Is Plastic Surgery Feminist?
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
The TikTok feminists hate women. There, I said it.
A few months ago, a young Black woman kept popping up on my fyp (“for you page” for those not on TT). She reminded me a lot of myself circa 2016. Passionate, always ready to drag somebody. And, also, at the beginning of her praxis. A few of her videos went viral.
“I’ve never been the person to shame someone for plastic surgery, however… the liberation of women is being repackaged as feeding into the male gaze. It’s like putting a band aid over a bullet hole. It won’t get us closer to liberation and I don’t think it’s helpful for all of us. If you were by yourself, in outer space, are you getting lip fillers? No. Choices informed by the male gaze are not feminist choices. And getting plastic surgery is not just not feminist, it’s anti-feminist.”
I scrolled through the comments and lots of women were contemptuous, agreeing.
“It’s always ‘my body my choice’ but never ‘why exactly am I making this choice.’” “My thing is if you want to get stuff done, then go for it who cares BUT… u can’t just say it’s empowering because it simply isn’t.”
And lots of folks in the comments thought this perspective was sus and reductive. She continued making videos, though.
Simultaneously, or shortly thereafter, another user started posting videos mocking women with BBL’s, coining the phrase “the BBL effect” and “BBL behavior.” The trend went viral and, under the sound, you can see hundreds of videos where people (white people, included) do ridiculous or silly things (aka mocking behaviors),pretending to be women who have a BBL. “The implication here is that those with BBL’s feel as though they are a part of a new stratum of society and have become prone to over-the-top diva-like behavior.” (InTheKnow.com) The videos are mocking this “diva-like” behavior and thus, women with BBL’s. And this trend, and it’s parallel discourse, took off, resulting in dozens of videos and tweets discussing, critiquing, chastising and ridiculing women with BBL’s (and plastic surgery, at large).
How did we get here?
Similar to how the generation before millennials likely felt when we got our hands on Twitter and totally butchered all kinds of theories, I want to rip my skin off watching gen z (and millennials!) create content centered around principles they’ve done little work (?) around. “It’s anti-feminist,” directed at women …what a statement.
So, let’s unpack, shall we?
The reason these videos (and this talking point, more broadly) are so frustrating to me is because: what is the point? What is the utility of identifying this practice as ANTI-feminist? The argument would be that having this conversation helps discern what behaviors are or aren’t liberating for women, to then move closer to a future where women don’t feel the need to perform for patriarchy (??). But critiquing women who get cosmetic surgery (as opposed to fatphobia, as an institution, and the various ways it shows up) easily feels like misogyny. Placing the responsibility to subvert misogyny on individual women (or women, at all) who get cosmetic surgery is …???. Is the suggestion here that we’d be closer to dismantling patriarchy if we didn’t get a new pair of tits?
Parsing out what behaviors are/aren’t “feminist” is a slippery slope and it particularly doesn’t end up being useful when damn near all the practices around health, wellness and beauty could be described as “performing for the male gaze.” Wear lipstick? You’re not a feminist. Wear stilettos? Definitely not a feminist. LIPOSUCTION??? ANTI-FEMINIST.
If the objective is to get women to think more critically about how they modify and adorn their bodies, fine. But berating women in the name of feminism and wrongly using phrases like “the personal is political” (one of the comments under that TikTok) are unhelpful. For clarity, a woman’s individual choice can be explained by her political positioning in this world, however, a woman’s individual choices are not political demonstrations. And asking women to think more critically can be done without starting a sentence with “I’m not judging but…” – hoping to dismantle patriarchy using internalized misogyny is …not effective.
I invite you to think about how you dress yourself. How you do your hair. What make-up you may or may not use. What piercings or tattoos you have. How you position your body when you’re out in the world. What things make you feel beautiful and handsome and seductive and powerful. Think back to where you learned about any of those things – who taught you to pair certain items with certain shoes? And what messages do you tell yourself when your hair lays a certain way and you body elongates in certain positions?
Who are you when you’re alone? Who do you dream to be? Who do you admire? How do they adorn their body, how do they stand, how do they shift their facial expressions… What would you change about yourself if you could? And what and who informs that decision?
These are the ways you encourage people to think about their bodies. And that’s as far as I feel comfortable going in terms of making asks. We’re all navigating so many contexts that impact why and how we present ourselves to the world and telling women getting their asses done makes them anti-feminist does nothing for women as a whole. In fact, it alienates them from a community of people because the decision then becomes “get the BBL and be isolated from this community or don’t and be in community with ‘feminists’” – what a binary.
I think we can all agree that the cosmetic surgery industry uses fatphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, et. al to manipulate people into never feeling good enough. It’s low-hanging fruit to single out individual women for making the decision (which we could argue is made within a coercive context anyway) to modify her body in hopes to move about the world experiencing less violence and more capital. And doing so does not lead to “well she’s being selfish because other women don’t have access to plastic surgery” because a) this assumes only classed people get surgery and erases the thousands of women getting non-board certified procedures (are poor and trans and Black women not feminist for getting injections? If there’s a class discussion here, it’s that cost creates risk, not that BBL’s move you from one class to the next and thus, leaves behind ‘the poors’).
Additionally, women with plastic surgery aren’t actually safe from patriarchal violence. Getting or not getting plastic surgery does not subvert systemic oppression. This binary feels similar to the idea that dating classed men means less violence (and thus, superior) – we know this to be false. Women who are or date rich and women who have BBL’s still experience patriarchal violence. It is there other positionings that allow them to wield power in a ways that may enact harm. Access to higher spots on the desirability scale absolutely can mean being harmful to other women – that’s a useful and productive critique to offer. Not “plastic surgery isn’t feminist” as a blanket statement.
And this creator also explicitly said they are NOT talking about trans women who get plastic surgery, which is an entire cop out because it can’t be one or the other. It can’t be trans women can get gender-affirming surgery but cis women can’t get BBL’s because that’s internalized misogyny and the male gaze. THAT DOESN’T ADD UP. Parsing it out this way does nothing for the argument. Surgery is affirming for people, in general, trans or otherwise. And the point still remains, that a new pair of tits doesn’t stop any patriarchal violence and doesn’t set back any womanist efforts. Misogyny is to blame, full stop.
And it’s not lost on me that referring to the increased popularity of BBL’s as a “pandemic” (said by others within this discourse) lands on Black women. Black women are the punchline in the ‘BBL Effect’ videos – this critique, applied broadly with the cover of “unpacking misogyny”, ends up being a dog whistle for demeaning Black women (particularly, Black trans women who set the stage for what womanhood looks like and the techniques for achieving it). Moreover, this discourse ignores sex workers’ contribution to erotic aesthetics and how modifying their bodies can mean even a slightly better quality of life.
If the suggestion is that misogyny informs someone wanting a new pair of tits in the first place, we have to acknowledge, plainly, that we live in a misogynistic society!! “If you lived on Mars would you get fillers?” WE DON’T LIVE ON MARS. We live in a culture where cis-ness, womanhood, etc. are highly policed and collective or individual choices around how to navigate that cannot be the talking point. Again, this talking point is aimed directly at Black trans women sex workers, no matter how you slice it. They cannot be left out of the conversation, they are the blueprint for what womanhood looks like and the community who experiences the most violence because of it. Being a femme queen or a bimbo is not anti-feminist and does not prohibit someone from dismantling patriarchy.
Ultimately, it’s a circular argument that deflects blame back onto women every chance it gets, particularly trans women and sex workers.
Get your ass done, babes. You’re still a feminist. And if feminists don’t accept you, fuck em.