Virtual Spaces, Real Scars: Understanding the Web’s Aesthetic Surgery Discourses

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:
British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (2014) Britain Sucks, Available at:
Safety in Beauty:

Call for Papers: Media Sociology Preconference, ASA 2014

Call for Papers: Media Sociology Preconference, ASA 2014

Venue: Mills College (Oakland, CA)
Date: August 15, 2014

We invite submissions for a second preconference on media sociology to
be held at Mills College (Oakland, CA) on Friday, August 15, 2014.
(This is one day before the start of the annual meeting of the
American Sociological Association in San Francisco.) To encourage the
widest possible range of submissions, we have no pre-specified theme
again this year and invite both theoretical and empirical papers on
any topic related to media sociology. Submissions from graduate
students and junior scholars are particularly welcome.

Media sociology has long been a highly diverse field spanning many
topics, methodologies, and units of analysis. It encompasses all forms
of mass-mediated communication and expression, including news media,
entertainment media, as well as new and digital media. Outstanding
research exists within the different subfields both within and beyond
the discipline of sociology. Our aim is to create dialogue among these
disparate yet complementary traditions.

This preconference is also linked to a campaign to form a Media
Sociology section of the ASA that is theoretically and
methodologically agnostic and aims to support sociological work
related to any and all media. A petition supported by signatures from
over 200 current members was submitted to the ASA Council in November
2013, and we are optimistic that Media Sociology will become a
Section-in-Formation in 2015.

Papers may be on a variety of topics including, but not limited to:
-production processes and/or media workers
-political economy (including the role of the state and markets)
-media and the public sphere
-media content
-the Internet, social media, cellular phones, or other technology
-the digital divide
-new uses of media
-media globalization or diaspora
-media effects of media consumption
-identity, the self, and media

Invited Speakers

Last year’s inaugural preconference, held at NYU’s Institute for
Public Knowledge and Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, was very
well-attended and featured an invited keynote by Dhiraj Murthy
(Goldsmiths, University of London) and a plenary panel addressing the
theme, “Mapping the Field of Media Sociology” with additional
participants Rodney Benson (NYU), Andrea Press (University of
Virginia), Michael Schudson (Columbia University), and Eleanor
Townsley (Mount Holyoke College).

This year’s keynote speaker will be Clayton Childress (University of
Toronto – Scarborough). A special plenary session on “Media Sociology
as a Vocation” will feature a panel discussion on careers in media
sociology. We will announce further invited speakers in due course.


Submissions should include:
-Separate cover sheet with: title, name and affiliation, and email
address of author(s).
-Abstract of 150-300 words that discusses the problem, research,
methods and relevance.
-Also include at least three descriptive keywords. Note: DO NOT put
identifying information in the body of the abstract; only on cover
-Use Microsoft Office or PDF format.

Send abstracts to Please write “Media
Sociology Preconference” in the subject line.

Abstract deadline is March 31, 2014.

Notification of acceptance will occur sometime in mid-April.

Contact Casey Brienza ( or Matthias Revers
( for more information about the preconference.

An Introduction to the Sociological Blogosphere

What is Digital Sociology?

Prof. Ralph Schroeder: “Digital Transformations of Knowledge”

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of research projects and programmes under the labels of e-Science, e-Humanities, cyberinfrastructures, and e-Infrastructures. The broader term ‘e-Research’ encompasses all of these, and can be defined in shorthand form as: distributed and collaborative digital tools and data for online knowledge production. These digital approaches have transformed knowledge and reconfigured disciplines; especially the relation between computer science and other fields, but also more fundamentally between scientific approaches and others that are less scientific. Recently, ‘big data’ is adding to these transformations. This talk will present a wide range of case studies in this area, to ask about the consequences of e-Research and related changes – for scholarship, and for how we understand the world around us: what kinds of new disintermediations and intermediations are taking place between the knower and the objects of knowledge, and how can we understand these changes from a sociological perspective?

