We live in an era where the most famous people on the planet are icons for an unattainable beauty standard. The Kardashians — reality TV royalty — downplay their cosmetic surgeries and incredibly expensive beauty interventions in favor of a “female empowerment” and wellness narrative, claiming they simply “get up and work hard.”
Kim Kardashian presents herself as an independent businesswoman who just cares a lot about “looking good.” Kendall Jenner insists the sisters “really enjoy taking care of [themselves] and being healthy,” telling Andy Cohen, host of one reunion special, “I think if anything, the only thing we’re trying to represent is just being the most healthy version of yourself.” Kourtney, the eldest of the sisters, runs a wellness magazine, Poosh, capitalizing on her commitment to “healthy living.”
The family may work hard and value their health, but the reality is that the Kardashians’ are a brand, which sells shapewear, makeup, and skincare. While their products sell like crazy, what the family are really known for are their appearances. And what women around the world have learned is that success and female empowerment looks like the Kardashians. The normalization of plastic surgery has gone hand in hand with that.
I often hear women say, “I use makeup or get cosmetic surgery because it makes me feel good — it’s something I do for myself.” This echoes the message of self-empowerment used by beauty industry marketing: beauty products and procedures make you confident, and are therefore empowering!
Allure reported on the increased rates of facial plastic surgery during lockdown, suggesting that cosmetic surgery is a form of “self care,” and that it “can be very empowering.” An article published in Glamour quoted a 30-year-old woman who felt nonsurgical procedures like fillers and Botox were simply another expected expense, like bikini waxes, explaining, “I sometimes have to push all my bills around in that month to pay for it. But it’s worth it and it’s my decision to make.”
A 2017 study conducted by OnePoll for Groupon revealed that women spend, on average, $225,000 on beauty expenses in their lifetime. Surgeries like the BBL (Brazilian butt lift) — a procedure popularized by the famous Kardashian figure, and involves fat being removed from one area of the body and injected into the buttocks — can cost upwards of $6000. Juvéderm and Restylane lip fillers can cost anywhere from $500 to $2000 and must be redone every year. Tack on eyelash extensions, microblading, teeth whitening, and the endless face products and makeup women use to attempt an Instagram-perfect look, we are looking at tens of thousands of dollars and years of our life.
Are women doing this because we truly enjoy the process and to invest in our self-esteem? Or is something more negative at play?
You would think that if cosmetic surgery and excessive time and money spent on beauty practices actually empowered women, the women who invest in these practices would feel fully confident and more at peace with their bodies, rather than feeling perpetually insecure about their appearances and the aging process. Instead, we are confined to what I call an “invisible corset”: a set of culturally-inherited beliefs that make women as uncomfortable, unhappy, and restricted as whalebone corsets once did. (Notably, Kim Kardashian sells a corset of her own, rebranded as a “waist trainer.”)
Indeed, women report getting “addicted” to procedures. Rather than feeling satisfied, they end up in an endless chase towards unachievable perfection. A 25-year-old woman named Lucero told HuffPost:
“Like anything else, it gets addicting because even after only one procedure you’re not completely where you want to be physically. You start to notice other things you’re not happy with. I eventually booked a breast augmentation and dimpleplasty for later this year in 2022.”
Some argue that women’s pursuit of beauty is a biological imperative to attract a mate, but ironically, today’s “invisible corset” can actually diminish our fertility and health. Research indicates that chronic dieting for weight control slows one’s metabolism and may increase the risk of heart disease. Chemicals found in many beauty products, like parabens and heavy metals, are carcinogenic and have hormone-disrupting properties, which increase cancer risk. Common chemicals called xenoestrogens mimic the effects of estrogen, which creates estrogen dominance, an underlying cause of PMS, PCOS, and menopausal issues.
Cosmetic surgery intended to make a woman’s body appear more “sexy,” like breast implants, liposuction, labiaplasty, and “butt lifts,” carry health risks and can decrease erotic sensation by creating tissue numbness. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the BBL has the highest rate of death of all aesthetic procedures. Injecting fat into the buttocks can result in a fat embolism, which happens when fat enters the bloodstream and blocks a blood vessel. If this happens in the lungs or brain it can be fatal. But even “minimally-invasive” procedures like Botox carry risks, such as facial paralysis, urinary problems, and seizures.
There are social implications as well. Botox and facial injections diminish the micro-facial expressions around the eyes. These micro-expressions evade conscious awareness, but play a role in non-verbal communication and are responsible for subconscious signals of safety between two people. This is why people often feel vaguely unsettled when speaking to a woman with a surgically frozen face — the altered face can’t express the normal spectrum of communicative, non-verbal cues.
