*This is the second article in an eight-part series, elucidating eight powerful reasons that it is disempowering for women and girls when cisgendered females elect to have cosmetic breast augmentation surgery. Read part one here.
In these articles, I am critiquing the female-objectifying culture that we live in, not the girls and women who are the effect of it; I in no way blame or judge any woman who has chosen to get such a surgery, nor any woman who chooses to go through with a surgery after having read this article.
In this article, I am not talking about sex-change surgeries, breast reconstruction surgeries after mastectomies, or anything of the like.
Also, I would like to acknowledge that in this series of articles, I do not at all touch on all of the myriad and serious health complications and risks of breast implant surgery. There are plenty of articles out there (like this one or this one or this one) that talk about that. My sole focus in these articles is on the psychological, social, and political harm that breast implant culture inflicts on girls and women.
So, here we go, the second reason women should strongly consider not getting cosmetic breast implants:
I contend that the reason the majority of women who get breast implants do so is because they subconsciously have been made to believe a lie that is omnipresent in our culture. Caroline Heldman has coined this lie “The Sexy Lie,” which, put simply, is the lie that being sexy (conforming to our society’s standards of what “sexy” is) is actually empowering for girls and women. It’s not.
“As girls, we internalize the idea that we should strive to be valuable sex objects. Researchers call this internalization self-objectification. The Sexy Lie causes us to focus our attention inward to monitor our bodies in anticipation of people objectifying us.” ~ Caroline Heldman, The Sexy Lie
Although it varies somewhat by sexuality and somewhat by ethnicity, all women in the United States view themselves as sex objects to a greater or lesser extent.
The Sexy Lie contends that the more we are seen as sex objects, the more personal power we have. Yet, upon closer inspection, it turns out that the opposite is true.
According to her Ted Talk, The Sexy Lie, Caroline Heldman explains (and backs up by copious amounts of research) that the more we internalize The Sexy Lie, the higher our rates of depression, the more body shame and disgust we feel; the more we engage in habitual body monitoring, the more we suffer from eating disorders; the more our brain functioning and motor skills are decreased, the shorter our attention span; the more our sexual pleasure is diminished, the more sexual problems we have; the more we compete with other girls and women, the lower our self-esteem, life satisfaction, and confidence, the less political power we have, the less we participate in social activism and volunteering, and the more our professional progress is stunted.
When we have internalized The Sexy Lie, we stop assessing ourselves based on our own internal moral compass, and begin viewing ourselves from the third-person perspective of the male gaze.
The “male gaze” entails a sexualised way of looking at oneself and others “that empowers men and objectifies women. In the male gaze, a woman is visually positioned as an ‘object’ of heterosexual male desire. Her feelings, thoughts and her own sexual drives are less important than her being ‘framed’ by male desire.” (Janice Loreck)
I’ve heard many women say, “I’m not getting implants for any guy or for anyone else; I’m getting them for me,” but what is hidden from those women’s own view is the extent to which they have been made to look at themselves from the male gaze—the extent to which they believe in The Sexy Lie.
Cosmetic breast implant surgeries would simply not happen in a society devoid of sexual objectification and harmful beauty standards.
Sure, women get breast implants “for themselves,” but only because they have been made to believe the lie that the higher they rank on the “sexiness pecking order,” the more empowered they will be.
There is a direct link between the increase in the number and severity of hypersexualized images with which we are inundated on a daily basis and the increase in cosmetic plastic surgery.
The fact that breast implant surgeries have more than tripled in the past 10 years has a lot to do with the “new objectification culture [that] has emerged in the past 10 years, marked by two things. One is an increase in the number of sexually objectifying ads in television, movies, video games, music videos, magazines and other mediums. And the second is that the images have become more extreme, more hyper-sexualized.” (Caroline Heldman)
This demonstrates that breast implants are not for the benefit of the woman receiving them. Rather, breast implants are a very poor solution for the recently invented problem that women “aren’t sexy enough.”
“The explosion of sex objects in pop culture in the past decade means more women are dissatisfied with their bodies than ever before, and more women are turning to plastic surgery for relief. Nine-in-ten cosmetic procedures are performed on women, and doctors today perform five times the number of procedures than they performed in 1997. Invasive cosmetic surgeries have gone up 100% in the past decade. Middle-aged women used to get the most plastic surgery, but now young women are the main group.
