Science Cafe – cosmetic surgery


Science café – I don’t like the way I look, is cosmetic surgery the answer? 

Review by Roisin McDonough

I recently attended my first Science Café at The Greenbank pub in Easton – ‘I don’t like the way I look – is cosmetic surgery the answer?’ This thought-provoking lecture was accessible to someone from any background and very relevant to the issues associated with today’s society. Nichola Rumsey, Professor of Appearance and Health Psychology at UWE, and a member of a current Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on cosmetic procedures was the speaker for this talk. She gave an overview of the issues relating to appearance dissatisfaction, and explored the reasons as to why people undergo dramatic cosmetic changes whilst questioning whether their life changes in a positive way after surgery.

We were first introduced to the concept of ‘normative discontent’, the widespread feeling of negative body image. The level of discontent, while more common in women is also prevalent in men. This seems familiar to me, as there always seems to be SOMETHING one dislikes about their appearance. However, I was surprised to hear that such a high proportion of the population (over 70%) have reported significant levels of dissatisfaction. To feel such strong dissatisfaction on a daily basis can affect people’s psychological well-being and quality of life, therefore it is an important issue that needs to be understood and tackled.

We then openly discussed why so many people may feel discontent towards their own appearance and become motivated to undergo surgery. The overriding factor seemed to be the media, with its various ways of promoting a certain appearance and inflicting negative feelings towards people that don’t meet the ideal criteria. We are constantly bombarded with enhanced/photoshopped images, generally of women with perfect complexion, tiny waists, long legs, big boobs/bums and tall, muscular men with V’s so deep they could cut glass.

The accessibility of images, through sites such as Instagram, mean we can endlessly scroll through images of models, comparing ourselves to images of people whose lives revolve around looking good. Every day training, healthy eating, professional stylists/makeup artists – often unattainable beauty ideals for most. Most images are generally versions of people’s ‘best’ self. Lets face it, we wouldn’t roll out of bed and take an upshot of ourselves with a great big spot on our nose for a profile picture/dating website – instead we might take 20 selfies from 4 different angles before deciding which is best, maybe even chucking on a filter, then bingo – there’s the image. Enhanced, aesthetically pleasing images are generally only showcased, leading some to feel inferior.

Certain magazines also have sections dedicated solely to body shaming a celebrity that hasn’t kept up with the accepted body standards – scrutinising anyone with visible signs of stretch marks/cellulite/weight gain. Public shaming over body image can then lead to anxiety for fear of facing ridicule ourselves, and in turn, strive to not be caught looking… human!? Eye bags an’ all.

Advertisers also like to provoke the idea that if you look better, you will be happier and more successful – whether that be with relationships or on a career level. However, studies have shown that satisfaction with the altered body part generally improves after surgery, but not necessarily overall satisfaction, confidence and self-esteem in the long term. Often people will be underwhelmed with the result and continue to go back for further enhancements or find something else to change about themselves. Interestingly, some studies have revealed that the most conventionally attractive people can experience more self-dissatisfaction that those with facial disfigurements. Ultimately, self-esteem is not directly related to physical appearance and altering your appearance does not necessarily increase it.

Movies have reinforced the idea that looks are synonymous with personality. Generally, pretty = kind, ugly= evil and in the end, beauty prevails. An importance is placed on beauty even in children’s animations, so from a young age we become used to associating looks with character. For example, the ‘wicked witch’ with her warts and big nose, kind Cinderella and the ugly, mean step sisters and Snow White, where the drama ensues because the Queen is no longer the ‘fairest of them all’.

The surge in cosmetic treatments/surgeries could also be due to the increased availability and variety of appearance alterations people can now choose from. Nowadays, if we aren’t happy with something about our appearance, we can change it. The quick turn-around associated with certain treatments means you could go in for botox/lip fillers on a lunch break. The question is, is this a positive act of free choice in doing something for yourself, or an act of tyranny – feeling like you have to change to fit in and thrive within our society?

It comes as no surprise that breast enlargement is the most common cosmetic procedure – despite the need for repeat surgery, potential scarring and risks of infection. Yet what I found extremely shocking was that up second was the labia- plasty, a procedure that incorporates the same techniques involved in female genital mutilation. Girls as young as 15 visit their gynaecologist with their mothers for a consultation and many others in their early 20s. The apparent reason for many wanting this procedure is because they believe theirs is unusual. Going to such extreme lengths to feel normal seems worrying, especially when this ‘normal’ has been created by society. What I also found distressing is that in Asian cultures, eye enhancement is a common theme, with surgery available to increase the visible size of the eyes. Asian eyelids most commonly have a single folded eyelid, whereas Caucasians have double folds. Western beauty ideals have even infiltrated other cultures into the belief that White features are preferable. So instead of embracing differences, beauty ideals in multiple cultures are becoming more westernised and similar than before.

It was agreed by the audience that the legal age for undergoing cosmetic surgery should be increased to 18, as opposed to 16. The body can develop through to your 20s, so altering a part of yourself before the body is fully developed seems wrong. We were also in agreement that the risks associated with surgery should be more strongly publicised so people are fully aware of what they are putting themselves through. But ultimately, there is the need to challenge beauty norms so that we are not negatively influenced about our own appearance. In my opinion, we should embrace our differences and strive to be the best version of OURSELVES, not feel the need for dramatic, invasive changes to look a certain way. I believe in most cases, self-esteem can be improved without drastic cosmetic changes.