In an age when Instagram steers our sense of self, ROISIN AGNEW re-examines her thoughts on cosmetic surgery.
I’ve never stopped to think about how much time I spend feeling bad about my physical appearance. I think about how much time I spend looking at my phone, waiting for avocados to ripen, budgeting, thinking about other people’s feelings or watching Law & Order SVU, but I’ve never given serious thought to how much time I spend looking at my reflection and feeling disappointed.
Over the past year or so, I was diagnosed with a hormonal imbalance that aside from making me feel cold all the time and turning my hair into something that resembles the wig worn by Jon Pertwee in his role as the beloved Worzel Gummidge, it also makes collagen slow down, speeding up the appearance of bags, lines and puffiness across my face. That’s entirely in my head – it hasn’t affected my skin at all, my kind and sensationally overpriced endocrinologist laughingly assures me.
Over the space of a few months, the combination of a long commute and need for something to distract me from the daily grind turned me bit by bit into one of the greatest Instagram creepers ever at large. I would spend hours looking at photos of size 6 perma-tanned Australian Instagrammers who all had their own swimsuit line; an eternity of fashion “inspo”; yoga instructors who did headstand splits in see- through yoga pants; Victoria’s Secret everything; and the more common (ahem) fare of Kylie Jenner and Madison Beer that would crop up. Instagram introduced me to the culture of the trashy magazines I had always set aside in the hairdressers with a self-satisfied smile in favour of IMAGE, Harper’s Bazaar or Vanity Fair. It was like gorging on McDonald’s chips covered in MSG – there was no real substance to it, but it was delicious and highly addictive.
Instagram creeping, compounded by the certainty that my hormones had gifted my face to gravity, led me to becoming a fixture on RealSelf. For the uninitiated, RealSelf is a website dedicated to consumer reviews and queries regarding plastic surgery and cosmetic treatments. An example of what I call a “hero’s journey” might be “20-year-old got rhinoplasty, chin implants in Philippines; have wanted this for eleven years – never been happier”. The story will detail how she researched a good rhinoplasty surgeon from her home in Wyoming and then embarked on a four-flight journey to the Philippines. What an adventure! And what a life-affirming thing a perfect chin can be.
I used to say that I wanted many children from many different men and to have “so much work done” by the time I was 50 that I’d be better looking than I was in my twenties (stay tuned to find out what a wonderful human I turn into over the next 20 years). Whilst I’m not quite sure where that first impulse came from, the second desire was a product of how I first experienced the idea of plastic surgery.
I first became fixated with French performance artist Orlan during my first few months in Trinity College. She was famous for undergoing live plastic surgeries that were televised whilst she herself remained conscious, directing the activity going on in the operation room, the nurses and doctors clad in carnival outfits, scalpels ready. Later she did a series called Saint Orlan, where she recreated famous paintings through plastic surgery to represent the different beauty standards across cultures and history. “My goal was to be different, strong; to sculpt my own body to reinvent the self,” she told The Guardian in 2009. “I tried to use surgery not to better myself or become a younger version of myself, but to work on the concept of image and surgery the other way around.”
Thanks to Orlan, plastic surgery to me seemed like a radical act of feminist self-actualisation – creating yourself in the likeness of your mind’s eye. God, DNA, creator, and father to yourself. You created the person you wished to be from the outside in.
Of course, the fundamental difference between the women on Instagram, RealSelf and Orlan is that not-so- small matter of “conforming” to the “ideology of the day”, aka beauty standards. And yet Orlan’s idea of “sculpting the body to reinvent the self” seems prescient and perfectly aligned with progressive ways of conceiving of gender, sexual orientation, and identity. You do with your body what you must to align it with “the self”.
In 2016, the amount of plastic surgeries in the UK fell by 40 per cent. However, both in the UK and the US, there was a marked increase in non-surgical cosmetic treatments inspired by Instagram celebrities. What’s more, over 40 per cent of doctors surveyed in the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery survey said that patients quoted seeing selfies as the reason they were there.
In spite of how Instagram and social media have popularised cosmetic treatments and surgery, attitudes towards it have stayed the same, particularly in Ireland. To have cosmetic surgery is equated to all manner of idiocy, vanity and ignorance. I’ve never brought it up in a conversation without someone being horrified. Zoë Jellicoe, 28, says that what she gets most often when she tells people she’s had a nose job is surprise followed by “I didn’t think you were the type!” She presumes this to be a reference to the fact that she’s an editor and a copywriter, therefore smart enough to not care about her appearance or be aware of her body. And yet, if the numbers of cosmetic surgeries and treatments continue to rise as they’ve been doing over the past few years, the haters are going to have to come to terms with a new army of self-sculpted individuals.
I would like to not see another photo of Madison Beer and Kylie Jenner on my phone ever again. They are not to my taste, and I will continue to sneer at trashy magazines and pick up something that implies I’m a serious person when I’m in the hairdressers. But I have no problem if one of these days the amount of time I spend feeling bad about my appearance gets too much for me, and I decide in favour of sculpting of the body to reaffirm the self. To start with, I wouldn’t mind losing the Worzel Gummidge look.
This article originally appeared in the April issue of IMAGE magazine.