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FEATURE | summer 2007

Extreme Makeover: Feminist Edition
How the pitch for cosmetic surgery co-opts feminism

This spring, Sideways star Virginia Madsen became a spokesperson for Allergan Inc., the maker of Botox. Quoted in People magazine, Madsen asserts that she’s made “a lot of choices” to keep herself “youthful and strong”: “I work out. I eat good foods. And I also get injectables.”

In celebrity promos such as Madsen’s, the current pop-cultural acceptance of cosmetic medicine is clear—and is borne out by the rising numbers of customers. Since 2000, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reports a 48 percent increase in all cosmetic (elective) procedures, both surgical, such as breast augmentations, and minimally invasive, such as the injectable wrinkle-filler Botox.
It’s debatable why cosmetic medicine has become so popular. Might it be the result of articles on “scalpel slaves” and “secret surgeries” that saturate women’s magazines? Or could it be a result of makeover-focused reality TV shows that have proliferated since the 2003 debut of Extreme Makeover? Or perhaps it has to do with the presentation and tone of endorsements such as Madsen’s.

Once considered clandestine and risky, cosmetic procedures are currently treated across a variety of media as if they were as benign and mundane as whitening your teeth. Not only have cosmetic procedures become more acceptable, but they’re being promoted in less sensationalized ways to whole new markets.

The cosmetic-surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty industry has done for years: It’s co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed “consumer feminism.” Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are selling elective surgery as self-determination. . .

For the rest of this story, get the Summer Issue of Ms. magazine, on newsstands July 31, or available at your door if you join the Ms. community.