Body beautiful and cosmetic surgery

Ella Rhodes reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

We’re constantly promised by advertisers and corporations that ‘stuff’ will bring us meaning, success, sex and a lively, exciting social life. Not only this, but we are bombarded daily with images of well-known faces showing off their ‘perfect’ bodies. This all combines to send a message – stuff brings perfection, and a certain body type is the only acceptable model for men and women. Dr Beth Bell (York St John University) is exploring what consumer culture really means for our minds and bodies.

Our economy is focused on consumption, and researchers have identified certain values that emerge from this culture which people then internalise. They are split into two – the ‘body perfect’ appearance ideal, and the ‘good-life’ material ideal (those adverts that scream at us that a certain phone or car will make us happy and popular). Bell pointed to research that has linked the internalisation of these consumerist values with health. Those who believe in the body-perfect ideal tend towards having unhealthy approaches to changing their body shape, and poor mental health overall. Endorsing the idea that material possessions bring happiness is also related to poor mental health and negative health-related behaviours. But does either of these values inspire positive health behaviours, such as exercise?

Bell’s findings were very much in line with what existing theory would suggest – those who exercised for looks were less likely to exercise than those motivated by health. People with a strong ‘thin-ideal’ internalisation were more likely to exercise for appearance’s sake, and were also less likely to exercise for social or competitive reasons. People high in levels of materialism also were less likely to do physical activity at all, and when they did were much less likely to be motivated by their health. Their motivations for exercising were also more likely to be social – Bell said this could potentially be related to a need for status in these individuals. Bell hopes to expand on this initial data to establish potential causal mechanisms with longitudinal research.

In recent years there has been a gradual chipping-away of the stigma that used to surround cosmetic surgery procedures, and Boby Ching (Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Macau) has been looking at this in East Asia. Advertisements showing radical before and after photos have become something of a fixture on the subways and televisions of people in South Korea, China and Hong Kong. Among the most popular procedures in China, for example, are double eyelid surgery, cheek-bone flattening, nose jobs and jaw-bone trimming. Around 70 per cent of these procedures are targeted at young women, Ching said, and rates of cosmetic surgery in men and women are increasing.

Ching’s own research was motivated by a book by Wen Hua, which explored the motivations to have cosmetic surgery among Chinese people. Some of the main motivations included getting a better career. Cosmetic surgery was also roundly supported by patients’ parents, who suggested a pretty face was an investment in their child’s future, not only in terms of their career options but also in finding a husband.

Women’s appearance has long been linked to success, Ching said, which may lead women to see their bodies as material commodities and eventually to relate to their own bodies as objects. Some research has suggested that capitalism, and materialism, underlie this. Ching and his colleagues took a longitudinal look at associations with materialistic values, internalised objectification and attitudes towards cosmetic surgery in adolescent girls. He took these measures in 284 girls at the ages of 14, 16 and 18. He found girls with high levels of materialism tended to have higher levels of internalised objectification and positive attitudes towards cosmetic surgery. When an increase in materialism was seen, this was associated with an increase in internalised objectification, and positive attitudes towards cosmetic surgery over time. Those girls with higher levels of materialism at 14 years old were also associated with a steeper growth of positive attitudes toward cosmetic surgery over time. In future work, Ching said he hopes to establish whether there is any causal relationship between these various factors. 

- You can read more coverage from the Annual Conference online, and in the June and July print editions

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