The “clean” aesthetic — matcha, 20-step skincare routines, gua sha, 4:30 a.m. yoga, minimalist makeup and nude-toned shapewear — went viral in 2022. It’s a stark difference from the pouty lips, bold eyebrows and spray tan aesthetic of the 2010s. Coupled with the rise in social media, the new trend to be as natural-looking and dewey as possible has elevated criticisms of cosmetic enhancements. Our favorite celebrities that were recipients of unnatural plastic procedures, especially those keen on hiding any of these physical alterations, are no longer cutting it.
But despite the fact that post-pandemic plastic surgery demand has skyrocketed, the negative perceptions surrounding cosmetic enhancement are still widely held among everyday people. Those cognizant of how the beauty industry profits off of insecurities often draw the line at permanent body modifications, such as lip fillers and botox, as the product of poor decision-making by women. Sentiments against these injections — either from their medical irrelevance, seeming superficial motives or health risks — revolve around the larger idea of body neutrality, or honoring one’s body as it is with neither positive nor negative feelings. However, today, it is next to impossible to abstain from being profited off of and be body neutral. There exists a spectrum of participation with exploitative medical practices, but a greater understanding of the plastic surgery industry’s versatility is vital for greater acceptance of cosmetic body modification.
For example, the products made by Juvéderm, one of the most popular dermal filler brands, are made almost entirely of hyaluronic acid (HA). This acid, also known as hyaluronan, is a “linear polysaccharide” that is both abundantly produced in the body and ubiquitous in key “visual” tissues such as skin, nerves and epithelium. HA’s magic has to do with its ability to bind 1,000 times its own volume in water — giving it plumping superpowers for aging, wrinkly, inelastic and dry skin.
HA, in addition to popular hydroxy acids (AHAs, BHAs, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc.), is a massive selling point in topical skincare products. These acids have deep exfoliating and hydrating properties that work against common dermatological issues like acne and hyperpigmentation, making them vital active ingredients in cleansers, sunscreen and everything in between.
Why, then, is it so negatively perceived to have a naturally-occurring compound subcutaneously added to tissue when that same compound already exists in our bodies and is encouraged to be applied topically? The answer partially lies within the anti-cosmetic augmentation crowd. These critics largely view all enhancing procedures as a monolith — a byproduct of the larger view that any cosmetic-driven effort is an effort against body neutrality — when, in practice, no two procedures are the same. To clump butt implants and lip filler into the same category, for example, undermines the intrinsically natural and low-risk concept of HA formulas and inappropriately sexualizes the motivation for all injections.
On another token, as someone with lip filler and botox, I’ve been told that I’ve pursued a scheme to fit more comfortably within the patriarchy and oppress other women in the process. It’s ironic considering that this criticism came from white women — a demographic that has imposed Eurocentric beauty standards on melanated women, specifically Black women, for centuries. Skin bleaching, hair perms, colored contacts, rhinoplasties and blonde hair dyes are all cosmetic modifications that continue to pervade various countries victim to colonization. Yet, white “feminists” often focus on the ways in which women are subjugated by the male gaze because doing so grossly takes the blame away from themselves for the ways they subjugate ethnic women to Eurocentric beauty standards — a malignancy that far supersedes that of the patriarchy when not used in conjunction with it.
Furthermore, it is an inherently feminist act for women to choose for themselves what they want to happen to their own bodies. The crux of criticism toward elective plastic surgery or fillers actually perpetuates the idea that bodily autonomy should only be a woman’s choice if it is for medical necessity (such as in cases regarding abortion). In reality, personal empowerment through elective procedures contributes to broad social progress just as much as rejecting beauty standards does. Because of plastic surgery, transgender people are better able to affirm themselves with genital reconstruction or facial feminization surgery, breast cancer survivors can receive breast implants and postpartum women can undergo stomach liposuction. None of these procedures are needed to maintain a pulse, but they instill a priceless confidence and a new sense of self.
College-aged women are in a tricky spot when it comes to self-image; we are toggling between residual teenage acne scars and budding forehead wrinkles alike. Ann Arbor has over 10 plastic surgery clinics, and I will be the first to say that this accessibility was a big reason many of my classmates and I pursued fillers and botox. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that only two years ago, roughly 768,000 cosmetic enhancements were pursued by women ages 20 to 29 — a statistic they predict will be on the rise. However, the pursuit of plastic surgery does not, in any way, negate my feminism or integrity in fighting beauty standards. Instead of focusing on the rise of cosmetic enhancement in young age groups, we should be advocating against the root of social structures and power dynamics that successfully coax women into considering inauthentic versions of themselves that they never wished for.
Simply put, throughout the history of time, cosmetic enhancement has been an easy and superficial way to criticize women for distracting, vain and self-sexualizing behavior. With medical advancements in plastic surgery and dermatology that blossomed into the 21st century, these deprecating themes continue to encircle women who physically and mentally benefit from going under the knife. Properly advocating against cosmetic enhancements requires a deeper, nuanced understanding of each treatment — including motivations, risks and consequences. A cosmetic surgery-free future will only come to fruition with advocacy against social structures, not against women themselves.
It is simply lazy to brand all women who pursue elective injections or surgeries as agents of the patriarchy, because it lacks critical analysis of individual motivations and goals while navigating the backdrop of various unattainable beauty standards.
Namratha Nelapudi is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.