Cosmetic procedures – empowering or anti-feminist?
Last year, I received an off-the-cuff backhanded compliment about my lips, which I ruminated on for months. A friend of a friend commented on my plump bottom lip, but suggested that my top lip ‘could do with some filler’. I became completely obsessed with the appearance of my lips. I was adamant that getting fillers would dramatically lift my self-esteem. Truthfully, it was my financial situation that initially dissuaded me from going through with it. As a university student on a budget, I couldn’t fork out £500 for 0.5ml of lip injections (that would probably dissolve within 6 months anyway).
I was still deliberating saving up for lip injections until I really engaged in some critical thought. I asked myself why I truly wanted to get my lips done. Would I be making this decision with only myself in mind?
When I reflected on what I thought was my own desire to have fuller lips, I realised that I only felt this way because another woman had projected her insecurities onto me. Before this, I was never self-conscious about my lips. But I couldn’t just point the finger at her.
As women, we are under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-changing beauty standards, and plump lips are trendier than ever in the western world. According to Vice’s 2019 Snapchat poll, the lip filler trend has now become so normalised that 59% of UK respondents considered it no more invasive than a manicure or a haircut.
Needless to say, every woman deserves to have complete autonomy over her own body. So, she should never be shamed for choosing to modify it. Cosmetic surgery is a choice, and making choices about our own bodies can feel quite liberating.
But in the name of liberal feminism, we are often fed the false narrative that body modification is a form of ‘female empowerment’. This take is very superficial – we need to dig far deeper.
Not all choices are feminist simply because they are choices; they don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s important to confront the capitalist and patriarchal structures that inform a woman’s choice to augment her body. Can we really choose to go under the knife independently of the effects of the capitalist patriarchy?
Our insecurities are shaped entirely by Eurocentric, fatphobic, and ageist beauty standards, which exist only to sell us products and cosmetic procedures that we don’t need. These unrealistic beauty standards are perpetuated by the ‘male gaze’.
This refers to the sexualised depiction of women in the media as objects of desire, which serve to satisfy and pleasure heterosexual men. Sadly, women often subconsciously value themselves on how physically desirable they are to men, because the male gaze is so internalised.
Admittedly, whilst I haven’t had cosmetic surgery, I usually wear makeup when I leave the house. Why? Because I have been indoctrinated to believe I look ‘rough’ without it. I also buy razors so I can remove hair from the parts of my body where it is deemed unfeminine, and sometimes even unhygienic (but only on women, of course).
I could claim that these are my personal preferences, but where do my personal preferences derive from? In reality, if women weren’t constantly pressured to embody the feminine beauty ideal, I probably wouldn’t bother doing these things at all. As a feminist, it’s really difficult to admit this without getting defensive.
But we can’t expect ourselves to be ‘good’ feminists all the time. As women, we are led to believe that beauty is one of our most important assets. So, by wearing makeup, removing body hair, or undergoing more invasive cosmetic procedures, we are simply making our lives in a patriarchal world more pleasant. There is no shame in doing this sometimes.
We do, though, need to be aware that whiteness, thinness, and youthfulness epitomise the social construct of ‘beauty’. Because it is physically unattainable for women with marginalised bodies to be considered ‘naturally beautiful’ (i.e. women who are non-white, fat, trans, disabled, or over the age of 50), they can’t benefit from pretty privilege in the same way that conventionally attractive women can.
Women who are not conventionally attractive are not afforded the same opportunities in life as women who do meet the beauty standards, putting them under more pressure to augment their bodies.
But many of these women will not have the financial privilege to do this, so what position do we leave them in?
Of course, everything a woman does with her body shouldn’t be politicised. But we have to acknowledge that cosmetic procedures directly feed into the male gaze.
By claiming that it is feminist to undergo cosmetic surgery, we are just repackaging what is essentially men profiting off women’s insecurities as a woman’s individual act of liberation.
Cosmetic surgery will never actually liberate women – it will only make our experience within a patriarchal world more comfortable.
We all do anti-feminist things sometimes, and that’s okay. But we need to stop pretending that they are feminist just to make us feel better about our choices.