The interdisciplinary lecture series “Internet & Society”, organised by the Institute of Political Science and the Sociological Research Institute, as part of the Digital Humanities Research Collaboration, explores the social, technological and political interactions of the Internet and society. More information can be found under 

The pedagogical value of Twitter: enhancing the collective identity of independent learners

Last year I taught on a newly designed module in my school and was struck by the value of Twitter as a learning resource and teaching tool. ‘Current Issues in Society’ is a first year undergraduate module that has deviated quite considerably from the conventional teaching format. Usually, a module is made up of a one hour lecture and a one hour seminar each week over the course of an academic term. Albeit a tried-and-tested formula, this roster can, at times, stifle the pedagogical process. Particularly for those just beginning their degree, this teaching timetable can sometimes feel disjointed, with students only starting to grasp the content and rationale of a module in the latter weeks of term. Independent research and reading are a crucial means by which to ‘bridge the gap’ but this often leaves students navigating an unfamiliar academic terrain alone. At the beginning of their degree, students are not only faced with the challenge of familiarising themselves with their lecturers and peers, they must also grapple with a step change in their educational development. Namely, they have to negotiate the transition from passive to active independent learner.

‘Current Issues in Society’ broke the mould in a number of important respects to respond to some of these challenges. The module ran as a mini-conference over one afternoon each week, with an opening plenary, two hour workshop and closing plenary. This format facilitated intensive and collaborative working between staff and students. Many positive outcomes of the course can be ascribed to this format, but I’d like to focus here on an important adjunct to this shakeup – the introduction and use of Twitter. The module in question lent itself particularly well to this innovation with the primary focus of the course being on the uses (and abuses) of evidence, arguments and theory in current affairs. Before, during and after each mini-conference, students were encouraged to tweet their reflections and any content relevant to the topic of that week.


Online dialogue between students and staff extended teaching beyond the classroom

As a result, students availed themselves of the opportunity to engage with the news in a way that many never would have done before. Not only were students accessing and consuming academic knowledge in a novel format but they were also able to generate, map and track their own knowledge in a concise and compelling new way.

Twitter as a heuristic in that process allowed students to engage with the content of the course in their everyday lives – not for just a few hours a week. Students were able to interact with their peers and the content of the module well beyond the classroom. This proved immersive so that students more seamlessly developed new ways of interpreting and using the news in their wider academic work, whilst thinking sociologically in their day to day lives. Crucially, it enabled students to integrate this way of looking at the social world and themselves within it through a medium that is often (falsely) considered separate from more formalised pedagogic methods.


Students recognised the value of the module and use of Twitter

Thinking and working alone are key features of independent learning. However, due to the open forum of Twitter, students could see each other engaging with material and continuing the sociological discussion (with themselves and others) beyond the classroom. This sort of symbolic feedback cultivated a collective identity amongst students, such that they were able to situate themselves and their own work within the School. Using Twitter opened up new avenues for students to explore, develop and play with the material of the course. Perhaps most importantly though it offered students the reassurance of being ‘alone together’ in their transition to active independent learners.

After the course last year, there was a clear realisation amongst the students that engaging with current affairs and thinking sociologically outside of their lectures and seminars can greatly enhance their understanding and experience of the academic programme. Without the use of these more innovative teaching methods, I doubt students would have come to the same realisation so easily.

The module will be running again this semester. Follow @SSP_Cissues to see how we get on!

Daniel Edmiston is a PhD student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.


Digital Sociology at #BritSoc14

Plenary: The Social Life of Digital Methods

Deborah Lupton, Evelyn Ruppert, Noortje Marres, Mike Savage and Emma Uprichard
Friday 25 April 2014. 13:30-15:00

As an inaugural conference session for the BSA Digital Sociology study group, we propose a round table discussion exploring digital methods and their implications for sociological research. Our theme would follow a recent special issue of Theory, Culture & Society discussing the ‘social life of methods’ which has attracted much attention and discussion.

