I was walking past a nail bar, one of the kind you find from the centre of London to provincial market towns, and caught sight of the small-print words ‘Fat Freezing’ on the sign swinging outside. I wondered why this was not strange. I stopped and read the sign. The words that had simultaneously attracted and repelled me were in fact an unusually non-euphemistic subtitle to the larger-print word ‘Cryolipolysis’. What I had unconsciously termed a ‘nail bar’ was, as these places usually are, also a high-street stop-off for those purchasing non-invasive plastic surgery, a place where, I read, one could order, alongside fat-freezing, more euphemistic ‘medical grade procedures’ such as ‘HIFU “No Knife Facelift” ’, ‘Botox and Injectable Fillers’, ‘Laser Hair Removal’, ‘Ultraformer III Skin Tightening – Face & Body’ and ‘Bespoke Medical Facials’. This is the world we live in, yet this objectification goes unexamined.
I began to think of critics John Berger and Naomi Wolf. They need little introduction, as two of the most famous critical authors of the twentieth century. Berger’s seminal BBC documentary and book, Ways Of Seeing (1972) has received 966,215 views on Youtube in the past two years, and his death in 2017 increased the media adoration yet further. Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth (1990) is an international bestseller and Wolf a spokesperson for the ‘Third Wave’ of feminism. Due to these and other writers typified as 1970s and 80s ‘feminist’ writers, bringing up the objectification of women is often counter-productive, these days. Laws have changed; there isn’t a culture of sexism now like there was in the 1970s; aren’t we past that? It needs to be made clear that discussing the cultural ideal of ‘beauty’, as Berger and Wolf did, is not a specifically ‘feminist’ (and therefore overstated) problem, but resonates in a larger discussion of how the vision of ourselves is formed. Berger and Wolf’s messages are as crucial today as when they were written. Their separate analyses of how the female body is constructed in Western society are more relevant to modern constructions of the body than ever. Moreover, they explain how it is that we cannot trust the judgment of our own eyes.
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf argues that cosmetics, the food industry, aesthetic surgery and women’s magazines should be seen in financial terms, as parts of an economic system which is violent to women’s bodies. Any person who buys into feminine beauty, is taught to abuse themselves and their sisters with the weapons of starvation and self-hatred; and gender relations reinforce this limitation of ambition.
“The beauty myth countered women’s new freedoms […] [achieved] in the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s […] by transposing the social limits to women’s lives directly onto their faces.”
Using dozens of examples, she describes how violence against women is enacted through the dehumanising act of plastic surgery, while advertisements and beauty magazines (often bankrolled by cosmetic companies) manipulate women into fearing their own ageing, blemished faces, and all around it is reiterated again and again that the female appearance is something to be ‘controlled’. Except, of course, it is big business which shapes the one-size-fits-nobody mould that is ‘beauty’, in order to sell the ‘fix’.
Wolf’s argument directs blame specifically towards the beauty industry for causing women’s bodies to be seen as, specifically, decaying. Berger’s is a larger grievance: he is infuriated that women are seen as sights at all. Ways Of Seeing shows how the entire Western tradition of representation of women in art since medieval times is geared towards making women purely visual objects.
“A woman is constantly watching herself […] a woman is an image.”
Berger shows how the feminine body is always read: is she wearing an apron? She must be motherly. Grand hairstyle? Powerful. And what does a specifically beautiful appearance mean? Merely pleasure for the viewer – beauty, in whatever form it is shown in the image, is not for her herself.
“From earliest childhood, she is told to survey herself constantly. Behind every glance is a judgment.”
This results in an imbalance between the feminine and the masculine assets. A woman in a painting is not an active creature with a mind of her own, but something to be put on display; in most paintings, the woman is presented only as a body that is a set of visual signifiers. As Berger puts it, “aesthetics, when applied to women, are not as disinterested as the word “beauty” might suggest.”
