A friend of mine recently ran into an ex-boyfriend. After telling her she looked good, he asked ‘Have you had any work done?” She’s still trying to figure out what this meant - a compliment or an insult?
My friend is someone most would refer to as 'beautiful'. Gorgeous face, trim body, sparkling eyes. Yet, my friend’s beauty is the least interesting thing about her: this is a woman at the top of her game in a competitive industry, she’s a curious and generous friend, an engaged and passionate citizen, a devoted and hilarious wife and mother, and a woman who generally leaves everyone she meets feeling better.
Her beauty has nothing to do with her value as a person, but if even she is being judged on her physical appearance, what hope do the rest of us have?
In our society, being called 'beautiful' is considered the ultimate compliment. It's what has lead to more and more of us allowing doctors to take their scalpels to our bodies and faces to 'improve' our looks.
I’m 38. My skin is ageing a bit, but it’s mostly pretty flawless white skin and my eyes have a hint of the Chinese heritage that’s rumoured to be a few generations back in our family. Yet, even I haven’t been saved from the crushing pressure that western beauty ideals place on women of all generations - last year, I had my second weight loss surgery.
Previously, I would have told you my own surgery was all about my health, concerned about an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. But after watching The Plastic Surgery Capital of The World, I'm not so sure.
The women in this documentary are changing themselves to conform to an impossible ideal of western youth and beauty.
Our host for this heartbreaking tour is Annie Price - the deliciously vulnerable, sweet and sparkly host who’s on a plastic surgery quest of her own. Her face was badly burned as a baby and she wants a new nose. She’s been having a bunch of plastic surgery done on her face in the last few years and it’s been making her feel a lot better about herself.
Annie meets several young women who are going under the knife, and with it, provide living, breathing examples of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth being as important today as it was nearly thirty years ago when published. And their reasons are heartbreaking.
Consider the eye surgery some of the women are undergoing - the young women Annie meets in this documentary want to make their eyes less Korean. The eyes they were born with are ‘mean’ and ‘angry’ according to the surgeon they see, and apparently South Korean society at large. Bigger eyes, less Asian eyes, mean you’re more likely to find a job and a mate.
From Annie to Myeong, each of the women in this documentary take extraordinary risks to be beautiful. It’s easy to watch them and suggest saving their money for some sessions with a psychiatrist or to watch, but even with my western, anglo privilege, I find myself identifying with them hugely. Was my own surgery any different to what these women are chasing? It seems it doesn't matter where in the world you are, we’re told our currency is what we look like.
No woman can win this battle, no matter how hard we fight it with exercise, diets and surgery. Even the ‘beautiful’ in our society, like my friend, have the way they attain their beauty as they age put into question.
Isn’t it about time we stopped judging books by their covers, and started looking within? Value people for their contribution, their kindness, their quirks, and what makes them unique and loved?
Bigger eyes. Sharper chins. Higher cheekbones. Fat in our face that used to be on our bum. They mean nothing, but why can't we believe it?
The Plastic Surgery Capital of The World airs Sunday, 5 August at 10.20pm on SBS and at SBS On Demand.