The average age for procedures has dropped from 34 to 17 in the past two decades, and 220,000 teen girls ages 13 to 18 had cosmetic procedures in 2013. The most popular procedures for teens are nose reshaping and breast implants. Some parents are gifting implants to graduating high school seniors, and the number of implant surgeries performed on 18-year-olds has shot up in recent years. These statistics show that pop culture has put considerable pressure on young women to be dissatisfied with their bodies, and the extreme to which this is true is new.” ~ Caroline Heldman
We are bombarded with thousands of images and messages a day telling us that our worth lies in how sexually appealing we are to the male gaze.
As a natural consequence of that bombardment, we as women—regardless of our sexual orientation—begin to see ourselves and make choices for ourselves “from the eyes of a heterosexual man” (Laura Mulvey) and begin relating to ourselves “as passive objects of male desire.”
The Sexy Lie ensures that we stop making choices for ourselves and start making choices that would appease the male gaze (even when those choices come at a huge personal cost) because we are deluded into believing that appeasing the male gaze is a necessary prerequisite for happiness, confidence, peace, and success.
Many women have been made to believe that they will never be truly happy, confident, at peace with themselves, or successful unless they subject their bodies to breast implant surgery, making it what feels to them like the only choice.
Yet this sets these women up for serious disappointment because,
“The Sexy Lie (TSL) is premised on the idea that women gain control over men by getting attention for the way they look, but this is not how it actually works. Instead of being in control, girls learn early on that our sexuality is for others, and sexy women are taken less seriously by both men and women. At an individual level, believing TSL causes a host of mental health disorders, impaired thinking, limited physical skills, and even sexual problems. At a societal level, TSL contributes to disrespect for and violence against women.
The key to understanding TSL lies in understanding the difference between being sexy and sexual. In order to simplify a very complex world, our minds organize the world into two opposing groups – black/white, good/evil, us/them. We need these shortcuts, but when we use them, they limit the way we see the world. For sexuality, we group the world into subjects/objects. Sexual subjects act and sexual objects are acted upon. Being sexual revolves around your own sexual pleasure, while being sexy is for the sexual pleasure of others, so subjects are sexual and objects are sexy. As children, media teaches us that men are sexual (that they have sexual desires) and women are sexy (that they are desired); that men should want and women should want to be desired.
With our subject/object way of thinking, sex objects are always subordinate to sex subjects because objects are only valuable if subjects deem them valuable. Sexual subjects hold the true power, but women aren’t allowed to be sexual subjects in our society. TSL teaches women to depend upon men for their worth, and on a massive scale, heterosexual women have eroticized our own subordination. We have substituted real sexual pleasure with a poor excuse for pleasure — the attention we get for turning men on.” ~ Caroline Heldman
In other words, to be an empowered object is an oxymoron. The more we sexually objectify ourselves, and the more we make choices in an attempt to be seen as sexy by the male gaze, the more we place our own power outside of ourselves.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of women who get breast implants are doing so, consciously or subconsciously, in an attempt to accommodate what they believe to be the aesthetic preferences of men. They are doing so because they wholeheartedly believe The Sexy Lie. They believe that if they can just be sexy/beautiful/attractive enough, they will hold the key to inner peace, confidence, happiness, and personal success.
Yet the research shows that the more time, energy, and money an individual invests in The Sexy Lie, the more dissatisfied and disempowered she becomes.
The likely reason a best girlfriend or a parent or relative would condone or encourage (or even pay for) breast implants is because they are looking from and wanting to appease the male gaze, because they too have internalized The Sexy Lie and want to “protect” their friend/daughter/relative by making sure she internalizes it too.
But as Naomi Wolf says in her book The Beauty Myth, “You do not win by struggling to the top of a caste system, you win by refusing to be trapped within one at all.”
We do not win by making it to the top of the “pretty girl pecking order,” as Heldman aptly calls it; we win by refusing to be placed on a hierarchy (one that disempowers all women, regardless of where they stand) at all.
We live in a society in which women are valued for what they look like, not what they do. We can either be complacent about that and fight to get to the top of the power structure by violently manipulating our bodies, or we can fight against it. As an act of political resistance, we can abstain from violating our bodies in an attempt to conform to harmful beauty standards and satisfy the male gaze, and therefore, we can empower all women to do the same.
If we do not want to participate in our own oppression and sanction the oppression of other women and girls, we should not participate in The Sexy Lie by getting breast implants.
Stay tuned for the next article in which I will discuss how getting cosmetic breast implants causes long-lasting harm to our relationship to our bodies.