Cosmetic surgery is all the rage now that even fishes are getting them (Qin 2018). Their human owners and fellow counterparts are similarly faced with the rising trend of cosmetic surgery. Plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word plastikos, meaning “to mold” and can be divided into reconstruction and cosmetic procedures (Kim and Shenaq 2018).
Within this paper, cosmetic surgery is defined as operations and procedures that alter the appearance, color, structure, or position of bodily features, that are considered to be normal (Atiyeh, Rubeiz and Hayek 2008). With ‘normal’, it implies that standards of beauty are arbitrarily and subjectively determined by society.
The International Society of Aesthetic Cosmetic Surgery (ISAPS 2018) estimates nearly 23.4 million surgeries have been done internationally, largely dominated by women who account for 86.4% of cosmetic procedures worldwide. Yet, we see rising numbers of men, youths and older adults who choose to undergo cosmetic surgery (Chai 2015; Gan 2017, 2018).
Beyond personal decisions, it is interesting and important to look at how the intersection of beauty and gender influences one’s decision to undergo cosmetic surgery and the types of cosmetic procedures chosen (Davis 2002; Gimlin 2000). Thus, the research question of this paper is:
The research objectives of this paper are two-fold. First, I seek to explore Singaporeans’ notions of femininity and masculinity in light of the rising trend of cosmetic surgery. Along with increasingly equal opportunities for women in many areas of society such as education and work, gender norms and roles are changing which influences how people aim to be perceived.
As such, I question what the changing standards of physical beauty are in Singapore, and how they are determined. Second, I seek to examine the implications of the intersections between notions of beauty and gender held by Singaporeans in the modern and globalised city state. Thus, I would look at the subjective experiences of people who have undergone cosmetic surgery.
Risk is evident in everyday life (Beck 1992; Giddens 1991). To cope with uncertainties, the body is conceptualised as a social construct and a biological entity to be controlled (Featherstone 1991; Giddens 1991; Ricciardelli and White 2011). The body is objectified and seen as malleable and open to changes (Frost 2005; Giddens 1991). Cosmetic surgery is thus, a high-risk means to (re)construct an identity with possibly positive or negative consequences (Frost 2005; Williams 1997). Despite the risks involved, cosmetic surgery is popular as it allows the individual to “construct and maintain a coherent and viable sense of self-identity” (Featherstone 1991: 53).
The prevalence of cosmetic surgery is aided by the increased ease of obtaining information regarding the procedures (Chung 2014), especially evident from the slew of women’s magazines that constantly churn out related articles and further perpetuate the need for women to alter their looks to emulate a ‘perfect’ image. Additionally, many online celebrities are very vocal about having undergone cosmetic surgery (Heng 2016). Thus, it would be apt to look at the said phenomenon in terms of living in a risk society that highly focuses on physical appearances.
Women have been the main consumers of cosmetic surgery, yet more men are seen opting for cosmetic surgery (Gan 2017; ISAPS 2018). In Killing Us Softly 4, Kilbourne (2010) states that the advertising industry has been increasingly objectifying and commodifying the bodies men as well as women — which could lead to the increase of cosmetic surgery for men who want to live up to male beauty standards. As different physical appearances are embedded with either positive or negative connotations, the production of gendered identities are also part of the presentations of self (Frost 2005; Goffman 1976).
Thus, men who want to appear more masculine would undergo surgery for an ‘alpha male look’ with strong, defined facial features (Gan 2017). Many older adults want to ‘age gracefully’, influenced by the longer life expectancy and delayed retirement age (Gan 2018). However, most research on cosmetic surgery have been solely focussed on women and femininity (Davis 2003; Gill, Henwood, and McLean, 2005; Ricciardelli and White 2011) and these trends have not been studied as much in the context of Singapore. Thus, there is a need to focus on identity construction of both genders in the context of more men seeking cosmetic surgery to better understand their mutual dynamics.
Semi-structured, face-to-face interviews would be conducted with 15 Singaporean men and women, aged from 21 to 55 years old, who have undergone or are actively considering cosmetic surgery. By active consideration, it would mean that they have either booked appointments or have had consultations with cosmetic surgeons, or are saving for their surgeries (Ricciardelli & White 2011). Expert interviews would also be conducted with five cosmetic surgeons to understand their perspective on the rising trend of cosmetic surgery in Singapore and perhaps, the types of cosmetic procedures their customers request for to better understand a Singaporean conception of an ideal male/ female.
As recruiting women, and especially men, who are willing to discuss their experiences might be difficult, convenience and snowball sampling would be used. Consent will be obtained from interviewees to have their interviews tape-recorded. Pseudonyms would be used to maintain confidentiality. As a female researcher, I would need to be aware of how gender dynamics might influence the interviewee’s willingness to talk about their experiences. As such, more general questions could be asked in the beginning, before asking potentially more sensitive topics once trust has been established and the interviewee is more open to speaking about his/her experiences.
Interview questions would touch on different topics such as opinions on cosmetic surgery, reasons for undergoing cosmetic surgery, factors that influence the types of cosmetic procedures done including ideals of femininity and masculinity, media exposure, commodification of the body and reconstruction of self identify. I would expect to find out interviewees’ subjective experiences of cosmetic surgery procedures and the stereotypes and perceptions they hold.
Possible questions are, ‘What words/adjectives would you associate with an ideal female or male? What do you think being feminine/ masculine means?’ and ‘What made you decide to go for cosmetic surgery? What do you think of your current physical appearance?’ As the interviewer probes further along the way, the interview can progress accordingly.
In seeing the body as a never-ending project (Giddens 1991), cosmetic surgery is a viable option allowing for the reconstruction of a self-identity and to exercise control over one’s body based on the ideals of femininity and masculinity that one upholds. Despite the uncertainties that one may face, the popularity of cosmetic surgery shows how much people desire to construct a body image that is accepted by society (Frost 2005: 75).
With a relative lack of research done in Singapore regarding the ideals of femininity and masculinity and in the context of the increasingly prevalent cosmetic surgery, it certainly comes as a viable and sociologically important question. In conclusion, this research aims to gain a deeper understanding on how Singaporeans negotiate their identities through their lived experiences with cosmetic surgery.