#123: On cosmetic procedures and the limits of "destigmatization”
The other day I saw a TikTok of real-estate mogul Barbara Corcoran making a joke about how much work she’s had done. Standing in front of a green-screened news article wherein two experts weighed in on whether she’s had plastic surgery, she laughs incredulously: “You’re telling me it took two experts to figure out I had three facelifts?!” Behind her is a before-and-after of her own face. One is creased, smiling, human; the other is smooth, stiff, studio-lit. Naturally, the comment section is filled with praise for her candor. “QUEEN,” “icon,” “Omg I love you,” or my favorite: “Be it! Own it! Do it! Love it!” (from a gray-haired Texan named Wylie Branch).
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Historically speaking, public figures have been private or outright dishonest about this kind of stuff, and for the biggest celebrities, that remains basically true. But for everyone else—from B-list down to the plebs—cosmetic procedures are losing their stigma, on social media in particular. It no longer feels taboo or unusual for influencers, reality stars, or everyday people to openly discuss their Botox routines on Instagram and TikTok, share before-and-afters, recommend doctors, or answer questions about how it all makes them feel. Following the Kylie Jenner arc of denying getting lip filler to selling makeup kits that highlight it, owning up to the work you’ve had done seems to be the new pretending you’ve never had any at all.
I understand why this shift might be well-received, garnering the kind of praise doled out under Barbara Corcoran’s TikTok. Given that cosmetic procedures have played a large role in shifting conventional beauty standards—plump lips paired with tiny noses, eyebrows permanently lifted in surprise, tight skin through middle and even old age—it can feel patronizing when people deny obvious work. Who ever really believed it was possible to stave off wrinkles by drinking lots of water, or “grow into” a completely different face shape? Better to just admit you paid for it. Better to just acknowledge our beauty standards are essentially impossible to achieve naturally than gaslight everyone into thinking they can yoga their way to higher cheekbones.
And yet “destigmatization” has obvious limits. As a corrective to the harmful effects of beauty standards, it takes aim at the symptoms of the disease—shame, secrecy, feeling like shit about yourself—in lieu of addressing the disease itself. It’s a glaringly incomplete response, and a conveniently profitable one. When Joe Jonas “came out,” in August, as being a man who uses injectables to maintain his youthful appearance, it was in a paid advertisement for Botox-competitor Xeomin. The campaign was framed, hilariously, as some kind of social crusade to normalize injectables for men. "I don't think it's necessarily something that we have to shy away from," he told People. "We can be open and honest about it and be confident and not really shy away from speaking our truth."
The whole marketing push was embarrassing. His framing of the choice as empowering only stood to reveal how absurd it was. In his paid-for Instagram caption, he described his use of Xeomin as “self-care,” and as defining beauty on “his own terms.” And to People, he said: "We're all getting older and part of that is being comfortable [in our skin].” This co-option of self-care language is plainly cynical. It’s a perfect example of why “destigmatization,” however comforting, does little to actually address ageism and appearance-based oppression. Rather than collectively dismantle the forces that make us feel uncomfortable in our own skin, it’s much easier, Jonas suggests, to be in and out of cosmetic offices for the rest of our lives. On the point of relative ease, he may be right.
Setting aside the question of whether cosmetic procedures are damaging to the human psyche, the push to be “open and honest” about them is, more often than not, a dodge in itself. The language I see people use to explain their decisions is deceptively breezy: It’s a harmless personal choice. It’s fun. It makes me feel good! Who cares? But a genuinely honest accounting of the choice to undergo these procedures would, I think, be far more depressing. In a newsletter about Jonas’s Xeomin campaign, beauty critic Jessica Defino wrote out what it might actually look like for him to “speak his truth”:
“I need to believe that the younger me is the real me because the younger me was a world-famous, universally-adored, always-lusted after, constantly-validated member of the Jonas Brothers and I’m having trouble coping with the fact that that is not my reality anymore—that I’m aging, I’m a husband, I’m a dad, and I’m not as popular and beloved and showered with praise as I once was. Because I don’t feel young and hot, I don’t feel worthy, and I am willing to stick a couple needles of neurotoxin into my face every couple months because I don’t know how else to deal with these emotions.”
This kind of transparency would never take off, obviously, because it would highlight, over and over, a deep collective wound. It would lay too bare who is suffering, who is profiting, and the extent to which getting work done perpetuates both. To instead refer to cosmetic procedures as harmless, personal, feel-good choices is much easier. It obscures the long-term, population-wide implications of investing, one by one, in a world that confers power to those who assimilate to an ageist, sexist, classist, and racist value system, while continuing to punish those who don’t. It may be nice to ease the burden of shame endured by individuals living under those conditions, but it’s irresponsible to suggest procedures will do anything but deepen those conditions for everyone else.
Despite Jonas’s valiant efforts, only 6% of cosmetic procedures are performed on men. In 2019, a RealSelf study found that one in four American women were considering getting work done. That statistic is very likely an underestimation now. Per The Aesthetic Society’s annual study, “surgical procedures increased 54% and non-surgical procedures were up 44%” in 2021. Many chalked this up to a “Zoom boom”—i.e. women hating how they looked on video calls in lockdown. But it’s hard to parse that from other changing tides, like the fact that the normalizing of cosmetic procedures over the past few years has also served as a defacto form of marketing for them. Based on current growth patterns, The Economist reckons that “the global sales of non-invasive aesthetic treatments, currently around $60bn, could more than triple by 2030.”
In Marxism, reification refers to “the process by which social relations are perceived as inherent attributes of the people involved in them.” To suggest cosmetic procedures are merely another type of grooming choice is to ignore, among other things, that they’re marketed towards various underclasses as a solution to their experience of oppression. It’s to reify inadequacy as the inevitable condition of being a woman, or being trans, or existing otherwise outside hegemonic power structures. It’s not quite the act of solidarity it purports to be. As a progressive ethic, it’s half-baked.
To offer a crude comparison, when I moved into my college dorm and met a bunch of teen girls who were counting calories and trying to lose weight, I felt less ashamed about my desire to be thin. When we joked about skipping dinners so we could get drunk on less calories at parties, and then did it, I felt less insane. Less alone. That camaraderie was real, but no one would suggest it was a long-term solution. Destigmatization isn’t a panacea. It may reduce shame, which may reduce suffering to a degree, but it’s not enough. We need to think bigger than normalizing beauty labor. As a vision for the future, that’s a pretty bleak one.
I know this problem is complicated, and that it’s not as simple as abstinence on an individual level. I’m only interested in critiquing the vitality of normalizing cosmetic procedures as a political way forward. However comforting we may find beauty practices, however creatively we commune around these traditions, I think we have a responsibility to return again and again to the ideology underpinning this industry: who it targets, who it punishes, who it pays.
My favorite thing I read last week were Sheila Heti’s conversations with an AI chat bot named Eliza for The Paris Review. Last week’s 15 things also included my favorite long-sleeve tee, my favorite NY potatoes, the first entrant in my stew era, and more. The rec of the week was duvets—shout out especially to the person who shared their thorough duvet research via Google Spreadsheet. My hero.
I hope you have a nice rest of your Sunday!