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Christina Aguilera Beautiful
"Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera. Dir. Fiona Jane Burgess (2022)

Does transparency around celebrity surgery actually make us feel better?

Boosting self-esteem has always been the justification of those who demand transparency around celebrity surgery – but often this knowledge can be a double-edged sword

Beauty ideals have existed throughout time, and celebrities have long been upholding and spreading these ever-changing trends. Over the last few years, as plastic surgery has become more accessible, the goalposts are being pushed ever further, and the standards are increasingly unattainable without invasive treatments and ‘tweakments’. It’s no wonder, then, that demanding celebrities fess up to their physical modifications has become our antidote. But does this transparency actually make us feel better? 

Many would say that it does, and a whole industry has sprung up dedicated to analysing celebrity modifications with this as the justification. Eagle-eyed Instagram and YouTube accounts like Lorry Hill and @celebface dissect before and after images of celebrities, while plastic surgeons on TikTok break down the procedures they believe certain individuals have undergone. “Some people tell me on the daily that my account boosts their self-esteem because now they know that influencers are not perfect and that they have flaws or insecurities,” the anonymous user behind @exposingallcelebs told Dazed in 2019. 

However, Charlotte Markey – professor of psychology specialising in body image at Rutgers University, and author of The Body Image Book for Girls – believes that transparency from ‘before and after’ transformations doesn’t necessarily make us feel better. On the one hand, she says, drawing comparisons between ourselves and the ‘before’ image of a celebrity may lead us to realise we’re not so different to their natural appearance, and we can find comfort and security in knowing that. “I can think, hey Kim Kardashian and I aren’t actually all that different naturally, and I’m not going to the extremes she does, so I’m just fine,” she explains.

When we focus on the ‘after’, however, we become more dissatisfied with our own image, and this could make us more inclined to pursue a similar transition. In this way, transparency can be a double-edged sword. “It’s good in making it clear that some appearances are not an attainable ideal, but bad in reinforcing this idea that we should be continually changing our appearances, that we are never-ending projects,” she says. While transparency may offer momentary gratification for some, it’s worth asking ourselves whether it grants us satisfaction in the long term.

For beauty culture critic Jessica DeFino, it’s misguided to say transparency is a net positive for us. She points to a study which proved the ineffectiveness of photoshop transparency on advertising and marketing images, citing a passage from Intact by Dr Clare Chambers: “If advertisers continue to use models who look ‘perfect’ according to a narrow, unattainable standard, then labels don’t do anything to disrupt that ideal of the power it holds over us.” Transparency, then, falls short by failing to diminish the pressure for physical ‘perfection’, even if we know the ‘perfection’ is not naturally achieved.

The relief we feel from transparency also speaks to the superiority of natural beauty in society; where we value beauty less when it’s the fruits of a doctor’s labour. DeFino says the idea of ‘natural’ – whether that’s in beauty or organic food – is mixed up in our idea of morals and ethics, whereby natural implies goodness and moral superiority. “Confirmation that something isn’t natural is almost this internal negotiation of power and goodness within us,” she says. And this combined with an innate human craving for the truth yields our satisfaction from transparency; proved most recently by how Lea Michele’s buccal fat removal speculation blew social media into a frenzy, yet Chrissy Teigen’s declaration just a few months prior didn’t kick up half as much fuss.

But a self-esteem boost from the judgement of another woman is an unhealthy (albeit most likely unconscious) habit – one that stems from societal conditioning, where we define our own beauty by measuring it up to the appearance of women around us and in the media. DeFino believes comparison is a rational response to industrialised beauty as a power hierarchy. “We live in this very power-hungry culture and beauty affords access to power. Under this very capitalistic structure, there isn’t room for everyone at the top and we’re very aware of that, and it instils this competitive, comparative state in our minds.” 

Beauty remains currency, particularly for women. But while conforming to the current beauty standard may afford us individual power and societal benefits, it also upholds the singular, idealised standard and consequently intensifies the pressure on other women to meet it. “I think once we know someone’s done something, then it starts to open up a question of if we should as well,” says Professor Markey. “The normativity and accessibility – particularly of non-invasive treatments like Botox and fillers nowadays – adds extra pressure to women to feel like it’s an ideal they should be reaching for.” In her eyes, using social comparison to gauge our own appearance rarely makes us feel better in the long run. 

It’s important to remember that celebrities who rely on their physical appearance for profit have an overwhelming incentive to deny that their coveted aesthetic is sculpted by a doctor, and not a result of the products or the image of themselves that they are selling you. With that in mind, transparency can save us from wasting hard-earned money on a false fantasy. Because let’s face it, we won’t look like we had a BBL because we wear Skims, and Kylie Cosmetics’ lipkits won’t give us the fuller lips Kylie Jenner flaunts by getting filler. 

As DeFino says, beauty trends and the liberation from beauty ideals can never meaningfully co-exist. Ultimately, regardless of transparency, embracing a limited conception of beauty is categorically harmful to all women, as it leaves no space to champion beauty in individuality. As Markey reminds us, what’s attractive can’t be objectively defined because we are more than the sum of our parts. And she’s right – beauty is not limited to a physical construct, but found in our individuality, character, philosophy, minds and so much more, and that’s something that will always reign objectively true.

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