In defence of celebrities and plastic surgery

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There’s a disturbing game that’s emerged on the internet in recent years, and it involves trying to catch women out. As the demand for plastic and cosmetic surgery in the US and UK rose in 2020, so did a feverish entitlement to know which celebrities have had it done.

This desperation to detect the “real” from the “fake” has fuelled a booming new genre of online content, in which famous people – most of whom are female – are subject to non-consensual physical examinations on a global stage.

Youtube, Instagram and TikTok have become the unofficial headquarters of this investigative work, with entire accounts across all platforms dedicated to “exposing” the plastic surgeries of celebrity women. And their findings are hard to ignore.

Famous women’s bodies have become a key cog of the pop culture machine, with coverage of their speculated cosmetic procedures now a thriving offshoot of entertainment journalism. From “before and after” listicles to “timelines” of Hollywood stars’ transformations, it’s almost impossible to follow celebrity news today without tripping into these archaeological trenches.

Few women in the spotlight have escaped this scrutiny but some have been particularly vulnerable to the microscope. Younger celebrities with large online followings, like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, tend to suffer the most surveillance, while older women with “track records” of plastic surgery, such as Renée Zellweger and  Courteney Cox, are also regularly targeted.

If you were born before Gen Z and this all sounds a bit too familiar, that’s because it isn’t anything new. Up until the early 2010s, it was normal for the media to scrutinise, and often ridicule, the “untreated” female body. Every week, UK and US women’s print magazines sold hundreds of thousands of copies by recycling the same tired formula – draw red lines around photos of female celebrities’ cellulite and collar bones, accuse them of either eating too much or eating too little, and voila, the pages will fly off the shelves.

These tactics have thankfully died down in recent years, with the rise of the body positivity movement in 2012 and a heightened awareness of mental health highlighting just how damaging such attacks on women’s bodies can be.

Unfortunately, the war is far from over. With it no longer acceptable to call out women’s stretch marks and wrinkles, society has found a genius loophole to continue its 24/7 watch of the female body. The focus has simply shifted from the natural female body to its surgically altered edition, and with the rise of digital media, this mutated surveillance is more pervasive than ever before.

Female celebrities are now being analysed for their “alleged” plastic surgeries, with most of this scrutiny taking place online. Examples of popular YouTube videos about cosmetic procedures have titles such as “Celebrities who RUINED their face with plastic surgery” and “Top 10 celebrities with TERRIBLE plastic surgery”.

Over on Instagram, you’ll find a lifetime’s supply of “celebrity transformation” pages, most of which are saturated by “before” and “after” photos. TikTok is also a hive of speculation about women’s appearances, with the site’s hashtag #plasticsurgery holding a staggering 15.5 billion views.

Plastic surgeons have become the latest stars of this surveillance sport, offering a clinical perspective that has only legitimised the voices of its rookie commentators. The videos vary depending on the doctor, but usually involve an in-depth analysis of a female celebrity’s body and multiple speculations of their possible cosmetic procedures. They will then give their own opinion on the woman’s “look” and what they would have done differently, had she been their patient.

With titles like “Surgeon reacts” and “Surgeon reviews”, the intention of these videos isn’t even subtle. Like a new Netflix movie or Hulu series, the female body exists to be watched, critiqued and rated. Why do we feel entitled to scrutinise women who may have had plastic surgery? And where does this entitlement to know if women have had plastic surgery come from?

“Women are still seen to be public property,” Professor Meredith Jones of Brunel University London explains. “We feel like we have the right to know everything about them – what is their shape, what is their size, what is their age.” Plastic surgery, however, has made it more difficult to answer these questions, functioning as a “mask” that inhibits our tracking of women’s physical markers. And in a society where our bodily autonomy is constantly up for debate, this playing dress-up just won’t do.

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Celebrity plastic surgery videos send a clear message to both famous and non-famous women that no matter how hard they try to escape this scrutiny, their bodies will always be fair game for analysis. Unfortunately, the alternative option – avoiding cosmetic surgery altogether – is unlikely to offer much protection.

With women’s beauty integral to their value, to embrace one’s natural looks is akin to destabilising their entire worth in society. Nose job or not, there is no winning.

Ironically, in trying to amend the “flaws” they’ve long been scrutinised for, female celebrities have only found themselves at the centre of more criticism. Whether it’s the “fat shaming” magazine covers of 2005 or the plastic surgery videos of 2022, this mass surveillance of women has remained a concrete pillar of our patriarchal society.

By mandating women to fixate on their image – or risk public humiliation – we effectively keep them docile, distracted and, ultimately, disempowered. So next time you accuse the scalpels of plastic surgery as the enemy of women’s liberation, you might want to think again. The real weapon of our destruction is a lot harder to grasp.

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