“Whatever is deeply, essentially female—the life in a woman’s expression, the feel of her flesh, the shape of her breasts, the transformations after childbirth of her skin—is being reclassified as ugly, and ugliness as disease.” Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
As the Cannes Film festival closes, we see yet another high-profile woman under scrutiny, this time Nicole Kidman and her “suspiciously” smooth face. Her latest film, Grace of Monaco, received its share of negative reviews, but it was her face that really grabbed the headlines. There was much speculation over her alleged use of Botox, and that old media favorite: photo comparisons between the actress’s appearance now and 10 years ago.
Other targets of this critical mauling include Madonna, Sharon Osborne, and Demi Moore. Whether it’s their puffy lips, their weirdly shiny forehead, or showing too much thigh/side boob, the message is clear: How dare they remain successful beyond the age of 40? How dare they conceal those signs of gravity and age—how dare they think they’re kidding anyone?
A survey in the UK recently reported that women start to feel invisible around the age of 46 (Kidman’s age). Quite sad, when you consider the average female life expectancy is now over 80. For all the progress we think we’re making in gender equality, the fact remains that a woman’s appearance—her beauty and sexuality—is still her most powerful currency.
No surprise, therefore, that women are desperate to stave off the “visible signs” of aging. It’s not just actresses like Nicole Kidman under pressure from the media, we’re all being told that our bodies are saggy, too fat or too old, that life would be better if only we were thinner, smoother, tighter, smaller. We stare in the mirror, we compare ourselves with digitally enhanced images of perfect women, and feel all wrong.
How did we reach the stage where female bodies are treated as commodities? We are sentient beings, not things. Women’s magazines routinely refer to “body MOTs” as if we were cars or machines, to be waxed and re-sprayed, and when we get old and rusty, to be given an overhaul. Step forward the men in white coats, those discreet cosmetic surgeons, the witch doctors of our age.
The term “cosmetic” is intentionally misleading: look at the brutality of these procedures. Why are women paying thousands of dollars to have their noses broken, their cheekbones sawn down, their jaws clamped and stomachs stapled, their eyelids sliced and hairlines lifted? Have you seen the bleeding and bruising, the skin ulceration and infection, the nerve paralysis? What will these women look like in two or three decades’ times? We simply don’t have the long-term research. I don’t think there’s anything sadder than those stretched, painful, frozen expressions. Scalpels and Botox—cutting and poison. How did it get so bad for women?
But surely, the argument goes, cosmetic surgery empowers us as women, giving us the bodies we always dreamed of? No. It’s not empowering: it’s violence dressed up as choice. Cosmetic surgery invites us to enter a dystopian universe in which everybody looks the same: poreless, ageless, blond and bland. It’s a billion-dollar industry dedicated to sculpting women into the form they take in male teenage fantasies, porn films, or airbrushed advertisements. The re-sculpting is often unsuccessful, and then you’re on the scrap heap anyway.
Like other beauty treatments, cosmetic surgery is steadily infiltrating the mainstream. What used to be demanded of models and actresses is now demanded of us all: Faces should be wrinkle-free, bodies should be baby-smooth and super-toned. Cosmetic Botox, which until recently was considered fairly radical, is now routine in the anti-aging war, as normal as dying your gray hair, and available in beauty salons, dentists, even at high street pharmacies. Practitioners recommend that Botox should start as early as our 20s so that wrinkles do not have the chance to form. Pre-emptive action, if you will.
The most popular areas for Botox injections are the forehead, the “crow’s feet” area around the eyes, and the glabellar lines between the eyebrows (so-called “lion’s wrinkles”). Maybe you think Botox is no big deal—a quick lunchtime jab to freshen up the face? In fact Botulinum Toxin is a lethal substance that can cause botulism, a life-threatening illness. It’s also recognized as a potential weapon of bioterrorism.
In general, I believe we should all be free to make our own health and beauty choices. In extreme cases, if a physical abnormality is causing psychological distress, after an accident or other disfigurement, reconstructive surgery can be a wonderful thing. But most women aren’t having it for these reasons. They’re undergoing unnecessary operations because they have been made to feel there is something wrong with the way they are.
Around the world, more than 17 million cosmetic procedures take place every year. The United States top the list with 3.03 million operations; followed by Brazil’s 2.4 million, China’s 2.19 million, India’s 0.89 million and Mexico’s 0.83 million. Around 90% of procedures are carried out on women (but there has been steady growth in male surgery too, up 21 percent since 2009).
The top five UK surgeries for women are: breast augmentation (25 percent of all surgery), followed by blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery), breast reduction, face/neck lift, tummy tuck. For men, the top surgeries are: rhinoplasty (nose), blepharoplasty, breast reduction, otoplasty (ear) and liposuction.
Perhaps it’s nothing new. Some Victorian women had their lower ribs removed to achieve the perfect tiny waist, these days it’s cosmetic gynaecology. Elizabethans used to paint their faces with white lead, these days it’s fake tan. We call women “brave” when they abandon the hair dye and go gray naturally—the latest thing is young feminists deciding not to shave their armpits and blogging about it. What progress for women; how emancipated we are…
So, how do we learn to love our bodies for what they do, rather than how they look? How can we value ourselves more, not less, as we age? I don’t have the answer (but I’m pretty sure it’s not surgery). We need to challenge the external messages and the internal voice which tells us we’re ugly, old or fat. Back to my personal heroine, Naomi Wolf: “She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.”