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The body beautiful

Slim, sleek, supple, on the go

München, 09/04/2015

On the allure of cosmetic surgery: As part of a DFG-funded project, LMU sociologist Professor Paula-Irene Villa, in collaboration with Phd students Anna-Katharina Meßmer, Steffen Loick Molina and Jule Wustmann, studied public perceptions of cosmetic surgery in modern society and the marketing strategies used by its purveyors. In our interview, she deconstructs the ideals projected by beauty clinics, and explains why they are so successful.

Foto: michaeljung /

What rates as ‘beautiful' these days?
Paula-Irene Villa: Most people acknowledge that ideals of beauty are subject to change. But in the discussions we had with people in different age groups and with diverse backgrounds, we found that the better educated respondents tended to place much greater emphasis on “natural” beauty. Younger people had a more relaxed attitude to cosmetic interventions and were less inclined to stress the difference between natural endowment and aesthetic alterations.

What concept of physical attractiveness does the field of cosmetic surgery propagate?
In order to study this, we analyzed how beauty clinics present themselves and their wares on their websites. The images displayed on these sites show body parts that resemble marble sculptures: smooth, tight and unblemished surfaces with soft contours. All are totally free of hairs, scars, and wrinkles. These are obviously bodies without biographies. Many people would characterize such physical appearance as ageless beauty. But actually these features are typical of the bodies of 16- to 20-year-olds, usually women, with genitalia of 6-year-olds. These are physically fit and productive bodies, slim, sleek, supple, active. And of course, that’s the impression they are intended to give. The ideal of fitness they project is one that is dictated by economic dynamics, and is clearly related to the attributes favored by the modern labor market. The ideal candidate for virtually any job these days is dynamic, versatile, self-disciplined and always on the go.

One should look after one’s body to ensure that it always functions optimally?
Our society has developed a strong tendency to regard everything to do with the body, everything that can be subjectively experienced, as controllable. Paradoxically, this also holds for seemingly unproductive behaviors, such as drug consumption and other excesses. Adults indulge in “controlled” drinking or clubbing. But the notion of control also applies in areas as diverse as sport, eating, physical pain, and even the pangs of giving birth. The basic idea is not to let anything bodily simply happen, but to shape it, to actively influence its course, to control it. Among other things, this attitude reflects a fear of the unpredictable and the uncertainty which is – and despite all efforts remains – an integral part of our physical nature, our corporeality. Hunger can befall one quite suddenly, a headache can strike out of the blue or one can break a leg in the blink of an eye. Our bodies are not always obedient to our wills and – sociologically speaking – this constitutes an abiding horror for our society.

What about our perceptions of the inevitable process of biological aging, which is also beyond our control?
Aging is still an inescapable part of life. It is part of our common fate: We all grow older and will ultimately die. Aging is the supreme insult to our self-importance, and it is inacceptable to many people that, in the end, nothing can be done about it. This is why the suggestive claims made for anti-aging products by the cosmetics industry are so appealing. They are based on the premise that everyone can actively manage the process of aging, i.e. get older without ever reaching the state of being old.

What strategies does the industry use to attract customers willing to undergo surgical ‘remodeling’?
The basic strategy is to treat the body as raw material. The idea is that the body is like a greengrocer’s stall. All one has to do is to polish the apples on display until they gleam, and to make sure that there is always a good supply of fresh produce on hand. In other words, the body is depicted as something that one can actively shape and always freshen up. At the same time, one’s physical appearance is conceived as an expression of one’s cultural and moral values, as epitomized by the phrase: “Do you look as young as you feel?” This implies that the condition of one’s skin and teeth, the shape of one’s breasts and one’s bottom, should reflect one’s personality and how one feels about oneself. It is implicitly taken for granted that potential customers are already doing their very best to become fit and remain attractive – with sport and dieting – but that there are areas where these efforts do not achieve the desired results. Here (fortunately!), a little cosmetic surgery can work wonders. In this way, the clinics manage to disarm the suspicion that the “solutions” they offer involve anything in the nature of cheating. And the depiction of medicine is as a practice in which service provider and client interact on an equal footing is an integral part of this logic.

The expression ‘the fair sex’ has traditionally been applied to women. Is cosmetic surgery about to change that?
The fair sex is still very much the female half of humanity. But if one substitutes the epithet and speaks of the well-groomed, the esthetic, attractive, handsome or good-looking sex, the phrase can, meanwhile, certainly sound masculine. Far more women choose to undergo cosmetic surgery, but the proportion of male “clients“ is rising.

Will this development change our perception of ourselves as males and females?
We increasingly view nature as something that can be modified at will, and this also holds for our everyday perception of our own physical nature. That sounds rather paradoxical, especially for people who are now over 40, who have always regarded natural processes as deterministic, as immutable . But the younger generation sees nature in quite a different light – as manipulable. We see this in our current relationship to animals and the natural environment: Animals are no longer seen as wild creatures, but more as cuddly toys – think of cat content on the internet. And it also holds for attitudes to sexual differences. Since the end of the 18th century, the human body has been perceived as either male or female. We still accept that there are natural, biological differences between women and men, but nowadays we apparently feel the need to work out these differences by reshaping our bodies in conformity with contemporary ideas of what a real woman or a real man should look like.

Paula-Irene Villa holds a Chair in Sociology and Gender Studies at LMU. She is Co-Spokesperson for the Bavarian Research Network “ForGenderCare”, and is also engaged on research into contemporary attitudes to nutrition, fitness and health in the context of a collaborative research program supported by the Volkswagen Foundation.

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