Wolf’s excoriation evidently had no long-term effect, while women are still shaped as sights as Berger showed, now more than ever. According to Goldman Sachs, the beauty industry (with a predominantly female market, selling products designed to create a conventionally feminine appearance) is still growing by 7% each year; more than most developed countries. Flicking through a fashion magazine targeted towards women, we are presented with advertisements for products that can ‘perfect my skin’ by ‘reducing shine’ and ‘minimizing the appearance of fine lines and pores’. A shiny face and pores is a horror to be gotten rid of by advertising copy. But these are ordinary features of the body. There will always be more pores, and the never ending fight to erase them makes money for companies. The ends to these means, Wolf points out, is actually economic, not aesthetic – desire for beauty is exploited, but the concept of beauty is actually used as a factor within a capitalist system – ‘lack of pores’ is something of financial importance more than an aesthetic value.
Products can make the buyer’s features ‘stronger and healthier’, they ‘revitalise’ hair or give skin a ‘deep cleaning’ combined with ‘the luxury of a spa facial’. The overall message is clear: one’s own body is dirty, alien, something to tame, not something to love. This imagery pretends to be descriptive but is actively persuasive – men and women accept that the body is editable. (the female body, as the current industry target, is gradually changing.) It is true, of course, that beauty has been pursued through hair-plucking and makeup for centuries, yet the extent to which the body is seen as mouldable, visible and foreign to its possessor is only relatively recent – particularly the female body, which Ways Of Seeing shows has always been more visible than the male. This concept of ‘beauty’ as youth, purchasable and additive, is nothing but fashion not an essential truth.
Yet thirty and fifty years after Ways of Seeing and The Beauty Myth we are in exactly the same self-sabotaging mind-set. In yet another example, the announcement that Edward Enninful was being made the new editor of British Vogue in 2017 was hailed as the beginning of a forward-thinking era for Vogue, with an active focus on promoting positivity, self-acceptance and the value of diversity rather than whiteness, passivity and exclusivity. And yet, the first two issues under Enninful’s editorship included full-page articles in praise of aesthetic surgery. An article titled ‘Little Wonders’ described ‘subtle cosmetic treatments’ – quick, invasive procedures with inconspicuous effect. Masking the Botox and bruising with descriptions of ‘pretty pink cotton pads’ and ‘face and body tweaks’, Vogue declared that ‘you could mistake this “superclinic” for a smart Mayfair hair salon’; ‘you can be in and out within your lunch hour.’ Vogue itself certainly has an interest in promoting the idea that beauty is something purchasable, as it sells advertising space to such clinics in its back pages. The fact that the magazine takes care to write their procedures as casual, and even profess a comforting, therapeutic effect shows their very inefficacy. Dentists do not bother to seduce customers into visiting them, because they know we need teeth whatever the discomfort.
Cosmetic surgery is exemplary for showing how a power structure (financial, political) can impose aesthetic (or indeed moral) standards and make them invisible; even when these standards are artificial, even when they are damaging. The 2014 report from independent regulatory body the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that they (BAAPS), had seen a growing trend in young people receiving Botox and breast enhancements, and warned that it is ‘too big an operation, with too many potential life-long implications’. Legally, anyone over the age of 18 can have plastic surgery, though most cosmetic surgeries insist on a personal consultation. ‘Book now for your FREE consultation’, ‘a bespoke package will be created for you at Consultation’, ‘Free surgical consultation without any commitment’, say the magazines in Harley Street lobbies. Nothing is free. As Naomi Wolf warned nearly thirty years every employee of a private company, consciously or unconsciously, will be encouraged to make money for the business.
The industry’s own methods prove how successful it has been in changing how we pursue aesthetic ideals. The Telegraph recently ran a parent-scaring article titled ‘The Rise Of “Selfie Surgery” ’ about increasingly youthful patients. In fact, the language used by Vogue and cosmetic surgeries shows that The Telegraph should not be so surprised. Cosmetic surgery is now marketed as desirable. Though extreme, cosmetic surgery has become normal. One of the Kardashians, 20-year old Kylie Jenner, has lately spoken openly about her ‘super natural’ lip filler. She casually calls her LA surgeon ‘the best’. Jenner has 105 million followers on social media, to whom cosmetic surgery is now by extension ‘the best’, and their body is something to inject.
