Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

There was a girl in my middle school who got a nose job. I was 10, and she was my first glimpse of plastic surgery. When she came to school after getting it done, most everyone made fun of her. She wore her bandages proudly, despite the other girls mocking and snickering. When she had her bandages removed, and her new nose was revealed for the world to see, everyone commented on how ‘stuck up’ and ‘cocky’ she had started acting, and how she clearly thought she was better than everyone else. I didn’t know her well, but I noticed no shift in her personality after the surgery.

I remember this incident because I was a bit enamored with this girl. Her fearlessness and honesty regarding her surgery fascinated me. She was proud to explain how she afforded the surgery, how much her parents chipped in, her rationale behind it and how great she was feeling since getting it done. Her frankness only gave my classmates more material to mock her with, but she stood her ground. I remember thinking to myself that although her honesty impressed me; if it were me, I would have lied.

As we have observed with many hetero-normative beauty practices: you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. You must wear makeup, but not too much make up. You must dress sexy, but not too sexy. You must style your hair, but pretend that you woke up like that. Your efforts must remain invisible. You cannot be obvious in your beauty regimens, dare you dismantle the illusion of women.

flawless animated GIF

Edmonds discusses the emergence of cosmetic surgery just after WWII, when plastic surgery transitioned to being no longer strictly ‘medical’,

“Not only do aesthetic ideals vary over time; so does the degree to which the ugly or deformed are expected to endure their fate. Victorian England viewed surgery on a cleft palate as cosmetic. The implication was that stoically bearing a defect built character, correcting it was vanity…in the Victorian Era, ugliness was fate; bearing it with dignity built character. “ 79

I believe this ‘fate’ still exists prominently in the US. While in Brazil it seems culturally acceptable (and encouraged) to be open about having plastic surgery, stigmas and shame continue to surround cosmetic procedures here. It is not societally acceptable to work to achieve your beauty, only to attain it.

A strange paradox exists between surgery shaming and the high number of Extreme Makeover shows on television…      The women on these shows are taken out of their dull homes and whisked into a short and elite life of glamour. While on their pampered vacation they undergo numerous changes to their body; all of which is completely hidden from their family and friends, who only witness the final completed masterpiece, flawless and brimming with newfound self-confidence. Although these contestants are participating for all the TV viewing world to see, the procedures they undergo remain a secret within the individual lives they lead, reinforcing the importance of illusion within beauty work.


5 thoughts on “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

  1. I found it amazing that a girl in middle school got plastic surgery! I remember people would make big deals about girls getting nose jobs or breast implants for their sweet sixteen or as a high school graduation present. Though I am a supporter of plastic surgery, and feel that if you want to get something done go for it, the idea of getting surgery so young is something I have trouble with. I suppose this trepidation is mainly because as a young person your mind and body is still growing and changing, and so, to get a nose job while in middle school is not even allowing your face to mature. However, many people who get surgeries get it on trouble they’ve noticed since their youth. For example, Michael Jackson always spoke on how he was teased by his siblings, father, and even Jackson 5 fans for his large nose starting from when he was a young teenager. He talks about the pain he went through growing up in front of the world, where everyone saw him grow from a cute child to an “ugly” teenager (as he saw it). He didn’t get his first nose job until he was a young adult, right around the time of Off the Wall, so when he was about 21.

    Janet Jackson, on the other hand, got her nose job when she was 16 years old, right before she acted on 1980s Different Strokes and Fame. Though she had acted on Good Times as a young child, these two latter shows would feature her as a young woman, with love interests. Michael is seen as strange for his surgery and is often made fun of for the lengths he went to correct his image of himself. Janet is seen as normal, and though some point out her nose many don’t. She has said on record that she’s only ever had that one surgery, and no one knows for sure how many surgeries MJ has had. So I wonder, if MJ would’ve gotten his surgery young, before anyone could really spot the change in his features, would his change have been so drastic. Meaning, if he could’ve changed it as soon as he noticed it, before the public could really scrutinize his features, would he have stopped at the one surgery? Maybe the girl in your middle school saved herself from years of issues by stopping her problem before she left for high school.