We expect the proposed roundtable would cover a diverse range of topics under the broad theme  of the ‘social life of methods’ including the ‘crisis of empirical sociology’, the significance of ‘big data’, the history of sociological methods, the digital  turn in social life and the problems and prospects for a critical social science under contemporary  circumstances. In doing so, our proposed session would not only address the conference theme of ‘changing society’ but do so in a way which explores how the repertoires of social research are both shaping and being shaped by these broader changes within social life.

An Invitation to Digital Public Sociology

Sarah Burton, Mark Carrigan, Jessie Daniels and Deborah Lupton
Thursday 24 April at 11am

This session asks what ‘public sociology’ entails in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress. What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task described by Michael Burawoy of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole? In addressing such questions it seeks to draw out the continuities between the emerging field of digital sociology and the longer-standing concerns of public sociology. In doing so it addresses the claim made by John Holmwood at the previous year’s conference that the task of sociology in an age of austerity is to “occupy debate and make inequality matter” and argues that the digitalisation of social life entails profound challenges and opportunities for sociological inquiry.

Quantified Self and Self-Tracking: Data, self and health

Farzana Dudhwala, Deborah Lupton, and Karen Throsby
Friday 25 April at 11am,

This panel has been arranged by the newly formed Quantified Self Research Network which was established in September 2013 in order to bring together scholars who are interested in understanding the development of self-tracking devices and techniques. This event will comprise of a panel of three speakers who will offer empirical or theoretical insights which will help to set the agenda for this new area of sociological study.

Although individuals and populations have been subject to statistical measures for more than a century the potential for quantification has increased dramatically in recent times. Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the contemporary quantification of the self is the extent to which individuals are encouraged, and often willing, to quantify themselves and engage with the analytical potential this enables.

We take quantified self in a broad sense to refer to the (semi-)formalised movement and community which has built up around the use of, and sharing of ideas on, commercial self-tracking devices and technologies. In addition we are also interested in those techniques and practices which are used by clinicians and patients to monitor health and the myriad ways in which our bodies and activities are monitored without our direct participation.

The impacts of quantification of bodies and practices on individuals will be explored from a number of different perspectives in order to unpick the social and ethical consequences of quantification as well as explore the professional and personal practices which enable it.

DEADLINE TOMORROW – CfP: Quantified Self Research Network, March 25th @SocioWarwick

The next meeting of the Quantified Self Research Network will take place on the 25th March at the University of Warwick from 1pm to 6pm. It’s an informal seminar to present work in progress and is open to all.

If you would like to contribute then please send a short abstract and bio to by February 1st. We use ‘quantified self’ in a broad sense inclusive of self-tracking, wearable computing and digital augmentation

We’re also keen to build on the last seminar and move the discussion forward. Here are some of the key questions which emerged during the last meeting:

What is distinctive about qs?

People have tracked their health data for a long time such as keeping food diaries or measuring their weight. Is qs conceptually different to this or is it merely an automisation and intensification? Does the quantity of the data produced equate to more of the same or a qualitatively distinct phenomenon?

Are there inequalities in qs and self-tracking?

The technologies required for qs are usually quite expensive even for a basic device and would certainly be out of the range of disposable income for many people and…

Are we creating inequalities with the focus of research?

If qsers are a relatively privileged group while it may be interesting to understand their practices and development of individual and group identities there are other people who cannot afford these practices, are uninterested or simply unaware of them.

What about gender?

The QS community seems to have more men than women as active participants. What are the reasons for this? If we take the broader notion of qs suggested by some of the presenters then often the more “mundane” or “domestic” approaches to self-tracking are more associated with women? Is there something fundamentally different about these?

How do we identify a ‘non-user’?

Although some of the methods of tracking have been used for a long time some of them are very new and it is currently unclear what kind of uptake they will have. We fairly easily identify a user (agreeing on a definition may be more complex) it is more difficult to identify a non-user. Are they people who do not practice qs or use the devices because they do not have access to them, they are not aware of them or they simply do not care? Is it right to define people as non-users of a fairly niche activity often engaged in by relatively privileged people? But with the amount of data which is generated about us (often without us knowing) are we not all quantified whether we like it or not?

