Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.
An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.
Is there another way?
Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.
Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)
This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.
Sangyoub Park PhD and Lisa Wade PhD on January 5, 2015
To many Americans, globalization may mean Americanization but, in China, globalization is Koreanization. This is the impact of Hallyu (the Korean word for “Korean wave”), which began in 1997. Hallyu began with Korean television dramas and today extends throughout Chinese life: k-drama, k-pop, movies, fashion, food, and beauty. It is argued to be the only example of a cultural power “that threatens the dominance of American culture.”
Its influence is impressive. For example, when a star on a Korean soap opera ordered chicken and beer for dinner — Korea’s chi-mek (or chi-meak) – and claimed it as her favorite food, Chinese audiences went crazy for the combination. Korean beer exports rose by over 200%:
Even the standard of beauty in China has been altered due to Hallyu. During this year’s National Day holiday (10/1-10/7), about 166,000 Chinese visited Korea. They flocked to top shopping districts to purchase a wide range of Korean products like cosmetics, each spending an average of $2,500. Some of these Chinese tourists visited the Gangnam district (Apgujeng-dong), the capital of plastic surgery in Korea. They want to look like k-drama stars. They want to have Korean actresses’ nose or eyes.
The obsession with Korea has caused Chinese leaders a great deal of angst. It was a major issue at the country’s National People’s Congress where, according to the Washington Post, one committee spent a whole morning pondering why China’s soap operas weren’t as good as those made by Korea. “It is more than just a Korean soap opera. It hurts our culture dignity,” one member of the committee said.
Their concern isn’t trivial; it’s about soft power. This is the kind of power states can exert simply by being popular and well-liked. This enables a country to inflluence transnational politics without force or coercion.
Indeed, the Korean government nurtured Hallyu. The President pushed to develop and export films, pop music, and video games. As The Economist reports:
Tax incentives and government funding for start-ups pepped up the video-game industry. It now accounts for 12 times the national revenue of Korean pop (K-pop). But music too has benefited from state help. In 2005 the government launched a $1 billion investment fund to support the pop industry. Record labels recruit teens who undergo years of grueling [sic] training before their public unveiling.
It’s working. According to the Korea Times, China has made a trade agreement with Korea allowing it an unprecedented degree of access to the Chinese people and its companies, an impressive win for soft power.
Eyelid surgery is the third most common cosmetic procedure in the world. Some are necessary for drooping eyelids that interfere with vision, others are undertaken in order to enable people to look younger, but many people choose these surgeries to make their eyes look more Western or whiter, a characteristic often conflated with attractiveness.
Recently Julie Chen — a TV personality and news anchor — revealed that she had undergone eyelid and other surgeries almost 20 years ago in order to comply with the standards of beauty and “relatability” demanded of her bosses. She released these photos in tandem with the story:
Chen said that she was torn about whether to get the surgeries. Her entire family got involved in the conversation and they split, too, arguing about whether the surgeries represented a rejection of her Chinese ancestry.
Ultimately, though, Chen was under a lot of pressure from her bosses. One told her “you will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese.” He went on:
Let’s face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? ‘On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re on camera and you’re interviewing someone, you look disinterested, you look bored.
Another man, a “big time agent,” told her: “I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.”
While cosmetic surgeries are often portrayed as vanity projects, Chen’s story reveals that they are also often about looking “right” in a competitive industry. Whether it’s erotic dancers getting breast implants, waitresses getting facelifts, or aspiring news anchors getting eyelid surgery, often economic pressures — mixed with racism and sexism — drive these decisions.
Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.
Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do. It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”
Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.” It was a bold and bizarre marketing move. The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her. It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.
But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project. Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating. We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women. In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.
But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?
What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us? This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project. Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin. What if Barbie is a victim, too?
Excerpted with permission:
Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering. Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection. We’re all in this together.
Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists. I’m really excited to see the rest. The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.
The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically. As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.” The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.
Last month I wrote about how the revival in the popularity of beards was hurting razor sales, causing companies like Proctor & Gamble to ramp up advertising encouraging “manscaping” below the neck. Here’s another response to the trend: hair plugs for your face.
According to a facial plastic surgeon interviewed for an article at DNAinfo New York, the rate at which he is asked to do facial hair transplants has skyrocketed from ” just a handful of beard transplants each year a decade ago” to about three a week. The surgeons mention the hipster beard trend as one cause of the rise in interest, but also cite a wide array of people who might be interested in fuller facial hair:
…clients include men who have struggled since adolescence to grow a beard, those undergoing a gender transition from female to male, men with with facial scarring and Hasidic Jews who hope to achieve denser payot, or sidelocks.
Expense for the procedure ranges from $3,o00 for partial transplants to $7,000 for a full beard.
What a fascinating example of the intersection of race, gender, religion, technology, and capitalism. Which men’s faces have more power to determine appearance norms for men? Or, what does masculinity look like? Men with Asian, American Indian, and African backgrounds are less likely to be able to grow full beards, but a society centered on whiteness can make their faces seem inadequate. If the situation were reversed, would we see white men, disproportionately, going in for laser hair removal? Would transmen feel less pressure to be able to grow a beard to feel fully masculine? Would they feel more if they were part of a Hasidic Jewish community?
Also, is this really about hipsters? How much power does a young, monied demographic have to set fashion trends? To send a wide range of people to surgeons — for goodness sake — in the hopes of living up to a more or less fleeting trend? How do such trends gain purchase across such a wide range of people? What other forces are at work here?
I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.
And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.
Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.
Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.
Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.
A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:
Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.
The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.
Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)
Teeth and consequences
Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.
Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.
When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.
As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.