Western beauty standards have extended around the globe, leading to women in Asian countries, for example, to undergo extremely painful, expensive, and risky procedures to achieve thinner calves and longer legs. Eyelid surgery is one of the most popular procedures in Asia, as women try to create a more “European” eye shape. In Japan, 187,000 eyelid procedures were done in 2017 — well over the amount of every other surgical procedure combined.
In 2011, statistics from the World Health Organization showed 40 per cent of women in Africa bleach their skin. Today, about 77% of Nigerians, 27% of Senegalese and 35% of South African women bleach their skin. In Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, 60.7% of women use skin bleaching creams. These products are often laced with mercury, and can cause liver damage.
Hair relaxers remain ever-popular among black women — an expensive and time consuming practice which demands the use of toxic products. A study published in Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis Journal found that Black women who used lye-based relaxers at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Even fashion trends hurt women. High heels cause all sorts of back, knee, and foot problems for women who wear them regularly. Arthritis, injuries, bunions, and shortened tendons in the calves, leading to life-long pain, are all side-effects of wearing heels long-term. During the Covid lockdowns, high heel sales dropped 71%, suggesting that women are, in fact, not wearing these shoes for their own enjoyment and comfort.
At the same time, cosmetic surgeries increased as women spent significantly more time on Zoom, looking critically at their faces. One plastic surgeon in Atlanta told The New York Times last year:
“I have never done so many face-lifts in a summer as I’ve done this year. Pretty much every face-lift patient that comes in says: ‘I’ve been doing these Zoom calls and I don’t know what happened but I look terrible.’”
The invisible corset also extends into women’s sexual experiences. A prime example manifests in the ongoing popularity of breast implants and labiaplasty, a procedure which aims to reduce the size of the labia, often in an attempt for women to gain a more “youthful” looking vagina or to match genitalia we see in pornography. Women often say they are choosing to undergo these surgeries so they can “feel sexy” or “more sexually confident,” but is that true?
Why would a woman feel more sexy after getting implants, when these surgeries frequently cause desensitization of erotic breast tissue and even nipple numbness? Similarly, labiaplasty can desensitize of highly erotic tissue.
Women are confusing appearing or performing sexy with actually feeling sexy, and their efforts are harming their aims.
Living in a world that has moved online has only exacerbated things.
Social media filters allow women to create digitalized versions of themselves, through selfies and videos. Apps like FaceTune function as virtual plastic surgery, allowing users to erase blemishes, change skin tone, create a slimmer waist, curvier hips, and even alter bone structure. No wonder one study found that social media use correlates to a person’s interest in cosmetic surgery. One plastic surgeon observed, ”I see more and more patients coming to my practice showing me their digitally altered selfies asking me to match it with surgery.”
We’ve spent enough time and money fighting our natural bodies to have learned this approach doesn’t work. We’ve broken and bound our feet, cinched our waists, stuffed our breasts with silicone, frozen our foreheads, injected fat into our bottoms, and filled our lips — all in the name of beauty. If body modification worked, women would be blissfully happy and confident by now. Instead, we’ve established a $532 billion a year beauty industry, created an even more artificial beauty standard, and women are more insecure and self-conscious than ever.
Young women’s social media use increases risk of developing eating disorders; time spent on Instagram has been linked to depression, lower self-esteem, “appearance anxiety,” body dissatisfaction, and increased desire for cosmetic surgery; and exposure to manipulated Instagram photos is directly related to a decrease in girls’ body image.
We are spending more time, money, and energy on our appearances than ever before with worse results.
While we can use fashion, hair styles, and makeup as a positive form of self-expression, it’s not empowering to buy our confidence back from the industry that stole it from us in the first place. True empowerment means making choices that are in our best interest, and that will actually build confidence, as well as good physical and mental health, rather than exacerbate the problem and feed a toxic industry.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote what is considered the first feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in 1791. She recognized the insidious nature of the invisible corset over two centuries ago, writing:
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around in its gilt cage only seeks to adorn its prison… Men have various employments and pursuits that engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one pursuit and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their view beyond the triumph of the hour.”
By “triumph of the hour,” Wollstonecraft refers to the temporary social validation we obtain through beauty preoccupation. While we may feel temporarily more confident after undergoing a cosmetic procedure or crash dieting, that feeling of wellbeing is typically short-lived. We fail to ask ourselves, “How much more freedom could I experience if I cast off my invisible corset?” To find lasting confidence and true empowerment, women must stop seeing our bodies as an enemy to dominate and reconstruct through harmful means. Instead, it’s time we recognize our bodies as our first and most enduring soulmates — life partners who deserve to be treated with tenderness and respect.
Lauren Geertsen is a Body Connection Coach and author of numerous books, including, “The Invisible Corset: Break Free From Beauty Culture and Embrace Your Radiant Self.” Find her on Instagram @Body_Connection_Coach.