Updated: Oct 15, 2021
In 2020, the cosmetic and beauty industry generated a revenue of $49.2 billion in the United States alone. Within the past few years, consumers have seen a rise in celebrity makeup brands: Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Rare Beauty by Selena Gomez, HAUS Laboratories by Lady Gaga, and KKW Beauty by Kim Kardashian were all launched within the past four years. Additionally, 18.1 million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2019, with 1.8 million of these procedures being surgical. Numerous celebrities have gone under the knife or received fillers or Botox, including Kris Jenner, Kylie Jenner, Tyra Banks, Cardi B, and Iggy Azalea.
Recently, discourse has arisen over the topics of makeup and plastic surgery. Some claim that they help people—namely women—feel more confident and beautiful. Others condemn both practices, which begs the question: to what extent is the prevalence of cosmetic enhancers indicative of societal standards?
The Scope of Self-Love
There is no question that makeup is a medium for artistic expression. A quick search on YouTube will produce millions of video suggestions on how to put clouds on your eyes or cosplay a K-pop idol. The makeup market is heavily saturated, and with hundreds of new releases each year, there is a plethora of inspiring palettes to choose from to achieve any look one could dream of creating.
Foundation and concealer, specifically, allow consumers to even out their skin tone, cover blemishes, and make skin conditions like acne and psoriasis less noticeable. The variety of face makeup means almost anyone can create the perfect concoction of products to achieve flawless-looking skin.
Similarly, plastic surgery and filler injections may produce the same result in making consumers more confident. Those born with birth defects may have corrective cosmetic operations, and perhaps be spared from what could be a lifetime of bullying and insecurity.
As such, an age-old saying then comes into play: when you look good, you feel good. For most, feeling attractive tends to provide at least a small ego-boost. Makeup is versatile, relatively inexpensive (depending on the brand), and convenient—it can be used differently every day in accordance with the wearer’s desires and wiped off before bed. Plastic surgery, though more invasive, produces a lasting alteration to one’s appearance so they can rest assured they look how they’d like at all hours. If the patient grows dissatisfied with the outcome, procedures like lip filler or breast implants can be dissolved or removed, respectively.
If someone feels more beautiful makeup or surgery—or simply just likes either—then what’s the problem?
Where’s The Line?
Perhaps the most pressing issue is how large the intersection between personal and societal beauty standards is. Much of what one considers to be beautiful is influenced, directly or not, by societal convention. It’s easy to say, “I’m doing this for myself because I think it’s beautiful—” and that may be true—but to what extent?
It’s unlikely that all of our notions of beauty are the result of our environments, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the majority of them are. At a certain point, it must be acknowledged that the continued use of makeup or plastic surgery is often in adherence to pre-established beauty standards.
There is also the matter of creativity, especially in regards to makeup. Deviation from “natural” looks can be more easily categorized into a clear example of artistic intent. But with processes like contouring, drawing in eyebrows, and using mascara—all actions meant to enhance one’s natural features—the line is less clear. Of course, artistry does not have to be bold and colorful. However, with “no-makeup makeup,” it is not as easy to differentiate between those who wear makeup as a creative measure and those who do so in conformity to beauty standards. In fact, there may not even be a divide at all; where the two overlap resembles more of a gradient.
Plastic surgery is especially problematic in regards to influencers and models. Many celebrities who are hailed as a real-life Venus have had some amount of work done. These people are most prominent throughout the media and set unrealistic—and even utterly unattainable— expectations for everyday people due to the shortage of diverse body types presented in magazines, TV shows, and movies.
The ebb and flow of the types of people who are famous also reflect a few issues. Throughout history, there have been fluctuations in the body types that are deemed “popular,” which demonstrates that body types have long been conceptualized as trends. There are also racial implications in the types of procedures that are popularized. Many white women receive lip fillers to make their lips appear larger, a trait that is more common in Black and LatinX communities. Double eyelid surgery is relatively common in the East Asian community, typically done under the premise of appearing “more white.” The demand to pick and choose “desirable” features from other races suggests that people should be able to adopt whatever characteristics they want while denouncing the rest of the traits that are generally indicative of that race.
Nuance Is Required: The Situation Is Not Black And White
It is important to note that it is no one’s responsibility, nor their place, to judge others for using makeup or undergoing cosmetic procedures alone. Additionally, no one is entitled to the details regarding those topics. With that being said, it is equally important to note that it is entirely irresponsible and ignorant to examine the relationship between cosmetic enhancers, confidence, and beauty standards through only one lens.
Makeup and surgery are not inherently good, nor inherently bad. They are simply tools that can be manipulated at will by the user. But that’s all they are: tools.
Both reside on the top of a very slippery slope. To hail the “power of makeup” without recognizing that the prevalence of cosmetics has, and could further lead to, self-esteem issues and unfair beauty standards is deeply reckless. To ignore the benefits makeup serves is equally so. The nature of the society we live in means that it is impossible for either cosmetics or plastic surgery to ever fit into any single category of just “good” or “bad,” or even for the benefits to outweigh the detriments, and vice versa.
This gray area is reflected throughout the population. Much of Western society has moved toward cosmetic conformity, but then again, much of it has not. Not everything sits at an equal level—is applying a shimmery highlighter to your cheekbones even comparable to getting lip fillers every three months in order to look like Kylie Jenner?
The use of cosmetic enhancers is a deeply personal decision. While our society should attempt to make strides toward accepting a greater range of features and body types, the choice and reasoning ultimately reside with the consumer and the consumer alone.
Through Teen Lenses: How do you think the prominence of makeup and plastic surgery influences beauty standards and body image?
“I believe that the prominence of makeup and plastic surgery have negatively influenced today’s generation… We recognize that it is a prevalent issue as a society but because the media has amplified its presence, we still suffer mentally. There’s a subconscious insecurity for many girls about the way we look and although we as individuals try to overcome these negative images of ourselves in contrast to those that are advertised, it is still hard to just stop seeing things a certain way. However, there’s also the side where people tend to look down on others for wanting to change their appearances with what is available. It’s what leads to a divide among people who may disagree about whether the prominence of makeup and plastic surgery is more harmful than not.” Angel Sousani-Twumasi, 18, Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“Heavily altered, surgically crafted beauty standards can often push a false narrative of what’s desirable in terms of beauty. It’s common for people to resent their bodies for not having the ideal Juvederm-filled pout or a Kim Kardashian-esque butt. Beauty ideals have evolved to not only be artificial, but also unrealistic… for the majority of the population— and this obviously has detrimental effects on self-esteem… There is nothing inherently wrong with wearing makeup or getting plastic surgery; everyone has the right to do as they see fit with their bodies. However, altering your appearance can have dangerous implications once the boundaries between natural and artificial start to blur.” Riya Misra, 17, Senior at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Sudbury, Massachusetts
“I personally don’t think makeup and plastic surgery are causing unrealistic standards for body image. I think the problem with those who get plastic surgery or use makeup to change their appearances dramatically is when they are not honest about it and say they are all natural. People… then take in that message and because they think they can look like them naturally they go to unrealistic points to try to look the same as them.” Lauren Streilein, 18, Senior at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, Sudbury, Massachusetts