How plastic surgery trends reflect changing beauty ideals

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If you think having plastic surgery sounds daunting today, spare a thought for those who were bold enough to try it in the 16th century. Back then procedures were usually for people who’d suffered trauma or illness. According to Dr Michelle Smith, Research Fellow in English Literature at Deakin University, constructing a new nose in those days required skin to be removed from the forehead, folded down and stitched, or taken from a patient’s arm. Today’s nose jobs are not nearly as drastic, but we undergo more procedures for beauty’s sake, and in more ways, than ever before.

How desirable features have changed over time

Aspiring to a particular beauty ideal can be dangerous given that the marks of beauty change over time and differ from location to location. Dr Smith says that although facial symmetry is a significant universal beauty marker ‘many characteristics fall in and out of favour’. She cites pale female skin as attractive in some cultures because it indicates that women don’t work outside. By contrast, many Western cultures see a tan as a sign of health and beauty.

Body-wise, she highlights the Victorian period, in which there were advertisements for products that helped women gain weight because it was an indication of fertility and good fortune. ‘Today, in a time of utter plenty, we idealise thin female bodies as the most beautiful,’ Dr Smith points out. The preferred size and shape of breasts has also fluctuated wildly over time. ‘In the late 19th century breast reductions were more common. The ideal breast shape was seen as a controlled sphere, with more pendulous breasts associated with racial primitivism and a lack of sexual control,’ she adds.

Tracking beauty ideals through today’s desirable surgeries

The pressure to be beautiful is far higher for girls and women than men according to Dr Smith. She says being perceived as unattractive is associated with failure, unpopularity and romantic rejection, whereas men aren’t burdened with the same pressure. This has become increasingly obvious as women seek out genital surgery to match what the pornography industry dictates. Dr Smith highlights the rise in labiaplasty in the past decade. ‘The wider availability of pornography has changed norms relating to pubic hair for a start. Total or near-total removal of hair means some women are more conscious of the appearance of their labia,’ she explains. Although she suggests that precise numbers are hard to track because the procedures are performed with private surgeons rather than through Medicare. However, a recent survey of 443 Australian GPs indicated that a third have consulted with people under 18 who’d like to alter the appearance of their genitalia.

Increasing multiculturalism in Western countries has shifted some beauty norms. Dr Smith points out that large lips weren’t desirable a century ago, but as women were increasingly exposed to people of races with larger lips, they began to covet them. As a result, women have increasingly turned to lip augmentation procedures and fillers for plumper lips.

Similarly, celebrity culture has a significant influence on beauty ideals. ‘The idealisation of rounder buttocks, such as those of Kim Kardashian, might owe something to the influence of other cultural ideals and body types,’ Dr Smith says. In America, buttock implants were the fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery in 2015.

Will perceptions of beauty evolve again?

In terms of gendered prejudice, positive changes in how women are related and valued could reshape female beauty norms,’ Dr Smith argues and suggests that beauty ideals currently tie back to women being smaller and weaker than men. ‘Perhaps if female authority and strength were more valued, then muscular women would be seen as attractive,’ she says, ‘Women who actively try to build muscle are ridiculed, while men who do the same are somewhat idealised.’

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Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith

Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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