Photos of Madonna at the Grammys are trending on social media. They attracted ugly and gratuitous remarks about how her face appeared altered by cosmetic work. Thankfully, many women, including Madonna herself on Instagram, pushed back against the ageism that flavoured such insults.
But then the commentary took on a different tone. Across Twitter and Instagram, there appeared to be some anxiety about presenting Madonna’s decision to get plastic surgery as an empowered, feminist choice. Even women who bemoaned that society was pressurising Madonna into changing her appearance were criticised.
This narrative is increasingly common in magazine and newspaper op-eds, and about whatever the du jour plastic surgery is. (This year it is buccal fat removal, which is excising fat from your cheeks to make them lean, and last year dermal fillers – injecting gel to make the face plumper; life comes at you fast on Harley Street.) Commentary on the subject is often carefully couched with a paragraph defending cosmetic procedures. In one group of women I’m friends with, half of us are looking into Botox for our foreheads (we are 28). When I voiced my uncertainty around plastic surgery, it was suggested that I was illiberal.
Underpinning all this is “her body, her choice” – which to me feels like an easy way out. It’s not really “our choice” if we’re sculpting ourselves because of societal pressure and Eurocentric beauty standards. It may be impossible to police what constitutes a legitimate reason for cosmetic surgery – if someone spent their childhood being bullied about their chest, who can warn them off breast reduction? But it does not feel right that one in three people should have had or be considering cosmetic surgery, as one 2022 survey found. Gloria Steinem may well have launched a line of lip balms, but there is something very different about irreversible procedures that structurally change our bodies. Yes feminists can get plastic surgery, but it doesn’t mean that plastic surgery itself is a feminist act.
There were other striking social media takes on the Madonna photos. One user suggested that negatively judging cosmetic procedures also fuelled anorexia in young women. But it seems more probable that it is the pressure on girls and women to look a certain way that is leading to eating disorders and greater demand for plastic surgery. An increase in the number of men having procedures since the pandemic is also cited, as if this somehow proves cosmetic surgery is a gender-neutral procedure. But men still only account for 7 per cent of patients in 2021 – and let’s be honest, we’re hardly seeing groups of men down the pub prodding their noses and debating rhinoplasty.
Cosmetic surgery creates a vicious cycle on a societal level: Megan McKenna, the reality star from The Only Way Is Essex, has talked about her body dysmorphia and how she turned towards lip fillers after she “lost sight of what a normal face looked like”. I’ve seen male friends who say they “like the natural look” yet increasingly find photos of women with lip filler attractive on dating apps. Procedures are self-reinforcing on a physical level, too: fillers can, for example, “migrate”, which requires further processes like dissolving and re-injection. Botox needs to be topped up.
Before, I was reluctant to challenge the ubiquity of cosmetic procedures for fear of being perceived as bitchy, snobby or betraying other women – nobody wants to be the person who condescends Love Island stars for their “trout pouts”. But as we reach the point where uncanny valley is normalised, aren’t we letting down women more if we defend plastic surgery under the guise of feminism?
[See also: Learning to love Madonna]