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Goodnight Mommy
Goodnight Mommy (2014)

The women getting cosmetic procedures in secret

Many are going to drastic lengths to hide their treatments from family, friends and even partners

In a viral Tiktok video, posted at the end of last year, a receptionist at Georgia’s Merriman Plastic Surgery Clinic is seen lipsyncing to Taylor Swift. “No one has to know what we do,” she mimes, with a knowing wink to the camera. She then proceeds to take an untraceable cash payment from a customer, rather than a traditional card.

The caption promises potential customers that their “secret is safe with us”, and the comments are filled with women expressing their relief that their husbands won’t find out about their treatments and surgeries. This is just one of many videos from beauty clinics across the UK and US, all promoting themselves to clients who don’t want anyone to know about their plastic surgery. 

Altering our appearances through surgical and “non-invasive” means is – sadly and undeniably – on-trend at the moment. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that cosmetic treatments enhancing the face and body increased by 15 per cent between 2018 and 2019. Plastic surgery, once considered a rarity, is now increasingly commonplace – it seems that no matter the communities and circles you occupy, you’ll know at least a few pals who’ve had some kind of treatment to alter their appearance. But despite the sheer number of women partaking in these treatments, many still feel ashamed to admit to them – some even going to drastic, dangerous lengths to keep them a well-contained secret.

23-year-old personal assistant Elle* didn’t tell most of her family and friends when she got a tummy tuck between lockdowns in 2020, as she didn’t want people to know she felt insecure about her stomach. “It’s embarrassing admitting to my thin friends that I have fat I hate enough to spend money on getting rid of,” she tells Dazed.

Elle was so desperate to keep it a secret that she didn’t have a trusted person pick her up after her hospital day (against the clinic’s advice). She only ended up telling her stepmum because she needed someone to help with bandages after being discharged. “I begged her not to tell my dad,” she says. “I don’t think she ever told anyone. She understood why I didn’t want anyone to know.”

It’s hard to imagine that in a supposedly body-positive era, anyone would feel the need to hide this decision. But in reality, body positivity can feel like another kind of body pressure. Krista K. Thomason, author and philosophy professor at Swarthmore College, says that not feeling positive about our bodies (when it seems like everybody else does) can feel like failure. Although we’ve put a lot of effort into reducing the stigma around surgery, and around our bodies in general, it still “hasn’t resulted in the healthy open conversations that people might have expected,” she says. Shame is so individual and deeply embedded, that it’s complicated to undo and takes more work than simple discussion to deconstruct. 

Thomason explains that having beauty treatments in secret signals more of a sense of shame over our identities than our bodies. “Usually when we feel shame, it comes from receiving information that contradicts who you think you are. For example, many women have a fear of being perceived as the kind of stereotypical person who gets surgery – the vapid, image-conscious ‘Stepford wife’ image many will conjure when we think of plastic surgery – and we associate this with a huge amount of shame.” 

Beauty is demanded from women on a daily basis, yet they’re expected to make the work put into beauty seem effortless

Women may also want to keep up perfect appearances without exposing the “behind the scenes”, says Thomason. Beauty is demanded from women on a daily basis, yet they’re expected to make the work put into beauty seem effortless, like no big deal. Showing your work is somehow considered unsophisticated. 

This is the case for 35-year-old stay-at-home mum Jo, who regularly gets treatments to “reverse the effects of ageing”. Jo gets regular botox, peels and fillers to stay looking young and healthy, she says. “It helps me feel more confident as a mum and a wife. My husband pays for all my treatments but we don’t talk about what I’m getting.” While Jo doesn’t go as far as paying in cash, she prefers for her treatments to stay under the radar. “I do prefer to pass the treatments off as natural. All of my friends get treatments too but we don’t really speak about it - it’s just one of those unspoken things. My husband would rather not know about it as he doesn’t like anything obviously fake. He doesn’t need to know!” 

Certain treatments and surgeries are also deemed more appropriate than others, which is usually determined by the communities we exist in and the influences we have around us. For example, Jane, a 47-year-old psychologist, had a tummy tuck, liposuction, a breast reduction, and a breast lift. “My friends and family know about the tummy tuck as I think people don’t question a mother wanting her stomach tidied up after having kids, but having my breasts reconstructed feels like a different thing. I don’t want people to think I’m fake. Feeling natural is important to me, and people can be really judgmental about women having surgery,” she tells Dazed.

Jane also kept her surgeries secret because she felt “ashamed”, and now questions whether she ever really wanted the procedures in the first place. “I felt like I had to have [them]. It was just after my husband of seven years left me without telling me why. That was the driver behind getting the treatments. Looking back I didn’t look bad at all. And in hindsight, I think the surgery was also about rejecting myself which makes me so sad when I look back on it.”

Jane is in a new relationship, and won’t be telling him about her surgery. “The scars are healed so he won’t notice.” While she doesn’t regret keeping her surgeries a secret and believes all women have a right to withhold or disclaim their treatments as they please, she says she wouldn’t get the surgery today. “I’m concerned that some women, like me, might be getting the surgery for the wrong reasons, and will skip a chance for intervention if they don’t tell anyone. Perhaps counselling should be offered in beauty clinics so we can talk about why we don’t want to tell anyone and work through that shame.” 

Thomason notes that we’re living in a time where there’s a lot of conflicting messaging about how we are supposed to feel about our faces, bodies, and surgery. “Different voices are telling you your body doesn’t conform and should be changed, that you should just love your body as if it's that easy, and that surgery is fine. It’s hard to block out all of those voices and understand your relationship to your body with the absence of pressure,” she says. 

For those considering treatments and battling shame, Thomason suggests “trying to find people in your life who you trust who can help you work through the feelings that you have without judgment. Don’t beat yourself up about shame, all shame is telling you is that you’re not quite sure who you are. And that’s an OK experience to have.”

*names have been changed