As we descend further into the water surrounding the iceberg representing body modification, we next arrive at plastic surgery. “Plastic Surgery” as a phrase meaning “remedying a deficiency of a structure” was recorded in 1839 and supersedes the definition of the petroleum-based material we know and love today. Plastic surgery is less common than what I have talked about thus far in this series, yet more common than most people probably realize. There are examples of plastic surgery tremendously benefiting victims of accidents or those born with crippling deformities, or examples of plastic surgery helping people who choose to go through a mastectomy or other medical procedures, but in this article, I am discussing “average”, healthy people getting modifications performed purely for beauty aesthetics. The technology has progressed to a point where it is sometimes complicated to identify definitive evidence of the modification, which has led to a warped perspective on what natural beauty indeed looks like. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who have influenced everyone from Instagram models to porn actresses, have made their bodies the standard to be compared to in the modern age. Unfortunately, men have acclaimed the bodies of these women while looking down on others, causing insecurity for the majority of women who do not meet their unnecessary and unwarranted standards. Furthermore, men seem to expect women to achieve these bodies naturally, so to admit to plastic surgery remains taboo in today’s culture.
Photographer Ari Versluis from the style anthropological project Exactitudes noted in an 032c interview from 2018 a growing focus on the silhouette in the internet age, as that is “the most immediate, visible element of one’s look as realized on a two-dimensional feed.” Examples of this could be someone dressing in garments that accentuate their shoulder width, or dressing to highlight the size of your waist. These specific stylistic choices reflect the cultural perception of what is considered mainstream “attractiveness”. It is imperative to understand that beauty is scientifically unquantifiable despite how popular specific physical attributes appear to be. Any research performed usually results in simple patterns gleaned from contextualized scenarios with biased participants. Exploring these mainstream “attractive” clothing silhouettes shows that they represent an extension/substitution of the mainstream body type equally considered “attractive”. Wide jackets feign muscular shoulders, and cinched dresses mimic tiny waists. The body type widely promoted through social media has perfectly rounded biceps and breasts, cutting cheekbones and jutting jawlines, long legs, and symmetrical everything. As much as pushes have been made to diversify beauty standards, the vast majority of the human bodies celebrated on our screens reflect these mainstream attributes.
You can’t talk about social media influencing our beauty standards and plastic surgery without bringing up the Kardashians, a family of business women who are famously known as “famous for being famous”. The first real breakthrough for the family occurred in 2002 when an adult film featuring a then 23-year-old Kim Kardashian leaked. She had previously been known for her socialite friends, most notably Paris Hilton, but this leak brought her unprecedented attention, and in 2007, “Kim Kardashian, Superstar” was officially released. This led to one of the most popular reality TV series of all time, and Kim and her four sisters have used the attention to launch massive careers. Today in April 2021, the Kardashian/Jenner sisters have a combined 854 million followers on Instagram alone. This attention has caused many to notice the dramatic shift in appearance the sisters went through over the years as they got more famous and more affluent, and it’s unfortunately a running joke for many objectifying haters to call them a “plastic family”. This offensive terminology and the sheer amount of accusations and insults directed at the Kardashians is staggering, and is just one example of the constant pressure put on women, mostly by men, to look a particular way.
Another defining attribute of the most influential family of the last ten years is their physiques, physiques that undeniably influenced the female “body standard” in America to change to what we see promoted today. Scroll through Instagram today, and you can see a seemingly endless number of Kardashian clones. In 2017, Kanye West launched the advertising campaign for Yeezy Season 6, in which he commented on his wife Kim K’s influence, and fabricated an entire paparazzi-Esque photoshoot on social media featuring some of the most prominent models on the platform, all dressed to imitate Kim. While this could be understood as simply a “clever” photoshoot, it carries the connotation that Kanye West and his collaborators for this campaign are encouraging women to conform to a singular body type, and rejecting the celebration of unique beauty.
Kim’s influence has also bled over into the adult film industry, the place where she essentially got her start. A standout example would be actress Lela Star, who bears a striking resemblance to Kim K. Lela Star openly admits to having had plastic surgery, but said that she “has never made any conscious effort to look more like Kim K” in an interview in 2019. However, Star was featured in the Yeezy Season 6 campaign for the Yeezy 500 “Supermoon” sneaker, so it’s plausible that Kanye West and even Kim herself have noted the two woman’s physical similarities.
Public perception today seems to have moved towards the feeling that any form of “beauty” that’s deemed “too much” must be unnatural, and not simply unique genetics or other resources.
Men are under far less scrutiny than women are when it comes to body expectations. Essentially every woman is constantly under pressure by men to appear a specific way, as well as bombarded with questions at the slightest change of their appearance. Men on the other hand are judged publicly far less often, and widespread accusations tend to be reserved for those famous partially for their bodies. Someone I previously mentioned in this series, Lebron James, has long been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs (I feel PED’s belong in this article as in this context, they are somewhat similar to plastic surgery; modifications that result in unnatural, physically enhanced bodily features), though there has never been substantial proof of this. Just because James has been balding for over a decade does not necessarily mean he’s on steroids. James’ longtime business manager Maverick Carter said in 2018 that the reigning finals MVP spends $1.5m on his body every year. This covers slews of personal chefs, dieticians, trainers, and physical therapists, all utilized to make James one of the most athletic and dominant athletes in the world. Despite some men dealing with this type of attention, the overwhelming majority of accusations are directed at women, especially women who are often in front of a camera, such as the previously mentioned Kim Kardashian and other models. Supermodel Bella Hadid has been photographed since she was a teenager while her face was still developing. This has caused an overwhelming amount of articles to be written speculating on if and what she has had done, likely exacerbated by her stance that she is modification-free. In recent years we have seen older models come forward and admit to having work done in their past, such as Cindy Crawford. Many more, regardless of age, firmly deny any form of surgery or injection, which has added to the widespread confusion on what natural beauty actually can look like and an overall distrust in the beauty industry.
I want to reiterate that beauty is genuinely undefinable and that the ideal body is entirely subjective. Whether it be plastic surgery or otherwise, any form of modification is fully justified if it makes the subject feel better about themselves, which I believe is truly the only consideration one should take when evaluating their appearance. Plastic surgery today represents one of the furthest ways one can modify their appearance, and when (allegedly) performed on the right person, it can influence an entire generation’s perspective on beauty. Though as we’ve found, the male gaze has resulted in unrealistic pressures, and has warped the view of what someone “should” look like. My next article will conclude this series, and we will dive deeper into the ethical concerns of taking modification to an even further level.