It could be argued that breast surgery is still relatively taboo and so, surgery is not a significant concern. However, the normalisation of surgery as a beauty treatment means that it is a widespread problem, but hidden in full view. How has this normalisation of a potentially taboo pursuit been achieved unnoticed? It is a catch-22 between following fashion and creating it: unmarked advertising in features like ‘Little Wonders’ can literally change fashion with no input from the consumer, marketing copy gradually changes from normalising to advertising, and contemporary culture overwhelms us with new imagery about the body. Company needs for exponential growth means that the number of high-street aesthetic surgeries (nail bars) that offer Fat Freezing and 3D-Lipo alongside a manicure have increased. This is partly due to the need for businesses to diversify into whatever is fashionable; and partly the acceptance of the customer that, if this is offered, it is normal.
The 2016 Department of Health Review of the Regulations of Cosmetic Interventions states that such high-street clinics are a particular cause for concern. ‘Anyone can set themselves up as a practitioner, with no requirement for knowledge, training or previous experience. Most dermal fillers have no more controls than a bottle of floor cleaner.’ I enter one of these, the ‘New York Laser Hair Clinic + Medispa’. It is white, minimalist, medical, with gleaming chrome bar stools. The women working there are dressed in buttoned-up lab coats, with matching sleek ponytails. The Clinic describes itself in its own brochure as ‘a friendly, welcoming and safe environment to offer you the best medical treatments’. Listed under ‘Conditions’ are ‘Stretch marks’, ‘Ageing and problem skin’, and ‘Excess body fat’. These are not actually harmful, though the language suggests they are. I am older than Kylie Jenner, though I am still in my twenties. Posing as a client, I enquire about prices for dermal fillers, and am met with unwillingness from the woman behind the counter.
‘You must talk to the doctor, see what’s best for you.’ She will not look me in the eye. To book a surgical procedure, you must get what is effectively a doctor’s note from your GP giving you permission to proceed, and also make a deposit. Do they return deposits if you cancel your procedure at the last minute?
‘Mm, of course, we’re not going to take your money if you don’t have [surgery]!’ She evidently did not think I, a young woman wearing trousers, was the right person for an injectable filler. Her reluctance to offer me surgery, for whatever reason, shows how automatically we form our thoughts and actions on visual judgments. All she had to go on were the cultural signs of my appearance – young, make-up free – and she did not question her assumptions. Seeing without questioning and spontaneously following what we see is humanity’s vanity.
Ironically, the beauty industry’s vilification of age and valorisation of sexuality was probably why I was actually protected from its capitalist calculations, on this occasion. However, as in the truism, ‘the customer is always right’, the retailer could not disengage herself from me. Here, she could have used her eyes to refuse an unsuitable patient ‘treatment’, but the patient was also a customer, a clash of care that these practitioners try to gloss over – and one that illustrates nicely how company financial interests are central to the creation of beauty. There are more factors than the aesthetic in the cultural concept of ‘beauty’.
My interaction with cosmetic surgery is an example of how social ideals are shaped; exploiting human desires while working within larger systems of capitalism and power. It is important to be aware that the beauty industry’s creation of beauty is an increasingly damaging concept, particularly for women; but more than that, we should be aware that it is only one of many possible constructions. Berger and Wolf are not simply criticizing our idea of beauty; they are raising the issue that beauty is creative and our morals and standards are creative. Reading these texts as ‘feminist’ polemics ignores their wider significance as to how to read the wider world.
