The Price of Pretty in a Plastic World

Hello, everyone!

Even if you’re only vaguely aware of celebrity drama, you might have noticed a new plastic surgery craze that’s been sweeping the faces of Hollywood starlets. From Lea Michele to Amelia Gray Hamlin, stars have been strutting the streets with newly-hollowed cheekbones, thanks to a little surgery called buccal fat removal. Since the advent of the silver screen, celebrities have been nipping and tucking their bodies, but the practice of plastic surgery was a well-kept industry secret. Almost every A-lister in Hollywood has been under the knife, yet until recently, these stars’ supernatural looks were ascribed to good genetics, scrupulous exercise, and a fastidious diet. It’s only very recently that stars have begun revealing their plastic surgery to the public.

This sea change is a consequence of 24/7 social media exposure. With celebrity faces being constantly dissected on Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit, it’s no longer possible for stars to hide the tell-tale signs of plastic surgery from the eagle-eyed public. But instead of revealing the man behind the curtain, celebrity plastic surgery confessions have endeared them to their fans, and made Hollywood beauty seem attainable. After all, if the only obstacles keeping beauty from the hands of the Average Joe are a rhinoplasty and some lip filler, what’s stopping the public from stripping the mantle of beauty from the hands of the elite and claiming it for themselves?

The reality is a lot more complicated. Searching for beauty in a plastic world can cause untold physical, psychological, and economic distress. It begs the question: is pretty worth the price?

From Kathrine Swynford, the medieval beauty who wooed the Duke of Lancaster, to Marilyn Monroe, who rose from childhood poverty to the status of international icon, beauty has long been a vehicle for disadvantaged women to gain wealth and status. In modern times, the rise of aesthetically-focused social media apps like Instagram and TikTok have opened up more accessible avenues for both men and women to capitalize off of their beauty. The ur-example of this is Kim Kardashian, who, along with other ventures, has used her 340 million Instagram followers to parlay her face into a $1.8 billion net worth. Although Kardashian was born into a wealthy and semi-infamous family, it’s undeniable that her surgery-sculpted face and body are responsible for her international fame and astronomical wealth.

Kardashian’s rise to stardom has spawned countless imitators. Scrolling through Instagram and Tiktok, one could ascribe the popularity of almost all the puffy-lipped, dewy cheeked, foxy-eyed girlies to Kardashian’s influence. It’s not hard to see why they do it: beauty sells, and with advertisers paying popular influencers obscene amounts of money for sponsored posts, a few thousand dollars spent in plastic surgery seems like a good investment. Casual research makes plastic surgery seem cheap and easy: pop in for a quick cheek-fat extraction on your lunch break, then rake in the sponsorships. Instagram and Tiktok only further emphasize the ubiquity and accessibility of these procedures. “Everyone’s doing it,” they say. “Why not you?”

A selection of posts under the #plasticsurgery hashtag on Instagram

I’m not opposed to plastic surgery, but I think that the public perception of it has reached a potentially dangerous place. Once a taboo subject, now plastic surgery is lauded as the cure-all for a better life. If you think your nose is too big, your lips are too thin, your eyes are too hooded, or your cheeks are too chubby, you can book a quick out-patient surgery procedure and leave looking as beautiful as your favorite celebrity. But the same people who are offering these services are the ones who are convincing us that we’re uglier than all our peers. Their handiwork is plastered all over social media, convincing us that these shiny, perfect, indistinguishable faces are normal, and that asymmetry, ethnicity, and individuality are signs of abnormality.

While it might be harmless for an individual to seek plastic surgery, celebrating and encouraging the practice on a societal level is inviting countless generations of self-hatred. Children are growing up thinking that surgically modified faces are normal; that subjecting oneself to pain and debt and potentially horrific side-effects is a rite of passage into adulthood. These Instagram influencers and plastic surgery practices never show the consequences of plastic surgery gone wrong, nor do they talk about the psychological effects of modifying one’s body to conform to ever-changing societal trends.

From The Hollywood Reporter: A plastic surgeon shows how modern plastic surgery trends push aesthetic boundaries

The economic cost of plastic surgery

The average plastic surgery procedure is expensive. From a $5000 rhinoplasty to an $8000 face lift, plastic surgery can set patients back thousands of dollars, and the majority of elective cosmetic procedures are not covered by health insurance. Patients seeking these types of surgeries are forced to pay out-of-pocket for their procedures, and many pay with credit cards. Health credit cards like CareCredit are a popular option for plastic surgery seekers, but with their glossy promotions and high APRs, they can encourage patients to undergo pricey procedures, then rake in interest on their debt.

