Seventeen-year-old Modern Family star Ariel Winter’s recent breast reduction surgery has garnered a lot of commentary this week, from supportive co-stars like Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen to shocked and concerned citizens—otherwise known as bored strangers—who are criticizing the star for going under the knife at such a young age. This story is a layer cake of ickiness that’s guaranteed to leave you with a stomachache and a shame hangover. On the surface, there’s the sheer grossness of talking about a teenager’s breasts, however natural or surgically reduced they may be. The next ick-factor is thanks to our visceral reaction to a young star like Winter or Kylie Jenner choosing to drastically alter her appearance—it just makes us sad. Nobody wants to imagine sweet, lovely Ariel Winter starring on an episode of Botched in 40 years (because no matter how quickly pop culture evolves and adapts, there will always be a market for Botched).
Teen plastic surgery, equal parts decadent and disheartening, plays into our fears of lost innocence and rampant hedonism, while invoking the ghosts of disgraced child stars past. In other words, our shared failure to save Lindsay Lohan has left us with teen trainwreck PTSD. But beyond all the well-meaning backseat parenting is the most damning layer of this post-development development: the hyper-critical brand of Hollywood misogyny that turned Winter’s puberty into a punishing period of cyberbullying, criticism, and oversexualization. And I hate to break it to you, dear readers, but we are all to blame.
Winter didn’t cite back problems, the usual bogeyman of large breasts, as the main factor behind her surgery. However, that’s not to say that her decision was superficial or even, in the fullest sense of the word, voluntary. Winter did not simply desire a new look or slimmer silhouette. Rather, explaining her life pre-surgery, she admitted, “It made me feel really uncomfortable, because as women in the industry, we are totally oversexualized and treated like objects. Every article that has to do with me on a red carpet had to do with ‘Ariel Winter’s Crazy Cleavage!’ or ‘Ariel Winter Shows Huge Boobs at an Event!’ That's all people would recognize me by—not, ‘Oh, she does great work on Modern Family.’” Unlike every other teenage girl, Winter didn’t have to motivate herself to feel uncomfortable or obsessed with her body—because she had the media there to overanalyze on her behalf. Free of the painstaking job of policing her own pubescent bod, Winter could sit back and watch grown adults gawk at her cleavage, then read the resulting blog post, then click on the next boob-related bulletin.
But don’t be discouraged if you’re not a member of the media elite; you, too, contributed to Ariel Winter’s debilitating sense of shame. The starlet told Glamour, “We live in a day and age where everything you do is ridiculed. The Internet bullies are awful. I could post a photo where I feel good, and 500 people will comment about how fat I am and that I am disgusting.”
Studying, dissecting, and critiquing the bodies of famous women has become the norm and, clearly, age is no exemption from this misogynistic merry-go-round. This totally gendered, obviously unjust obsession isn’t just the rationale behind Ariel Winter’s breast reduction. It’s also the reason why an interviewer felt the need to ask Selena Gomez how hot she was, on a scale from one to ten. Gomez’s heartbreaking response (“I would say, like, [on] a premiere day, I would be a good 9. And then on my every day I feel like a 6.”) is the equivalent of Winter’s bittersweet post-surgery proclamation that, “I'm excited to finally actually feel confident and not just appear confident.” A 17-year-old shouldn’t have to have breast reduction surgery in order to confidently face the press, and Selena Gomez shouldn’t need a hair and makeup team to feel above average.
While Winter aspires to “benefit a lot of young girls” by telling her story, not every young woman has the money to buy her way into the body status quo. We shouldn’t be fighting to convince women that they can one day trick society into believing that they’re beautiful—we should be telling them that they already are. Winter’s rediscovered self-confidence is a wonderful thing, but the fact that she had to dramatically alter her appearance in order to avoid cyberbullies and professional journalists (who are grown men and women who should know better) is unconscionable.
Even Kylie Jenner’s much-lampooned lip injections were an effort to disguise what the 18-year-old called “an insecurity of mine.” We can deplore the fact that Jenner has the cash and the freedom to pursue cosmetic alterations, but can we really blame a teenage girl in the public eye for feeling bad about the way that she looks? Isn’t this brand of self-“improvement” the predictable conclusion to the hypercritical, superficial (and super-public) ways in which we interact with these precocious celebs?
Despite our justifiable fears of child stars growing up too fast, we’ve lost sight of what former child star Christina Applegate told The Daily Beast was the main ingredient for success: being “treated like kids.” For a 15-year-old (the age that Winter cites as the year she started developing), that means being able to do your job without having to worry about everyone staring at your breasts. Is that too much to ask?