Critically discuss the view that the body is ecoming a plastic object with respect to different techniques of body transformation

i.e. plastic surgery, exercise, body piercing

I found this essay I wrote in the 1990s and decided to share it in its original form because a) a lot of the sources I used may be scarce now and b) it provides a snapshot of a time that was changing but had not reached the extremes we have witnessed in 2021.

Disclaimer over date of article

In the 1990s, there has been a distinct increase in popular interest in the body and different techniques of body transformation. Various forms and avenues of the media (for example, Newspapers, Magazines, and Television) encourage and document this trend through their use of features on body image — the emphasis is placed on a young-looking body that is as attractive as is physically (and, financially) possible. There are many ways of attaining this body image, that go in and out of ‘fashion’ on a regular basis, largely dependent on the fashion industry and the catwalks. The most common method of body transformation is plastic surgery — while tattoos and body piercing have now grown to include a much wider group of people deciding to ‘decorate’ or ‘adorn’ themselves in the latest designs. The industry of weight-loss and keep-fit is now one that has a great deal of influence on a large body of people, it involves millions of pounds (or dollars, the United States of America have experienced a boom as large, if not larger).

In this essay, I will show how the trend for tattooing, body piercing, the fitness culture, and finally, Plastic/Cosmetic Surgery has moved and progressed forward to a larger extent than in previous years, and is used in a different form to other cultures. Such an interest in these kinds of body transformation is not a new or recent trend — just, perhaps one that has changed in its representation through such avenues as the media having the result of a change in peoples attitudes towards these methods and to body image as a whole. This reflects an individualisation of the body and concern with the appearance of individuals’ bodies with regard to shape, size, and health are expressions of that person’s individual identity. Whether or not these techniques of body transformation indicate that the body is becoming a plastic object is an issue I intend to discuss in this essay and, criticise before coming to my overall conclusion [Shilling, 1993].

For the first part of my essay on body transformation, I shall focus on Plastic Surgery and its influence on changing views of the body. The term plastic that is used to describe this form of surgery comes from the Greek term ‘plastikos’ and this means to mould or give form (to shape). Plastic surgery involves both cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. Cosmetic surgery is possibly the most familiar and publicised form of plastic surgery and the main one I shall concentrate on in this essay. Cosmetic procedures include such operations as liposuction (fat removal), face-lifts, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty (surgery to the nose), and skin procedures such as the chemical peel, among others. Although aesthetic surgery is not essential, it does reshape normal structures of the body to improve appearance or self-esteem — in most cases, making people feel better about themselves improving their self-image. Each year hundreds of thousands of people (in America) choose to have cosmetic surgery to improve the way they look. This is a cause for concern for many people, they fear it is becoming too commonplace, accepted, and that people who do not really need it are having surgery, not to correct physical imperfections but because they are trying to compensate for their emotional insecurities, or to further their careers in some way — in other words for what is deemed to be the wrong reasons. There is also a growing fear that younger people are opting for surgery more and more — thus, the body is becoming a ‘plastic’ object, not what it is meant to be, natural [A.G.Nein, M.D, 1998].

Reconstructive plastic surgery is actually more commonly performed than cosmetic surgery. Plastic surgeons treat burn victims, children with birth defects, and many women who have suffered from breast cancer — many plastic surgeons treat patients with cancer of the head and neck as well as patients with head injuries. Plastic surgeons have developed skills that allow the reattachment of amputated fingers and the ability to transplant tissue from one part of the body to another. Plastic surgery has its place in history — the procedures we are quickly becoming familiar with today are not entirely new. Plastic surgery is one of the oldest forms of surgery and can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs — who were developing the first plastic surgery procedures to rebuild the nose. At this time, amputation of the nose was a type of punishment for certain crimes. Also, during and after both world wars, the needs of wounded and disfigured soldiers led to enormous and rapid growth in the operations available to surgeons and in the skill of those surgeons performing these reconstructive procedures. It was during this period that the specialty of “plastic surgery” came into its own as a separate surgical specialty. About the middle of this century, cosmetic procedures were developed and added to the array of procedures that were being performed by plastic surgeons. Plastic surgery is one of the most rapidly advancing of all the medical specialties [ibid].

According to the 1994 American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Procedural Statistics, the most commonly performed cosmetic procedure is liposuction (51,000). The most common cosmetic procedure for men is nose reshaping, followed by eyelid surgery. About three percent of all cosmetic surgery is performed on people eighteen years old or younger — the top procedure is nose reshaping. Thirty-five to forty years of age is the primary category for cosmetic surgery — in 1992 and 1994, this group accounted for more than forty percent of all cosmetic surgery. Twenty-one percent of cosmetic surgery patients are repeat patients [1994] and, thirty percent of cosmetic surgery patients are having more than one procedure done at the same time [1994]. Men account for almost one in four cosmetic surgeries in some areas [including liposuction, eyelid surgery, nose reshaping, facelift] — and American men are spending about 9.5 billion dollars each year on cosmetic surgery. Since 1992, the number of men undergoing liposuction each year has nearly quadrupled. Nearly eleven percent of cosmetic patients are male. The number of people who approve of cosmetic surgery, for themselves or others, has increased by fifty percent over the last decade — and it is no longer a luxury reserved for the well-to-do: sixty-five percent of people who have cosmetic surgery have family incomes under 50,000 dollars per year. Also, more than eighty-five percent of cosmetic surgery patients are women [ASPRS & PSEF, 1998].

