Why Do We Shame Women Who Get Plastic Surgery?


By: Elissa Strauss ELLE.com

When does “faking it” serve us, and when does it hinder us? This week ELLE.com is exploring a wide variety of topics, including why we accumulate fake friendships, why we’re so quick to judge a woman who surgically enhances her features, and why faking is essential to our careers, closets, and finding closure.

A few years ago Lisa Kudrow did an interview with the Saturday Evening Post in which the reporter asked about her nose job.

"That was life altering," she said candidly. "I went from, in my mind, hideous, to not hideous. I did it the summer before going to a new high school. So there were plenty of people who wouldn’t know how hideous I looked before. That was a good, good, good change."


Said among friends, this statement might have been unremarkable; it’s how many of us talk to our inner circle about going under the knife. But when said in public, this casual acceptance of plastic surgery is radical, a potent undermining of every single one of our tired narratives about it.

Lisa Kudrow is not a tragic victim of unfair beauty standards. Lisa Kudrow is not a beauty-obsessed woman on a one-way path to looking like a “real housewife.” Lisa Kudrow is not someone who believes her self-worth depends entirely on the way she looks. Instead, she’s just a woman who got a nose job years ago and feels as if it made her life a little better. Sometimes it’s really just that simple.

I know because I, too, had plastic surgery. When I tell people I had a breast reduction they often tell me that it doesn’t really count. “It’s not really plastic surgery. It’s for health reasons, right?” Or, “It’s basically like the opposite of plastic surgery. You were trying to look less sexy!”

Sometimes I agree with them. Not because they are right, but because it’s not worth it. They’ve already decided that I have not committed the unforgivable sin of surgically altering my body for purely aesthetic reasons. That is for the vain. That is for the shallow. And I am not vain and shallow.

The truth is, it was for aesthetic reasons. I didn’t like the proportions my body took on when accompanied by my very large 34Ds. Clothes didn’t fit me right, men didn’t look at me right, and there was no single sports bra that could adequately control the physically and psychologically uncomfortable jiggle when I jogged. Sure, it’s quite possible that I would have developed back problems later on, but it was hardly a sure thing. Really, the feeling of physical lightness, and the ability to adequately conceal myself in clothes, made the surgery all so worth it that I never once tried to justify the procedure as something I did for my health.

Research shows that women like Kudrow and me are, in fact, the norm. One study found that only 12 percent of plastic surgery recipients have unrealistic expectations. The majority who have gone under the knife did not expect that a little nip or tuck would solve all their problems or make them a new person. As a result, they did experience a boost of happiness and confidence following their procedures. “Compared to those who had chosen not to have plastic surgery, the patients felt healthier, were less anxious, had developed more self-esteem and found the operated body feature in particular, but also their body as a whole, more attractive,” the authors wrote. “No adverse effects were observed.”

Talking about body image is tricky. The pressures to look a certain way are real, and the stakes are only higher in this age of smartphone cameras and social media. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of procedures has gone up 5 percent since 2011, with minimally invasive services, like Restylane injections, fueling the growth. The physical transformations of celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Renée Zellweger, and Uma Thurman–courtesy of what is largely assumed to be plastic surgery–have also served as unwitting avatars of the save-women-from-themselves movement.

Many argue that we should dismantle the system that makes women feel like they need to look a certain way in order to feel beautiful. I agree that there’s a lot of work yet to be done to make women of different ethnicities, ages, and body types feel like they are hot stuff, too. We need more Mindy Kalings, Gina Rodriguezes and Helen Mirrens to show us what is what. Still, while doing this important work, we need to also make room for the fact that, when it’s all said and done, many women will still opt for a little plastic surgery, and that’s okay, too. We can expand what it means to be beautiful without condemning such choices altogether. This isn’t about “I choose my choice” feminism so much as it’s the idea that real liberation for women must include the possibility that not every individual decision should be weighed against what it means for the collective. Because, sometimes, a face lift really is just a face lift. (Hey, even Gloria Steinem had a little fat removed from her eyelids at one point.)

In addition to expanding beauty ideals and tolerance, we also need to fight the pernicious–not to mention very sexist–idea that our inner selves and our outer selves are at odds with one another. The way we talk about women who get plastic surgery is based on the assumption that caring about our looks and caring about our souls is a zero sum game. It’s a logic that suggests that external fakeness is a symptom of internal fakeness, and all we can do when we see a woman who has gone the surgery route is shake our heads in fear and repulsion (and just a smidge of self-righteousness). But why? I know it is passé to say women can have it all. But, in this one way, I believe we really can. We are more than capable of searching for internal truths with lipstick on, being feminists with face lifts, or choosing something a little fake while also being very real. Trust me, I’d know.

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