Under the Knife: The System of Surgery

Prior to the Second World War, surgeries were performed to camouflage scars, slight displacements of structures and other minor deformities. However, post-war; these surgeries became a means to enhance the appearance of an individual because it was considered as one of the key criteria to achieve a better job and life. With the expansion of the concept of beauty, surgery became an inevitable phenomenon. 

Every country has different standards of beauty. In fact, these standards are so varied that they are often in contrast with each other. Thus, what is considered beautiful in one country is looked down in other countries. For instance, Western cultures see tan skin as a sign of health and beauty. While some cultures prefer people to have pale skin as it shows prosperity and that the population doesn’t work outside. This also implies in terms of bodies, while often lean and slim are the ideal body shape as advocated by most countries,  many countries believe that girls should be chubby as it is an indication that they come from well-fed families and a symbol of wealth and prosperity. In fact, families of Mauritania often force-feed their girls of legal marriage age, for it indicates wealth and fertility. 

Globalization has had its own part to play in setting standards of beauty across the world. Often, white skin and a small nose are considered beautiful. This is in contrast with the original African make where people have darker skin colour and broader noses. The thought of not being able to fit in the definition of beauty set by a specific group of people often leads to individuals making amends in their own looks by seeking plastic or cosmetic surgery. There is another aspect to it. While white skin has been set as an ideal standard of beauty by some Western countries around the world, the people of the country themselves get a regular session of sprays and spend hours on the beach to get tanned. Thus, on multiple occasions, what cultures advocate is contrary of their own standards. 

Today, the market for cosmetic surgery is growing in terms of its influence and popularity. More and more people are willing to travel overseas and spend thousands of dollars on a single procedure. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), there were 250,000 more procedures in 2018 than in 2017. There was an estimate of 213,780 procedures of reshaping, 206,529 procedures of eyelid surgery and a 130, 081 procedures of tummy tuck in 2018 alone. This does not include any procedures performed by private surgeons or hospitals. These surgeries do not provide a guaranteed exit from the problem and there is always a chance of failure, yet the number of operations performed every year increase multifold. 

An average tummy tuck in United States of America can cost approximately $5,800 and a nose reshape can set you back another $5,000. Back home, in India, a simple procedure of face lift and lip augmentation can require a person to pay Rs. 1, 20,000 and Rs. 50,000 respectively.  However, the cost of surgery come in numerous forms and financial burden is merely one of them.

Any surgical operation may lead to complications related to anesthesia, including pneumonia, blood clots and, in adverse circumstances, death. There is also a risk of infections at the incision site, which may worsen scarring and require additional surgery, along with fluid buildup under the skin. Moreover, the surgeries may cause scarring, skin breakdown and mild bleeding. Along with that it can also cause numbness and tingling from nerve damage, which may or may not be permanent.

According to Dr. Hullett, a psychiatrist and senior medical director of OptumHealth, “the stress of surgery can come in form of lack of sleep, fatigue, pain and even a certain degree of depression. If your surgery results aren’t anywhere as near as perfect, the problems become even more real and it is as if your whole life starts to unravel in front of you.” 

However, we cannot undermine the mental health issues caused due to dissatisfaction regarding our own body and the consequences can be devastating. While surgery has its repercussions, it has also helped people feel better about themselves and do well psychologically. 

For instance, in a documentary by the Unreported World called as the ‘Brazil’s Plastic Surgery Obsession’, people have often asked Raquel, who is getting a tummy tuck procedure, if she is expecting because of her wobbly stomach. She runs a hot dog stand, makes clothes and sells watches. All this to earn around 700 pounds a month. The surgery will require her to pay 1200 pounds. She tells. “I don’t like what I look at in the mirror and I don’t feel good when I see others. There is no other priority.” 

Another patient Diana who is having a Rhinoplasty says, “Maybe I wouldn’t feel so different if a group of other people here looked like me”. The founder of the clinic emphasizes that surgery is also about psychological well being. He advocates strongly towards functional surgeries as they are important for mental wellbeing and that everyone deserves to be beautiful. 

Today, these operations have become comparatively more accessible. Anybody can have a facelift, tummy tuck or nose reshaping done. But the question is, ‘Do people actually want these operations for themselves? Or is this a result of being duped by the society’? Many individuals associate the idea of changing their bodies with freedom and liberation, but they do not understand that what influences the basic foundation of these changes is the society. This, thus, is a paradox of colonization. It seems as if the individuals are cultivating their own bodies, but their bodies are actually being colonized by society. 

Surgery isn’t a bad thing, but it does have its effects. Aspiring to a particular beauty ideal can be dangerous as the marks of beauty change over time and differ from one location to another. Increasing multiculturalism in Western countries has also shifted beauty norms from time to time. For instance, a century ago, full lips were undesirable, but as exposure to people with larger lips increased, they started to be considered beautiful and there has been a surge at an increasing rate in the number of lip augmentation surgeries and lip fillers. 

Thus, surgery shouldn’t be our only option as long as the problem doesn’t hinder our normal functioning and should focus on our wellbeing rather than beautification. It has been argued by sociologists that cosmetic surgeries indicate ‘a fierce attack on the human body to achieve beauty.’ It is crucial to know that our body is not a raw material that can be shaped and pruned to fit some external standards. The entire norm of beauty carries the capacity to change if we establish a new norm. A norm that enables us to accept our bodies and ourselves the way we were created and treat our bodies and ourselves well.

On being asked why people seek these surgeries, a woman in the documentary said, “I think it’s because everyone is in search of beauty.” But in such a culturally and ethnically diverse world, it is difficult to determine what beautiful looks like. And the real question is “where do we draw the line?” 


Vama Parakh

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding health, society and the environment. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

Vama Parakh

Vama writes on issues regarding health, society and the environment. To connect, reach out to her on LinkedIn or at her email - parakhvama01@gmail.com

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