The main question [Shilling, p.6, 1993] that plastic surgery raises is the question of what the body is, and such alterations to the body highlight this question all the more. The health or fitness culture that is now a massive moneymaking organisation allows those who do not want to take the risks associated with plastic surgery the opportunity to make changes to their physical appearance. Previously, bodybuilding was something that was done by far fewer people confined to the exercise industry. Just as with plastic surgery, body building raises questions about what is natural about the body for men and women — as many more women are now getting more involved in this method of body transformation, this example also raises the separate issue of what a woman’s body should look like with regard to size and the definition of muscle.

For the second part of my essay, I shall focus on body piercing and tattooing. More recently, there has been an interest in using the body as a place to express creativity. According to Polhemus and Randall [‘The Customised Body’], the impetus for this fashion in changing the body is the influence of ‘traditional peoples’ — other cultures, which have been traditionally termed as being primitive, have a history of altering their physical appearance for either religious or social purposes. It is this idea that people demonstrating an interest in the transformation of the body through forums such as body piercing and tattooing are trying to connect with. The piercing or the tattoos of people today (or ‘modern primitives’) are legitimated through the idea that they are somehow more pure, honest, and true — because they reflect the more positive aspects of these so-called ‘simpler’ societies. Attempts are also made to suggest a lineage for the use of such body art by the examination of early pre-Christian practices in the west — but, although this may provide a precedent for body art, it is more important to question why these practices fell from fashion for several thousand years — and why they have such significance today [N. Clapson, 1997].

It is argued, that there is a need for self-expression, and the desire to feel part of a community — that a particular part of our society feels that they can not adequately express themselves through the more conventional means of visual expression, be it clothes or art. The idea that other cultures will provide us with a visual language that will release us is not a new one — it can be traced back through to the western artist (through Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh and back into the depths of the eighteenth century at least). What is new is the transition from the canvas and the gallery to the body and the street — this has been argued to be a result of the late twentieth century or the post-modern belief in the breakdown of artist as ‘unassailable god’. Instead, the artist can be anyone, and as a result of the comments of Duchamp amongst others, art can be anything. Also written into the unspoken ruling of this group is the deep-rooted belief that there is a direct correlation between the increase in the isolation in our post-industrial society and the desire for primitivism — as such fashion, in all its manifestations, is the tool by which these new pioneers of culture seek to bind themselves: through self-expression, one finds those who hold similar beliefs, those who have similar aims [ibid].

There is also an ideological factor to be considered when considering modes of dress or rituals of display. It can be viewed that the members of this “fashion”, or as Polhemus describes them, members of a ‘style tribe’, are generally of an ‘underclass’ that wish to identify themselves. If then, the ‘disenfranchised’ and the ‘disheartened’ give up on conventional codes or symbols they are sending a signal to the ‘dominant culture’, and to those who have not yet made that step to identify themselves, that they are out there on the edge — and more importantly, if they are not happy to be there, they are giving out a call to join them [ibid].

A hundred years ago they were piercing a lot more than their ears. In the 1890s nipple piercing was very much in vogue for Victorian women. In ‘Anatomy and Destiny’ [Bobbs-Merrill, 1974, p.97], Stephen Kern explains that: “In the late 1890’s the ‘bosom ring’ came into fashion briefly and sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops.” The medical community was outraged by these cosmetic procedures, for they represented a rejection of traditional conceptions of the purpose of a woman’s body. In ‘The Golden Age of Erotica’ [Paperback Library, 1968, p.264], by Bernhardt Harwood: “No more perfect example of Victorian extremism can be found than the unbelievable breast piercing craze that swept London in the 1890s. This barbaric practice achieved fantastic popularity among seemingly sane, civilised English women, who submitted to the excruciating pain of having their nipples pierced in order to insert decorative gold and jeweled rings.” [A.Greenblatt, 1997]

According to T.Polhemus [1978; Wilson, 1985, p2], it is doubtful we can assume that the ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ of the human body are obvious. The decorative body arts (e.g.: tattooing, scarification, cranial modification, body piercing, and body painting) should not be distinguished from the clothing of the body as this leads to mistakes with regard to accuracy as well as being considered insignificant. The most convincing argument in my view is one that attempts to explain the various techniques used to transform the body by examining how these practices are used in other societies (as well as our own) and what symbolic meaning they have — there is also some value in observing what techniques of body transformation were used in history, and why.

