by Beck Nash @Becki__Louise
Aesthetic Surgery is an inescapable feature of consumer culture. The UK saw aesthetic surgery figures increase by 17% overall since 2012; the biggest rise since prior to the 2008 recession. This increase does not include the uptake of non-surgical procedures. In the UK, there is continuing contention over the regulatory status of the industry – particularly in regard to non-surgical interventions. Catty ‘have they/haven’t they’ conjecture surrounding celebrities, spectacular surgery ‘disaster’ stories (complete with graphic visuals of affected body parts), and focus on the beauty of those who have ‘got surgery right’, saturates media.
I am interested in the role of the web on the production and consumption of aesthetic surgery. How it has invaded everyday life as a form of normative body maintenance – sometimes to the point that potentially ruinous DIY surgery is an attractive option.
Accessible routes to altering bodies – diets, exercise, cosmetics, or technologies such as aesthetic surgery – and pressure to take responsibility for individual body projects sees conforming to prevailing beauty standards as imperative. Pierre Bourdieu placed the body in society as a bearer of symbolic value, demonstrated by the notion of physical capital. This means adhering to aesthetics considered valuable and desirable within society: presenting the body as a possessor of power and status. Aesthetic surgery has become an increasingly popular route for individuals to obtain bodies imbued with physical capital. This, more often than not, consists of youthful, slim, Caucasian bodies.
It is, furthermore, the Foucauldian notion of the gaze which drives preoccupation with aesthetic surgery. TV shows such as ‘Extreme Makeover’, ‘The Swan’, ‘I Want a Famous Face’, and ‘Botched up Bodies’ sensationalise surgery successes and disasters. The most popular videos on YouTube related to aesthetic surgery overwhelmingly detail ‘disastrous’ surgeries; often the aesthetic failure of celebrities. As stated, online and offline media from news to gossip sites are quick to latch on to dialogues concerning secret surgeries, botched surgeries, or less often, successful surgery. These mediums paint a picture of consumer-patients variably duped by unscrupulous surgeons, obsessively driven by celebrity facade, and/or wider societal beauty norms. It is rare to come across media that talk about conscious, informed agents operating rationally within a popular consumer market. This does not sell. The selling point is in the voyeurism of the grotesque; the disaster.
When searching for aesthetic surgery online, a simple Google search of ‘cosmetic surgery UK’ retrieves nearly 20 million results. Geographically specific aesthetic surgery services, nationally established aesthetic surgery providers, news related to aesthetic surgery, and connected searches, including ‘cheap cosmetic surgery UK’, ‘free cosmetic surgery UK’, and ‘cosmetic surgery UK reviews’. In just one page of results is an unsurprisingly diverse online landscape for what has been considered the most extreme and invasive of body modifications.
What is interesting, though – given how popular the consumption of aesthetic surgery is – is how little attention the web has received in relation to engagement with aesthetic surgery. The Keogh Report produced by the Department of Health in 2013 scarcely mentioned the Web. When it did, it was with flippant ‘alarm’ that some individuals were self-administering aesthetic injectables purchased online. There was allusion to social media being one of the major ways of communicating information and selling services to young people. Otherwise, the Web may as well not exist.
This is clearly one of the oversights of the Keogh Report. It is a well-trodden line that the Web is the largest human information construct in history. It allows us to create, communicate, and consume information and services. The growth of diverse online environments engaging with particular issues enables individuals to browse the web for information and services, whilst maintaining communications in spaces like discussion forums. The dissemination of information, accessibility to, and availability of products, and affording communication with other users sees the web as something of a ‘one-stop’ for exploration and decision-making on many issues.
An understanding of these spaces matter, because the web contains regulated information, products and services, whilst affording potential misinformation, illegal or counterfeit products and services. And there is little known about how individuals are engaging with these competing and contrasting web spaces.
There is awareness-raising being carried out; notably ‘Safety in Beauty’ started by beauty writer Antonia Mariconda. ‘Safety in Beauty’ aims to educate and empower consumers through providing information they should consider before settling on a particular procedure and provider. Knowing how people engage with the aesthetic surgery landscape on the Web is crucial to highlighting forms of information-seeking, knowledge-building and, ultimately, consumption of aesthetic surgery.
With this, it is imperative to explore a number of different online spaces to build an understanding of the competing, contrasting and sometimes contradictory discourse surrounding representations of the body and aesthetic procedures. There is a need to open up discussion of the web and not reduce it to research of single online spaces. This is what my own research intends to do. It is not about big data, and it is not reduced to observing and analysing single online spaces. It is about capturing a snapshot of numerous online spaces. We are lacking a dialogue concerning aesthetic surgery on the web; an issue that blurs boundaries between health and consumer markets; between bioethics and consumer rights; between medical expertise and beauty markets.
If we can get a handle on the dominant discourses surrounding the body, aesthetic surgery and the web, there is a real contribution to be made to understanding just how individuals are engaging with a practice where, currently, the spectacle of the disaster prevails.
Department of Health (2013) Review of the Regulation of Cosmetic Interventions, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/192028/Review_of_the_Regulation_of_Cosmetic_Interventions.pdf
British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (2014) Britain Sucks, Available at: http://baaps.org.uk/about-us/press-releases/1833-britain-sucks
Safety in Beauty: http://safetyinbeauty.com/