  2. I think that you’re really speaking to something with the idea of “illusion” that you mention in the post. For my final project I’m analyzing how beauty standards ultimately create this ideal of ‘the natural look;’ that women must look ‘natural’ even while conforming to feminized beauty standards that are impossible to achieve without beauty modification. I myself am torn between whether or not plastic surgery is a good thing. I’m very much for doing what makes you feel happy, but I think that we need to question why that makes people feel happy. Many of the people that I interviewed for my project who go against societal norms or accepted beauty standards seemed very happy about the way that they presented themselves–but does that mean that they are more comfortable with themselves than the people who do conform to beauty standards? The people interviewed who fit in with society’s standards of womanhood also seemed to be happy with the way that they presented themselves. In doing the project I think I started to come to the conclusion that as long as our society functions in the way that it does, I don’t think that we’ll ever really know what makes people truly happy. It’s much too subjective and inseparable from societal rules.


  3. I definitely agree with Mercedes – I’m very surprised that she was allowed to get surgery in middle school, before she was done growing! Middle school is also a very difficult time psychologically and it’s really hard to feel comfortable with yourself at that point; had she waited, she might have felt better about the features she was born with.

    I’m very interested in the illusion of invisibility that you pointed out. I think that plastic surgery is *very* easy to hide in some situations. By the time that girl reaches high school, and starts meeting new people who did not know her pre-nose job, the illusion will become more complete. That is, the beauty procedures that she has undergone will no longer be visible to those who aren’t already in the know. She is seemingly “effortlessly” “more beautiful” (loaded statements, both of those), as people just meeting her will not know about the surgery that she endured to achieve her looks.

    Then again, some plastic surgery is really obvious. As we saw in the makeover videos, extensive plastic surgery can leave you looking like a completely different person. I find this concept very interesting as well. In some people – such as with Michael Jackson, I believe – the desire to look completely different is linked with body dysmorphia. But as we discussed in class, extensive surgery can also leave one with body dysmorphia, as they no longer feel like the person they are. This means that our sense of personal identity – who we are, viscerally – is strongly bound up in our appearance and, furthermore, the beauty we perceive (or don’t perceive?) in ourselves.


  4. I would completely agree with Olivia’s point about the “natural look”, for my project I studied the relationship between women and makeup, and this idea of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” really resonates with everything I’ve researched. When you look at the Beyonce gif, I think that brings in a really interesting aspect of this issue. In terms of Flawless, we saw the phrase “I woke up like this” go viral and turn into a popular hashtag. Models and middle schoolers alike instagramed photos of what they supposedly looked like when they woke up in the morning. While it was supposed to be an anthem of empowerment, telling women they look beautiful even when they just woke up, turned into a new form of shaming the way women looked. The frenzy around #iwokeuplikethis #flawless helped create a new way for beauty standards to become even more unacheivable. The reality of the situation is that all women have “flaws”. The Edmonds quote “Not only do aesthetic ideals vary over time; so does the degree to which the ugly or deformed are expected to endure their fate.” really resonates with this. Now we are expected to wake up, presumably without make up, and automatically assimilate with popular ideas of what is beautiful.


  5. Ace– first of all I love you.
    What you are saying about the illusion of plastic surgery and beauty in general just completely reminded me of the film industry. Film is the only art form that tries to hide how it’s made. It is in a sense medium-less. We don’t want to see the light stands, the scripts, the fans blowing wind, all we want to see are the beautiful actors and beautiful world within this perfectly planned frame. I feel this is the same way within plastic surgery and the beauty industry. It needs to look effortless and natural. We don’t want to know how its done, we just want to see it finished. Taking out the work behind it makes the viewers not understand or know how many hours and weeks and years have gone into making that one simple film, and the same is thought of with the female body. Seeing perfectly shaped and crafted women within films and on billboards makes us kind of assume that women really naturally looks like that.


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