This article originally appeared on VICE Australia/New Zealand
Even in the age of body-positivity, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone that cannot identify one physical insecurity. The universal quest for perfection means self-improvement is ingrained. In fact, I was raised on it. My friends and I were discussing thigh gaps as young as nine. By 12 we could all identify what we would "get done", if we lived in an ideal world where elective surgery was affordable and without social stigma. Ten years later, two of my friends have now had cosmetic surgery.
Two weeks ago, my 21-year-old friend told me she was undergoing elective surgery to change her nose. The 21st-century me thought, 'sure, we all have our "things" (body hang ups), but should we really invest that much time and effort simply to conform to media-propagated beauty standards? Who, in this hyper self-oriented universe, stops thinking about themselves long enough to really judge someone else?'
Then there was the 12-year-old me, who was extremely envious that I couldn't, wouldn't, or wasn't brave enough, to invest in my self-esteem and improve myself the way she did.
Auckland surgeon Stephen Mills says there has been a prominent increase in young women seeking cosmetic surgery in New Zealand. While body insecurity has always run rampant among teens, Dr Mills attributes this growing desire for surgery to the information age. He says young people are seeing cosmetic procedure results shared online so are more aware of what is available and "less prepared to put up with issues, especially when there are possible solutions".
"[Young people] are so focussed on the here and now that they don't always give sufficient consideration to the future, they can also be very sensitive to negative comments. Without being patronising, it is important for a surgeon to be aware of these issues and always maintain a sensible position."
Enter the Kylie Jenner-conundrum. The reality star and makeup mogul is perhaps the youngest celebrity to admit to having undergone cosmetic procedure. She finally acknowledged her lip injections, after a whole lot of conjecture, at age 18. She's also a multi-millionaire in her own right. There are millions of memes dedicated to before and after photos of Kylie, consoling audiences with the fact that no one's ugly, they're just "poor".
That's just it, my friends aren't rich. They can't really afford these surgeries and, honestly neither can I. It's not a case of having an extra 20 grand around that you don't know what to do with; we are young people with student loans, young people who want to travel the world. Instead they (or their parents) are investing years of savings to actively address their insecurity.
This concerns Dr Mills. An increased desire for plastic surgery among young people, coupled the massive cost of procedures, might drive younger patients to seek a more affordable option, or as Dr Mills worries, under the scalpels of untrained surgeons who "may not have the patient's best interests as their prime motivation".
Even though my friends were willing to fork out for the best possible treatment, the lure of a quick-fix might mean people forgo research for a cheaper option.
Michaiah Simmons-Villari learned the hard way the importance of research when it comes to plastic surgery. She has just had her breast implants from her early 20s removed as a result of silicone toxicity poisoning. She later discovered that silicone implants were banned by the FDA until 2006, then controversially put back into production.
Michaiah would have been one of the first to get silicone implants—which for her meant a decade of fainting, seizures, insomnia and many more symptoms. By 31 she felt like she was dying, so she looked online and secured an emergency surgery to get them removed. Only recently has Michaiah really considered the reasons she sought augmentation to begin with, which were rooted in her desire to look like early 90s Pamela Anderson.
"I realise now that while I did it for myself and because I wanted to, that aspiring to look like someone else is not the best thing for someone. I actually didn't even tell my family, I just made up my mind and did it."
Acknowledging your own vanity to friends and family can be even more difficult than mustering the sum for surgery. As more celebrities have become increasingly vocal about their plastic surgery, they are often admonished, or when their beauty is in question, disregarded for not being "natural". I've often heard Kylie Jenner, objectively beautiful even before surgery, being called "fake" after she admitted to lip enhancements.
Rachel*, who had her breasts enlarged at 22, was naturally worried about how those around her would react. "My reservations were toward the negative attention that comes along with it, people judging was a real concern."
Anna*, also in her early 20s, is soon to have breast augmentation surgery. She says she never considered what people might think, what really mattered to her was that her body will finally be in proportion. She also thinks much of the elective surgery stigma comes from those who overdo it.
"Socially I think when people hear you have had your boobs done there are stereotypes of big fake tits, but I think many more people have been getting their boobs done and you can barely tell. I'm getting the operation to make me happier with my body and build my self esteem. I've thought about it since I was probably 17."
As happy I was that, like Anna, my friend was actively taking control of her insecurities, my dissonance was far beyond the usual fact that cosmetic surgery is messing with nature. What I found most concerning was that when my friend spoke of her surgery she categorised her life so far as "pre-nose", while she was soon to be "post-nose." It was as if she hadn't even been alive prior. I was disappointed. Disappointed that she felt like she had to adhere to what was "conventional" beauty. Disappointed because I couldn't see anything wrong about her nose to begin with.
No matter how much Rachel loves her bigger breasts, she says she's "bit bummed that [she] conformed to a standardised version of beauty".
"There's no such thing as a cookie-cutter perfect body. Femininity cannot be defined by cup size. I don't regret anything, but at the age I am now, I don't think I would go through with the procedure."
We want to fit in and that's fine. In fact, we conform in an aesthetic sense, every day. We colour our hair, our skin, our eyelashes. So what do we really have to fear? Should we worry about turning into clones? Or be concerned that those of us that can't afford self-improvement, will be ostracised from society as "ugly" and unable to keep up?
Sure, surgery is more expensive and more invasive than other beauty treatments, but regardless of your age, if you've got issues with yourself, you've got issues. It's definitely worth evaluating where those issues derive from, but if they're prominent enough to affect your quality of life, they should be addressed. Although as Rachel explains, it's dangerous to treat any cosmetic procedure as a magic fix-all for all your inner hang-ups.
"The older I get the more I realise that beauty definitely comes from within. The good in your soul radiates out. Curves are womanly, but being womanly is also about the way you carry yourself, grace, intelligence and all that, which should have just as much of an emphasis."
You can have a flawless nose or perky, bra-less breasts, but a perfectly proportional body will still only get you so far because afterwards, you'll likely still be the same person. It's also important to remember it's still 2016, no one really has any time to think about your body "thing", whatever it may be—we're too busy thinking about ourselves.
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