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?


American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2013). 2013 Plastic Surgery Statistics. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from

Beauty Check. (2007). Beautiful Figure. Retrieved on November 20th, 2014. Retrieved from

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

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

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


The Era of Plastic Surgery Culture

English: Plastic surgery; Otoplasty; 2-plate p...

English: Plastic surgery; Otoplasty; 2-plate photograph; otopexy correction; Woman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Hanna Byun

This is a very interesting and educative topic entailing the cultural dynamics of different communities regarding beauty and appearance. Plastic surgery has become so standardized that everyone talks about it. Instead of “where did you get your designer handbag?” people might ask you where you got your chin, eyes or nose done. To understand these insights, two sources of information will serve as the basis for ideas of the authors about plastic cosmetic surgery.

The article by Alexander Edmonds titled, “‘The Poor have the right to be beautiful’: cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil” discuss the dynamics of the cosmetics industry in Brazil over the last two decades. He focuses on the poor population of Brazil that has recorded a high rate of plastic surgeries, and that has been influenced by the diverse social origins of the general population. According to Edmond, poor people in Brazil have judged their appearance from different social origins as an “aesthetic defect”. The beauty industry, therefore, became a solution to the problem by diagnosing and treating it through plastic surgery. He cites a racialized “beauty myth” in clinical practice and marketing as one of the main motivators for the pursuit of plastic surgery. Outward appearance affects social mobility, glamour, and an individual’s association with modernity. By having plastic surgery, poor people believe that it gives them the means to compete in the Brazilian neoliberal economy. In Edmonds’ perspective, the capital flows of the modern capitalist economy are to blame for the commercialization of beauty and the absence of regulations in the cosmetic industry. The poor are simply doing so to achieve a class body that society has unknowingly decreed as the quintessential appearance of a person who fits in a higher social stratum.

The blog post by Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes discusses about the increasing number of plastic surgery penchants among Asian Americans. She observes that more Asian Americans are going for plastic surgery to improve their appearance without necessarily changing their ethnic appearance. The blog identifies different reasons that prompt Asian Americans to go for plastic surgery. Her reasons are:

  1. Some Asian plastic surgery seekers want to boost the confidence while attending job interviews;
  2. They want to achieve romantic success by looking younger;
  3. It is a way of trying to assimilate into mainstream Americans.

For instance, many want to brighten their eyes a little a bit without altering their ethnic appearance. Others want their nose reshaped just to look better than they think. All they want is to retain their natural looks, but bridge them with the mainstream American appearance. I personally agree with her on the fact that more and more young Asians are getting their faces done. People in younger generations, who are in middle school or high school, and also their parents, accept and believe that earlier they get ‘work done’, the more natural look they look they will have as they grow. And it is very common nowadays get plastic (cosmetic) surgery as a graduation or birthday gift from adults.

Both insights from Edmonds and Bagala, have one thing in common: the tendency of plastic surgery seekers to conform with ‘appearance myths’ in their respective societies. Appearing in a way that conforms to the ‘myth’ improves the seekers’ self-esteem as they move up the social ladder or attempt to fit into contemporary culture. As long as plastic surgery continues to be a psychological issue largely influenced by the ethnographic differences of the society, it is likely to may not end soon.  Furthermore, it is also bolstered by the market economy with massive influential marketing techniques. It is quite difficult to regulate the cosmetics industry without infringing on people’s rights on their bodies.


Bagalawis-Simes, J. (2010). Saving Face: More Asian Americans opting for plastic surgery. Hyphen Asian America Unabridged, 22.

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