The Privilege of Beauty

by Ellen Brookes

“Because society is stratified along lines of gender, race, class, sexuality, age, disability status, citizenship, geography, and other cleavages, some bodies are publicly and visually dissected while others are vulnerable to erasure and marginalization” (Casper & Moore, 2007)

This quote is genuinely puzzling as it does not disclose who is being spoken about in which area. Is it all about white people? Or is it whites versus those of ethnic minorities? Or is it even just all about ethnic minorities? And are these bodies that are being dissected being dissected in a positive or a negative way? Are the bodies prone to erasure just fading into the background or are they fading due to “fitting in”?

It is really difficult to figure out exactly who is being talked about in which way.

One thing is for certain, looks are not mentioned here. The aesthetic appeal of one human being is not referred to in this quotation. Yet people seem to believe that beauty is also a level of stratification within societies. The Alexander Edmonds’ article “The poor have the right to be beautiful” (2007) looks at a similar argument, saying that people want to be beautiful because with their status in life, it may be all they have to use in order to move up. This would imply that outward appearance is a form of cultural capital that can be utilized in order to climb the social hierarchy ladder.

It must be noted that this article did only provide a view of one community within Brazil. At first “low self-esteem” is blamed as a major reason to undergo cosmetic plastic surgery, or plástica, in Brazil, but the issue has more to do with class privilege than it does to any one human being. This reasoning, however, goes against the reasoning that would be used in another society.

Trends in the U.S point to the fact that about 4.8% of people will have plastic surgery in a year). Given that the current population of the U.S. is over 317 million people, and plastic surgery in the last year was 15,116,353 surgeries, that number seems rather high (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2013; Schlesinger, 2013).

To put this into further perspective, this is only cosmetic surgeries, not reconstructive for those who were in accidents or had birth deformities.

A person would not say that this number occurred because of economic problems, or need for social mobility. In fact, people would imply that these people were middle-to-upper-class people who either felt the need to look “prettier” within their social circles, or that these people may have had mental issues that were directly linked to their appearance. Admittedly, health care does cost more in the U.S., and cosmetic surgery is not cheap, which would imply that these people were most definitely within a higher class than those in Brazil. Yet, if Brazil and American’s populations were equal, there is only about a ten percent difference in relative poverty levels, so why is the argument for plastic surgery and its implications so different between these two countries? (Hunkar, 2011).

The answer comes down to race and racial preference. Brazil is eroticized in the way it is portrayed globally. It is sold as being a country full of brown-skinned, “sun-kissed” girls in bikinis with almost unrealistic body proportions (Beauty Check, 2007). This is the ideal held within Brazil and most women in Edmonds’ article are shown to aspire to it in order to achieve social mobility; their own personal Cinderella story.

America is stereotyped as being a land of white privilege, and one where being white automatically affords a person a “free pass” to beauty (Luckey, 2013; Jackson, & Greene, 2000). However, via influence of the media, the attitudes are slightly different. Plastic surgery is not noted in a positive light and the media will constantly tear down women who have gone under the knife (Northrop, 2012). White women who undergo cosmetic procedures are shamed, and this could be directly linked to the fact that they could be seen to be abusing the privilege already afforded to them.

It all comes down to racial privilege. For Brazil, fitting the ethnic stereotype is considered the ideal; specifically conforming to the exported idealistic looks is considered paramount. With looks, a majority of Brazilian society believes they would have a higher chance of social mobility. Edmonds’ Brazil is portrayed as a culture that would seem to promote “faking it to make it”.

White people have privilege, so they do not need this plastic surgery for the same reasons, as they can use their “whiteness” to afford them the same treatment the Brazilians are looking for. White people do not have these “ethnic traits” that make them “not beautiful”, meaning they have no dire need to change. Those who do change are considered to be abusing the system, and have a social stigma that follows them. It sticks even if the person tried to use the argument of “low self-esteem” that is shown in the article. Yes, white privilege does offer a person more cultural capital, but it does not protect them from any or all stigmas.

For Brazil, investment in aesthetics is seem as profitable; while in America, it may be profitable for a time, but the social stigma may counteract that profit. It is this that brings us back to the comment on the starting quote – who is really “fitting in” and who is having their bodies “dissected”? In this age of “white is right”, does it really imply that only positive consequences occur to white people?

References

American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2013). 2013 Plastic Surgery Statistics. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/plastic-surgery-statistics/2013.html

Beauty Check. (2007). Beautiful Figure. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.uni-regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/phil_Fak_II/Psychologie/Psy_II/beautycheck/english/figur/figur.htm

Casper, M.J., & Moore, L.J. (2007). Missing bodies: The Politics of Visibility. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Edmonds, A. (2007). ‘The poor have the right to be beautiful’: cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(2), 363-381.

Hunkar, D. (2011). A Shocking Comparison of Poverty Levels Between The U.S. And Brazil. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from http://seekingalpha.com/article/306094-a-shocking-comparison-of-poverty-levels-between-the-u-s-and-brazil

Jackson, L. M., & Greene, B. (2000). Psychotherapy with African American women: Innovations in psychodynamic perspectives and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Luckey, S. (2013). Why Reverse Racism Isn’t Real. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from http://feminspire.com/why-reverse-racism-isnt-real/

Northrop, J. M. (2012). Reflecting on Cosmetic Surgery: Body image, Shame and Narcissism. London, UK: Routledge

Schlesinger, R. (2013). The 2014 U.S. and World Populations. U.S. News. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/robert-schlesinger/2013/12/31/us-population-2014-317-million-and-71-billion-in-the-world

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One thought on “The Privilege of Beauty

  1. Pingback: The Privilege of Beauty | MemePosts

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