The emotional boosts from getting a cosmetic procedure, coupled with the societal premium placed on beauty, combine to form a lethally addictive consumer product. Selling plastic surgery is akin to selling desirability in a bottle: consumers will pay through the nose for a chance at feeling satisfied in their own skin, and plastic surgery practices prey on people who might be vulnerable and insecure. Even worse are the customers who seek plastic surgery with no viable financing options. These people might seek out plastic surgeons who perform less-than-stellar surgery for a discount, and the results can be devastating. The subreddit Botchedsurgeries compiles images of plastic surgery gone wrong by surgeons who are unskilled, unethical, or both. On the subreddit, users can see picture after picture of everyday people who have paid for an unaffordable surgery, and are now left with both economic and physical consequences.

The physical cost of plastic surgery

In even the best case scenario, invasive plastic surgery like rhinoplasties, face lifts, and buccal fat removal have painful recoveries. Patients can experience swelling and bruising for weeks, and the final effects of the surgeries can take months, if not years, to settle back to normal. The surgeries require the same extensive after-care as if the patient was undergoing a non-cosmetic medical procedure, but this after-care is never mentioned in advertisements and rarely mentioned by influencers. For those who do go into detail about the recovery process, it can seem harrowing. YouTuber Lorry Hill has created a series of videos about her own plastic surgeries, including several failed rhinoplasties and a facelift. Although Hill is a proponent of safe successful surgeries, her own experience with a rhinoplasty becoming necrotic shows that even the most well-performed surgeries can result in painful consequences for the patient.

Like all invasive medical procedures, plastic surgery carries the risk of complications, ranging from unsightly scarring, to risk of death. The notorious Brazilian Butt Lift has a mortality rate of 1 in 14,000, while even older procedures like a tummy tuck can lead to risk of deformity or embolism. To deny these factors is to gloss over the fact that plastic surgery involves risking substantial danger for only cosmetic rewards. Once someone has been under the knife, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to correct any mistakes. These errors are common enough that an entire cottage industry has cropped up around plastic surgery revisions. Botched patients can spends thousands of dollars trying to correct unsatisfying results, which can result in more debt and more medical problems. Social media may make plastic surgery seem effortless and painless, but in reality, plastic surgery is painful and has long-lasting consequences.

The psychological cost of plastic surgery

Constant Zoom calls and the influx of selfie-focused social media have placed our facial imperfections front and center. Plastic surgery seems to offer the solution to the problem that filters can’t fix: change your face, and your self-esteem will improve. But plastic surgery can only offer so much, and while many patients are satisfied with their procedures, many others are disappointed by unmet expectations. A 2019 study found that 40% of patients seeking plastic surgery had a current or past psychiatric disorder, which can lead to “poor emotional adjustment and social functioning” after surgery. Additionally, a study found a higher than average incidence of Body Dysmorphia Disorder in elective plastic surgery patients, with a rate of 7-15% compared to the 1% incidence found in the general population. This is not to say that people who undergo plastic surgery are all suffering from personality disorders, but that those who do suffer from these disorders can be particularly vulnerable to the allure of plastic surgery and can suffer more drastic psychological consequences from its unintended results.

The takeaway

It’s no surprise that American society would encourage plastic surgery as a way of fixing the public’s broken self-esteem. It’s a capitalistic solution to a problem that money can’t fix, and a way for a powerful industry to make billions off of our greatest insecurities. Plastic surgery shouldn’t be shameful, but I also don’t think it should be normalized to the extent where average people consider it to be an easy and accessible option to solve issues of self-esteem. Plastic surgery may be a temporary method of boosting one’s self-esteem, but how long can it last? How long until the trendy nose and contoured cheeks becomes passé? The reality is that no amount of plastic surgery will make us as beautiful as A-list celebrities, because celebrities will never be prisoners of beauty trends. They have the money to constantly update their body to conform to the latest standard, and they have entire industries backing these endeavors in order to profit off of their likenesses. Undergoing expensive and painful plastic surgery to conform to an ephemeral beauty standard is like catching water in a sieve. The plastic surgery industry will always be one step ahead of us, and we’ll be left with the bill.

Illustration by Pollina Zinziver

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