birth may opt for vaginoplasty or labiaplasty to enhance their sex lives and make them feel sexy again. If even one of the above examples were true, then surely the question of whether plastic surgery can ever be liberating is answered.

The point you make about capitalism is interesting – of course, it is true that it is not in the best interests of the surgeons to scare away potential customers – however, I see that as being a different issue and more a criticism of capitalism than of the surgery itself, which, in a different type of society, could be marketed differently, with the risks more explicitly defined and the patients thus able to make more informed decisions.

Susan

Obviously, there will always be situations in which cosmetic surgery will change a person’s life for the better, and I consider that to be reconstructive plastic surgery. In fact, I went to such a surgeon to have my breast implants removed because she was the only one (I spoke to three other highly successful surgeons in Los Angeles) who didn’t tell me I would commit suicide if I didn’t replace them, or be horribly disfigured without severe corrective surgery.

Harelips, birth deformities, gender reassignment, and hymen reconstruction are all useful and important procedures. As for vaginoplasty or labiaplasty, I would ask to what degree these women have explored techniques for toning pelvic and vaginal muscles. Many of the Daoist* practices also enhance sexual enjoyment and could make a huge difference, as opposed to a surgical remedy that will leave scar tissue and sever nerves.

Perhaps the point I am trying to emphasize is that we live in a medical interventionist society where the idea that everything can be fixed with allopathic [Western] medicine prevails over safer, cheaper, and more long-lasting approaches that actually enhance life instead of creating secondary problems. As long as there is money to be made by these procedures, doctors will be tempted to prescribe them without considering alternatives.

We are spiritual, energetic beings, inhabiting what appears to be a material body. While the Newtonian scientific model serves as the basis for how life is perceived, then mechanical approaches for treating our physical issues will prevail. From my perspective, surgery should be the last thing we consider.

* Cisgendered is when your biological sex matches your gender identity.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 474 This feature was published in the July 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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