The TEDification of #HigherEd? Negotiating between the accessibly simple and the simplistically accessible

There’s been a particularly incisive rehearsal in the Guardian recently of what has become a well established critique of TED. There’s a lot of this I agree with but I nonetheless find the general thrust of the argument really problematic:

So what is TED exactly?

Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy”, etc: what is called woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality.  In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.

But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine areplacebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go.

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

Why do people watch TED videos? Why have so many millions of people watched this stuff if it’s so pathetically facile? Does this critique apply to things like the RSA Animate videos as well? Is the problem simply a 10 minute video? If not then where do we draw the line between the accessibly simple and the simplistically accessible?  I disagree with the analysis of how much harm the latter does but I don’t think it does an awful lot of good either. But I don’t think all TED falls into this latter category. I also worry that the former category, things which are made simple so as to be accessible, can sometimes be sneered at by people in a way that often fails to recognise the nature of their judgement.

Here are two examples of research communication being accessibly simple. I think they’re great:

There’s no reason why research communication online has to be simple or accessible. A lot of research blogging (including my own) falls into this category, in so far as that it’s work in progress and/or aimed towards people within the author’s own discipline. But I think the simple and accessible is important. When people worry about the TEDification of Higher Education, it’s obvious to me where they’re coming from. However their responses seems so rampantly pessimistic to me.

Unless you’re a technological determinist who thinks that intellectual culture is immediately debased by social media then there’s no reason to assume this simplification of complex ideas is an inexorable process. Sure, there are channel constraints but that’s true of any mode of communication (not least of all the 20 minute conference presentation). There are affordances as well and these are what excite me. Rather than worry about the heights of intellectual culture being dragged into the ‘infotainment’ swamp, we should be getting better at ensuring that doesn’t happen. It’s not that the risk doesn’t exist, it’s simply that this is the wrong conversation to be having. Instead we should be looking to successful examples of accessibly simple research communication (for instance philosophy bites) and learning from them. There’s also a much greater role which can be served, perhaps not by communications offices unfortunately, by universities in helping facilitate these kinds of projects. Though given Nigel Warburton left the OU because of institutional constraints on his activity, perhaps the institutional environment is less amenable to this then I tend to assume in my own more rampantly optimistic moments. That’s the conversation we should be having. And we will be, hopefully, at the end of January.

Why Medium might be pretty great for academic blogging

I recently tried using Medium for the first time and I loved it. I suspect I won’t be alone in this. Here’s a few reasons why I think it’s a good fit for academic blogging:

  1. The interface is lovely. It does exactly what it claims to do and adopts an aesthetic which foregrounds what you’re writing. I’ve always seen the appeal in minimalistic interfaces for writing but never quite got to grips with them. There’s something about the Medium interface which really works for me (see screenshot below). It feels like writing in a really nice notebook using an ornate pen, with all the attentiveness this can engender. As opposed to WordPress which, in contrast, feels to me like scribbling for predominately practical purposes. These may be idiosyncratic reactions but I suspect they’re not entirely so. 
  2. The content ecosystem of Medium is setup to preclude the need for regular posting in order to build an audience. Not unlike a multi-author blog, the aggregation of content in one place brings the audience to Medium and users find your article through its submission to a range of curated thematic feeds or through it being ‘recommended’. In other words, articles circulate on their own merits. It’s possible to write very occasionally and yet gain an audience for what you’re written presuming the article itself is interesting and clear.
  3. It has the advantage of guest blogging, in that it avoids the need to build your own audience and blog regularly. But it’s more immediate and I suspect this will really appeal. You don’t have to discuss the idea with the editor. You don’t have to wait for a slot to come up in the posting schedules which most bigger blogs will have. You can self-publish instantaneously but without the need to collate an audience that other platforms impose.
  4. It has interesting metrics, offering stats in terms of views, reads, read ratio and recommendations. I need to look up how it calculates the reads. I suspect it works from time on page (given it automatically generates a ‘read time’ depending on length of the article) but it doesn’t say.

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