Cosmetic Power: Another Look at Cosmetic Surgery

"Ramon 17" by Johnnie Ray Kornegay III (Body Art by Ajmal Millar)

"Ramon 17" by Johnnie Ray Kornegay III (Body Art by Ajmal Millar)

"Beauty is power the same way money is power the same way a gun is power." - Chuck Palahniuk

It took a long time for me to enjoy myself. It started with 30-second gazes into the mirror and grew into a lunch date with myself and now I’m a writer, which means a lifetime marriage with myself. There is a societal pressure to love yourself that says this self-love will unlock all the things you desire that are probably the reasons you hate yourself to begin with. There is also this unspoken push for the natural. To preserve, physically, who you were born as and to not fall victim to this societal pressure to change yourself. There are countless self-help and diet industries designed around these ethos.

The contradiction is blatant because you are sold things that are constantly attempting to move you away from who you are born or arrive as, but only one thing is moralized: going under the knife.

There is something about plastic surgery that makes people uncomfortable enough for it to be a taboo, but people do it. People not only find it as a choice but often the first choice. There is a dissonance about this in our culture where we will gaze at the beauty of people who have obviously participated in cosmetic surgery, but never reckon with what it means.

When we do reckon with what plastic surgery means, it usually goes into a space of self-hatred. Even in social justice spaces, sites that are supposed to be leading spaces for forward and provocative thought, the idea of someone shifting their appearance is always relocated back to the source as self-hatred. I am not arguing that self-hatred can’t be the meaning behind some people shifting their appearance via surgery, but it can’t be the sole reason in every instance. Some people eat certain foods out of indulgence, self-preservation, cultural tradition, hatred of self, and love of self, but we’re all participating in eating. And while there is a universal reason for eating, which is, of course, to sustain the body, it’s not the only or even the primary reason for every meal.

Considering such analogies had me wondering about the potential for other reasons behind cosmetic surgery outside of the self-hate narrative. I thought that, perhaps, it can be about power.

If beauty isn’t so much a destination as a journey, what folks are usually chasing are two things: an affirmation that they are in fact as beautiful as they may feel and/or power. Power, because we are not born knowing what is beautiful (though studies show from infancy we appreciate symmetry), but rather we are socialized into it. And, beauty informs directly who has and does not have power. Accordingly, physical adjustments of the body through surgery can be seen as the acquisition of power. If smaller noses get more money, a tinier waist and fatter ass get more attention, and tighter skin has more influence, then we should start thinking of cosmetic adjustments as a power play, not just frivolous, decadent feminine things or an expression of self-hatred, but the request—and quest—for power.

Self-esteem, which often translates into the commodity of “confidence,” and beauty are not just private and spiritual things. They are public. They are about business. They are about access, and some people are willing to play with their aesthetic for this access.

Beauty is also an identity that isn’t contained within the body. Beauty is a feeling and belief before it is a physical truth affirmed by how people react to your face and body. Physical beauty becomes important when it decides who is powerful, seen, disempowered, and rendered invisible.

And, society is fascinated with changing bodies which is why we oversimplify those willing to transform theirs and portray them in the media and in our private lives as these shallow, exclusively cosmetic narratives. We say it is all about self-hatred or misguidance, but is it really?  It is terrifying to some to think that it is also, partly, or even solely, for a lot of people about power. It is terrifying for some to think that celebrities like Black Chyna, Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian, Lil’ Kim, Beyonce, Keri Hilson, and countless others didn’t change their bodies because they were helpless femme folks plagued with self-hatred and media manipulation, but savvy people more interested in obtaining power more than preserving their natural noses and asses.


Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.