The History of Altering Our Bodies

We’re all old enough to admit that there are things we don’t like about our bodies.Sometimes it’s our hair, sometimes it’s our feet, and sometimes it’s everything in between. But does that mean we have to turn to plastic surgery to ‘fix’ it?

The history of altering our bodies is convoluted. If you’re thinking that it’s fairly recent, history proves otherwise. There are accounts of the Indian/Aryan race using rhinoplasty as early as 600 B.C. There are some accounts of surgeons reconstructing the forehead by taking the skin from the nose, twisting it 180 degrees, and sewing it to the front of your noggin. Pretty disgusting, right?

Luckily, we’ve come a long way in our procedures. However, some behind the scenes footage of plastic surgery are still incredibly graphic and painful to watch. Those breast implants you’ve been jonesing for? They get the saline sacs in there by sticking a long object under your skin and violently pushing around to make more room. And liposuction? It involves using a very large needle-like vacuum to literally suck the fat out of your body. Then you get to see the fat as it’s sucked into a large clear container. Enjoyable? I think not.

vintage-adBut that’s the use of plastic surgery as of late. Today, we widely see plastic surgery as being used for cosmetic purposes. Plastic surgery actually emerged as the result of post-war medicine. It was primarily reconstructive and meant to aid the return to society for disfigured men. A noble cause, certainly. Injured and disfigured men found earning a living to be quite difficult. In fact, the original claimed necessity of plastic surgery was economic success. For men, it was finding a job, and for women in the very early years, finding a man that could provide. Which I think is awful and disgusting, but things have since changed.

In the early years, things were a little rough. They used paraffin. Yes ladies, the same wax you’ve dipped your lovely hands in to make them baby-butt soft. As you might imagine, problems ensued…like the tendency of paraffin to migrate about the body after being injected. And while it was a breeze to inject, it was a pain to remove. Yikes.

It’s important to note that surgeons who were serious about this area of the medical field would not perform cosmetic surgery. Reconstructive surgeons were deemed ‘plastic surgeons’ and were trained medical professionals, whereas ‘beauty surgeons’ worked on a commercial basis. Initially, it was used primarily by men for reconstructive purposes. But soon the significance of appearance and first impressions increased and women wanted in.

In 1941, serious surgeons began to accept requests based on vanity and the importance of first impressions began to evolve. Bigger cities began to take shape, giving the general public the change to increase socialization. People were out and about, chillin’ at the markets and skippin’ round the streets. They had more opportunities outside the home.

For women specifically, this meant the availability of jobs and working outside the family unit. And they needed to look their best, so they turned to plastic surgery and cosmetics. But women weren’t the primary breadwinners yet, so their desire to increase their level of attraction also correlated with their desire to find a husband. Beauty was not longer something you were born with: it could be acquired. (Hence: the birth of Maybelline.)

For women in the early years, it was about economic security, and they certainly propelled the movement. But males were just as likely to participate…and more likely to hide it. Because Americans were convinced that aging led to less opportunity, men began to look at their features in a new light. But because men who outwardly cared seemed homosexual, they hid it to a very high degree, and were likely to leave the country for surgery.

So people began to alter themselves not mostly due to disfigurement, but to their desire to be more attractive and gain economic security. Blah, blah, blah. Yes, it doesn’t seem surprising, but what does is the international aspect that began to form.

Nose jobs became widely requested. So why nose jobs and not some other form of cosmetic surgery?

Two little things called ‘ethnic anonymity’ and racism.

celebrity-influence-plastic-surgery2At this point in history, individuals of various ethnic backgrounds were grouped into backgrounds and widely stereotyped. Specifically, those of Jewish origin were discriminated against. They felt that they had no individual identity and that their noses made them victims of racism. They wanted to stand out by blending into the American ideal of beauty. They turned to plastic surgery.

Asian features became westernized through eyelid and breast surgery. Ethnic features were frowned upon and many people sought to alter their faces. It wasn’t until recently that ethnic features became all the rage. Nowadays, we typically celebrate the beauty concepts of other cultures, which is amazing. But in the early years of plastic surgery, it was a burden.

This wasn’t and isn’t just limited to women. The idea that cosmetic surgery is a ‘girl thing’ is a huge misconception. Men typically aren’t seen as being insecure about their bodies. But they are. Oh boy, do men have things they’d love to fix. They have the options of calf implants, pectoral implants, and even surgical penile enhancement and lengthening. Among men in 2011, breast reduction rose by 8% and eyelid surgery by 9%.

So ladies, this isn’t just about the ladies. But it does affect us differently. Why?

Because of how we’re impacted by the media.

This series of posts will focus on how we see ourselves and how we’re seen by others in an international context. The world is connected. We’re connected. And we need to know how our views of ourselves are affected by that connection. We constantly encounter cross-cultural ideals of beauty, and those ideals are fueled by the availability of plastic surgery.

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