Body modification isn’t a new concept. Forms of body modification from the use of corsets to reduce waist size to just piercing your ears have existed in humanity throughout history. Likewise, plastic surgery has been documented as early as 800 BC, however, it only came into wide use towards the 80’s and has only grown in popularity since. America has been spearheading this movement – since 2000 there has been an 87% rise in the number of people getting plastic surgery, with 92% of these surgeries being performed on women according to research done by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Cosmetic plastic surgery isn’t just about aesthetics, it has economic repercussions as well. As a consequence of living in a global society of austerity people are being pushed by capitalism to be as efficient as possible. When your line of work relies on your body, like for sex workers and strippers, how do you compete in an ever-growing industry, let alone reach maximum efficiency?
You literally change the shape of yourself.
While watching the new Spike Lee TV series She’s Gotta Have It, I was intrigued by the storyline surrounding one of the supporting characters in which she is considering Gluteoplasty; a form of plastic surgery where the bum is enhanced to the patient’s desire. The said character waiters in a burlesque club but aspires to be a dancer and believes it is her body shape that is in the way of her pursuing her dreams. Now with the recent idolisation of the Kardashians, there has been a rise in the popularity of more curvaceous female body types, the seemingly impossibly small waist-to-arse ratio. As shown in the tv show, more women are seeking surgical enhancements to achieve this. However, what intrigued me more than ideas of beauty was the idea of using the body as an economic commodity. The character is not modifying her body solely for aesthetic reasons but for economic stability as well.
Now, this is a far more serious topic than a storyline on a tv show. It is a disturbingly relevant topic. In 2014 Vice ran a short documentary and accompanying article (which you can read and watch here) which talked about the increase in illegal ass enhancement surgery in Miami, Florida. With legal enhancements costing up to $10,000, most go for life-threatening illegal enhancements instead. But why would anyone risk their life just for a more idealized aesthetic? I believe it is due to the pressures of capitalism and how it forces women to commodify their own bodies.
While many women are risking their health and lives for this surgery it is not for completely aesthetic reasons – to some extent, it is a choice of survival. To be the best stripper or model you’re required to modify your body at whatever cost, as your livelihood depends on it. The idea of having surgery so you could work a job is dystopian, however, for many, it is a reality. From 2000 to 2012 there has been a 176% rise in Gluteoplasty, which is now a 26-million-dollar industry. Browsing forums, I found many suggesting that the only way to be a successful sex worker at a strip club was to have breasts or ass augmentations. Some strippers claim to make triple their earnings in one night after having the augmentations. Here we can see clearly that women are being influenced by their economic situations and are resorting to changing their bodies to be the most profitable.
But are there economic benefits of body modification outside of body-reliant work such as stripping? Like with plastic surgery, ideals of beauty have always existed within cultures; there have been trends of clothes, makeup, hairstyles to just name a few. However, what we haven’t experienced before is the global outreach of styles and fashion. Perhaps the closest thing we’ve had to this is the spread and idealisation of Eurocentric beauty ideals spread through imperialism and colonialism, something that still haunts modern conventions of beauty, for example in skin lightening/bleaching products. But now the internet and universal outreach rule the (previously localised) beauty standards, which permeate culture globally.
The most obvious example of this is the way the Kardashians and makeup Instagram culture are shaping beauty standards for women and putting more pressure on women to conform to impossible ideals. With Kim Kardashian having 105 million followers globally it’s ignorant to ignore the influence she now has. She and her sisters have continuously influenced mainstream fashion and beauty for the last 5 years with their almost cartoonish curves and popularisation of contouring. There is nothing inherently new about this, fashion icons are a historical phenomenon.
However, what’s worrying is the global outreach of it. With 105 million followers plus the millions more who are acquainted with her presence, people all over are attempting to emulate her hyper-feminine style and physique. I feel generally that there is more and more pressure to conform to this idea of a woman, to conform to the hyper-feminine.
Not only cis women are getting surgery to conform to this aesthetic. Contrary to popular opinion, not all MTF (male to female) trans people get surgery. It is not a requirement of any sort, and there are trans women who are pre-op or abstain from transitioning. What is interesting to consider is the pressure of trans women to get cosmetic surgery to ‘pass’ as cis females.
Passing according to Wikipedia is defined as the following; In the context of gender, passing refers to a person’s ability to be regarded at a glance to be either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman. Now as conventions of femininity reach this hyperreal stage as conveyed by the Kardashians the pressure to conform is even more intense. But like with stripping, I believe this is influenced by economics and social security rather than purely aesthetic pleasure. Not being able to ‘pass’ can put a lot of pressure on a trans person, it can also be dangerous. By not ‘passing’ as a cis woman people that are transphobic may act out violently, be that verbally or physically in response. It also may out transwomen and when this happens in professional settings it can mean risking jobs, or other forms of workplace discrimination. This danger is increased if the trans person is working in sex work as behind closed doors they can be exposed to very serious forms of violence. For this reason, plastic surgery can offer a sense of comfort and safety for transwomen as it allows them to lead safer lives. However, it is only available for the privileged few and cannot be afforded for many as procedures are so costly.
It is again a complex situation with no right or wrong answers. I personally feel it is a great shame that the pressure to assimilate is so intense that it becomes a question of survival. It’s not right in my opinion that the pressure to conform to modern ideas of femininity has reached this level. But then again it offers personal and economic safety for some. However, I think it’s important to have a dialogue about these issues and consider the levels in which plastic surgery is working on in modern society. I also think it’s a good idea to approach it in the most non-judgemental way possible as it is a lot more nuanced than just a question of modern aesthetics, it’s a question of conformity and economics as well; and one that we should all be engaged in.
Illustrations by Georgia Rose