Ways Of Seeing assumed the reader understands why the objectification of women is bad in itself, but as an effect of this, the dangers of cosmetic surgery probably did not cross Berger’s mind. Women vulnerable to such procedures would benefit from considering the way they feel towards their own body, and whether the ultimate ends of the procedure is indeed their beauty, or the surgeons’ gain. Would she be having breast augmentation if she were reading about fat-dissolving lasers and water jets in liposuction rather than the vague ‘procedure’ most brochures term it? Would she, if Berger and Wolf’s points were brought back into discourse and we tried to attack the way of seeing women as no more than part of the view? In the wider context of history, the idea that the body is editable is not normal.
Of course, women maintain an appearance for all kinds of reasons: not least to feel joy in themselves and embrace their femininity. Take, for example, a woman using a face cream and injections to ‘minimise the appearance of fine lines’ because she knows that the minute she begins to look older, she will face ageist discrimination. She is using this conception of beauty (equalling youth, equalling sexuality) not as a signifier of vulnerability and innocence, but as a form of resistance to misogyny. Wolf does not allow for the power that women can hold by manipulating their appearance. The fact that a body can be an editable work of art is not always bad. However, Ways Of Seeing reminds us that however a woman manipulates her image to her own desire, she is still controlled by the idea that her worth is estimated relative to a viewer’s pleasure. A woman who believes in beauty believes it a form of power over other people and over physical realities. It is. We believe attractive peers are more trustworthy, more respectable and more powerful, as well as more attractive. And as we believe, so it is – for a while. A woman who buys into the idea of beauty as it is currently perpetrated is buying a form of control that cannot last. She believes she can control how she is perceived through her own desperate efforts, that with potions and lotions and incisions she can miraculously continue in youth. Isn’t that always a losing fight? It is one that many, many women I know fight, hating their own body as it ages. Does it have to be this way? ‘Beauty’ could probably involve self-acceptance, individuality and natural appearance, if we praised such things more in the newspapers. The battle to control one’s own body is a civil war that cannot be won.
And this matters for men, for those who do not read ‘female’ magazines, for those who do not go into Harley Street surgeries, are not bothered about wearing makeup, and have no intention of going under the pretty, pink knife. All of us are affected by this language and overwhelmed with the art around us which presents women as visual objects above all else – in public adverts, in contemporary culture like Keeping Up With The Kardashians, in the beauty products aimed at women in shops etc. The idea that the appearance is no more than a set of constantly-varying signifiers, as Berger suggests, and that the beauty industry offers to make each signifier perfect, as Wolf argues, is dangerous in that it presents a physical body as something that can always be controlled. We like to feel in control, but bodies cannot be completely controlled – while true control lies with the cosmetic companies. How are women ever to feel natural or accepting towards their own bodies, when they are dis-embodied? And let alone the harm they might do to themselves through surgery and self-hatred, the effects on others of this view of the female body could range from patronising her intelligence to assaulting her.
I cannot be objective when analysing Berger and Wolf’s relevance today, as any effect they have would show in a direct impact on my life. Their lack of effect shows, when I live a world in which cosmetic surgery is easy for me to purchase, in which the culture I consume recommends I change my body, and in which the women I see around me overwhelmingly model themselves for other people’s viewpoint. Berger and Wolf use the example of the plastic female body to remind us that we form our standards – moral, aesthetic, automatic – on the signs we read. Though we may think we are too mature and sophisticated – too old, our modern world too advanced – to discuss abstract concepts in daily life, at parties or at work, these controversial, emotional, often unfashionable aesthetic and ethical ideals are our reality.
Volume 33 no 2 November / December 2018 pp 20-13
NB: In this article, I have made reference to women and used pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’. I consciously did not delve into the problems that men, transpeople and femme-identifiers find within the search for positive access to femininity, as there was not time or space. Nonetheless, cosmetic surgery and the search for a ‘perfect’ body is of course relevant to more than just women, and the exploitation of human vulnerabilities – physical feelings as well as self-esteem – for a company’s financial gain is something we all should be aware of in a capitalist society.