According to Wilson [1985], the body is ambiguous, and it is ‘dress’ as an extension of the body (but not part of it) that links the body to society — while separating the two. In all societies, for Wilson, the body is ‘dressed’ and this dress and adornment have symbolic, communicative, and aesthetic roles to play — ‘dress’, in other words, is always ‘unspeakably meaningful’ [T. Carlyle, 1931; as cited in Wilson, 1985, p3]. The earliest forms of clothing or ‘dress’ included such adornments as body painting, ornaments, scarifications (scarring), tattooing, piercing, masks and often narrowing neck and waistbands — these either deformed, reformed, or modified the body in some way. Overall, there was a desire to transcend the body’s limitations. So, ‘dress’, for Wilson, more generally fulfills a number of social, aesthetic, and psychological functions — this is true of both ancient and modern dress. In addition to this conception of dress in the west is the idea of fashion, in which the main element is a fast and constant change of styles. Fashion affects and influences even those who react against what it stands for by wearing “unfashionable” clothes. Whatever the individuals’ opinion of the fashion industry may be, it does have the effect of securing social solidarity and imposing group norms — if someone deviates from this there is usually a negative reaction towards them.

Fashion allows people to act out the fantasy and without such fantasy, it is not possible to have a human world, due to the need to express the unconscious. This unconscious fantasy is tapped into by all arts, fashion is merely one form of performance, our outer appearance is a part of this. Some will always shed considerable doubt on the morality of this, as happens with many art-forms — there is always the constant threat of it being accused of being immoral. Some would argue, as Wilson [1985] does, that all art is likely to become immoral when it comes closer to the truth than considered ‘comfortable’. With fashion, we wear upon our bodies a combination of art, personal psychology, and the social order — which is why it causes such concern, a fear of what we might discover hidden underneath it.

According to Brain [1979], body transformation or decoration, be it painted, tattooed, or pierced, can be sexual, social, and magical, it is an art form that exists through a need to express ourselves using visual symbols. Plastic/Cosmetic Surgery is now much more accepted (whereas previously done with discretion), there is almost no physical feature that cannot be made more perfect or at least more conformist. Health services and health insurance schemes consider plastic surgery to be as valuable as psychotherapy in the sense that how a person looks on the outside can hinder a normal social existence if they have negative feelings about their appearance. According to Brain: “There is no direct relationship between the real degree of abnormality or disfigurement and the magnitude of the ‘patient’s need for the operation” [p102, 1979]. In our society today, body transformation may have different associations compared with other societies, this is because of the concern with conforming to an image and reflecting the fundamental values of society. Some societies use body ornamentation and decoration to reflect their sexuality, but our society has the tendency to take it in the opposite direction, calling attention to the face as a way of denying strong urges linked with another part and drawing attention away from the genital area.

In conclusion, although plastic surgery has become much more accepted, it could be argued that at their worst, it has become an indulgence, a way of filling in time or propping people up emotionally, while hiding other issues. The only problem with this generally is that the meaning of the body in relation to art and how it was used to imprint on the mind all the traditions and philosophy of a group has become lost, the body is not used to convey messages about the values held in common as much anymore — body decoration and transformation is no longer about social needs, aesthetic ideals or religious beliefs, it is now something that is imposed by fashion, and the modern development of the fashion/beauty arena is tightly connected with a new enthusiasm for conformity.

Through using such techniques of body transformation as plastic surgery, tattooing, gymnastic, and body piercing — people are investing in their body as a means of self-expression and are expanding the control they have over their bodies, despite the questions that it may raise as to how the body should be handled. Many of these techniques have been widely used and accepted in many other societies at a very little detriment to the people who adorn themselves using these methods and it has not meant the body is becoming a plastic object. Moreover, the transformation through art of the human body is a basic need that is universally practiced among every society in the world and considered to be liberating, from the most puritanical, to the most simple. In all societies, the man or woman who is not decorated in some way is closed off or detached because just like body gesture, body decoration is a kind of language or code that is spoken through techniques of body transformation like hairstyles, mutilation, tattooing, painting, and piercing. Although the issues plastic surgery brings forth are much stronger than all the other techniques of body transformation, this is only in the sense of peoples reasons for taking advantage of something that was previously about the needs of those seriously disfigured — it could just be a more modernised form of expression that is demonstrated through the art of the surgeon who created it.


Internet Sources

American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons [ASPRS]/The Plastic Surgery Educational Foundation [PSEF], The Plastic Surgery Information Service, # Arlington Heights, 1998.

Nick Clapson [Spike], Body Piercing: The Customised Body and Tribal Transgression, # 1997.

A.Greenblatt, Body Piercing, # 1997/1998.

A.G.Nein, M.D [A.Ellingsen], # Nashville, TN, USA, 1998.


S.Bordo, Unbearable Weight — Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

R.Brain, The Decorated Body, Hutchinson, London, 1979.

S.Ewen, All Consuming Images, Basic Books, USA, 1988.

P.Falk, The Consuming Body, SAGE Publications, London, 1994.

B.Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1978.

C.Shilling, The Body and Social Theory, SAGE Publications, London, 1993.

E.Wilson, Adorned in Dreams — Fashion and Modernity, Virago Press, London, 1985.

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