Growing up, I associated cosmetic surgery with a quiet snicker. I only knew of those who had undergone said “vanity” surgeries by way of rumor and soured reputation. There was one student in my high school who had reportedly gotten a chin job, which led me to waste away an entire afternoon examining my jawline in my bathroom mirror. Another had supposedly undergone rhinoplasty, but claimed it was for medical reasons (peers conveyed their doubts via locker-room whisper). Allegations were vehemently denied as quickly as they were made, and my developing brain quickly made the connections between the procedures, perjury, and social punishment. Cosmetic surgery, I concluded, was something shameful.
But on a trip to Tehran, where my family originates, in 2010, I was confronted by a cultural phenomenon that both complicated and challenged my perception. It had been several years since I had been there, and shortly after stepping off the plane, I noticed that, although locals were still complying with the law of Islamic dress, the way they carried themselves felt distinctly more westernized. Locks of teased blonde hair piled up at the top of their heads and peaked out beneath headscarves. Faces of professional-grade makeup that rivaled that of the Sephora counter poured into the bazaars. But perhaps most notably, many women strutted down the street sporting bandages slapped across their noses, as if wearing a badge of honor.
“Fixing your nose is very common here,” a young woman named Fereshteh told me. “Everybody wants to do it. Everybody wants to be beautiful.” I found myself perplexed—were these Iranian women using rhinoplasty as a means of exercising autonomy, rendering cosmetic surgery a dignified act? Or were they further submitting to a capitalist industry that seeks to assimilate their appearance with the ideals of a society and culture that isn’t their own?
When I got home, the questions lingered. Today, in the west, cosmetic surgery remains stigmatized, but the norms are shifting. And as the conversation broadens to include those who both publicly embrace and malign it, it occupies a sort of moral ambiguity. Some claim it’s a radical act of autonomy, a methodology for combating insecurity and improving self-esteem. Others see it as a rejection of self-acceptance, which acquiesces to a system that holds women to an exceedingly high and narrow standard. Does it place a costly price tag on self-worth, both literal and psychological, which not all women can afford? Or is it simply another form of self-care? Curious to unpack the complexities behind the decision to go under the knife, I spoke with seven women about their experiences getting vanity surgery.
I received a breast augmentation when I was 19. Most of the women in my family have had some sort of cosmetic procedure, so it felt like a rite of passage. I also grew up in South Florida in a Latin culture, where the most beautiful women were often the curviest. I never felt comfortable in my skin. Every time I shopped for dresses or blouses, there was a space where my breasts should have been.
When you tell someone about the procedure, sometimes that’s all they see. When an old boyfriend found out, he told me that he needed to think about whether or not we could still date. I’ve always felt a little shame explaining my reasons for undergoing surgery in a relationship because it means leading with vulnerability. If you’re rejected, it can feed your insecurities. Selfishly, it can feel good when people say they’re jealous [of my breasts], not knowing they’ve been enhanced. I was surprised by how quickly they felt like a part of me. Looking back, I’m glad I did it because it made me feel like a woman for the first time, as if I could begin to understand the power and strength of my sexuality. Have I ever felt any regret? Completely, but that’s human nature.
I had a mole removed from my philtrum three weeks shy of my 18th birthday — I wore bandages at my party. From an early age, I knew parts of me didn’t align with my identity, including a noticeable mole above my upper lip. To me, the procedure was no different from getting braces: A method of self-improvement. The surgery was utterly painless and superbly performed—It took about 10 minutes. I wasn’t allowed to remove the bandages right away, which meant I was unable to see the results. I was instructed to avoid direct sunlight, as well as laughing too hard, for fear of prolonging my recovery. The product was better than I could have hoped for. I consider the surgery, without any shadow of a doubt, one of the very best things I have ever done and I have never, not for one moment, regretted it. It wasn’t an operation for the rest of the world; it was for myself.
I feared that altering my body would make me a bad feminist. The societal narrative was that my appearance should be inconsequential to the way I live my life. But as much as I would theoretically like that to be true, I knew that my appearance was impacting me negatively. In the years following my surgery, my understanding of feminism developed. To me, feminism exists as a binary: You either subscribe to it or you don’t. The decision I made was personal. It was my body, and therefore, my choice.
I underwent rhinoplasty at 16. I had been bullied and was very self-conscious. According to family lore, many relatives had gotten nose jobs—including my great-grandmother. When I brought it up to my parents, they were immediately on board. Looking back, that makes me sad. Before the surgery, I remember my dad asking, “Why did we let you do this?” When I woke up from the anesthesia, I immediately threw up, which wasn’t fun with a recently broken and stitched up nose. I had black eyes, wore a splint on my nose for weeks, and had gauze and stitches in my nostrils. When I removed the splint, my nose was so swollen.
A week later, my boyfriend broke up with me, but I didn’t want him to see me while I was recovering [anyway]. Everyone else was very supportive, at least to my (bruised and swollen) face. It’s strange how many people commented on my big, pre-nose-job nose, but didn’t say anything after the surgery. Now, I often get told that I don’t look like I’ve gotten my nose done, which people mean as a compliment but implies judgment of those who have. I also get told that I don’t look Jewish. What does it mean to “look Jewish”? There are plenty of Jews who look nothing like me, whose families are not from Eastern Europe. It makes me think about “passing” and the advantages and disadvantages of being a hidden minority. It goes to show how much we internalize self-hatred. Today, I wear my Star of David necklace to announce my heritage and Jewish pride. But I recognize that It’s a privilege to be able to choose.
I am still happy that I did it, but I do think about my reasons. It saddens me that I felt the need to fix something about myself to feel worthy and that so much of my view of myself is still wrapped up in my appearance. I wish I could tell my younger self that appearance shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all, but that’s something I still haven’t absorbed.
I had breast reduction surgery when I was 24. I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and do a double-take. I did all I could to minimize my breast’s appearance: sports bras, oversized clothing, etc. Nothing worked. When I first heard about the surgery, it was such a lightbulb moment. A well-documented medical history of back pain made me eligible for 100% insurance coverage.
During my last consult, my doctor said, “Most people would kill for your breasts.” I cried walking into surgery, but the team was so fun. The last thing I remember was fading out to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” The recovery was pretty gruesome. I panicked removing the bandages. For months, I was a bloody, bruised mess. But the most torturous part—by far—was my nipple sensitivity. It was tediously irritating, to the point of nausea. Some women lose sensitivity altogether.
I was prepared for the “anchor” incision, but not how long it would take for the scars to feel like part of me. My boyfriend, now-husband, was afraid to touch me for years; the scars were a barrier between us. There are still moments of self-consciousness, like when I wear a bathing suit and am constantly readjusting to conceal scars. You could even spot them in my wedding dress. But I’m learning to own them, one day at a time. I have no regrets—yet. I worry that I may feel extremely guilty if I struggle with breastfeeding someday. My doctor explained to me that only 30% of women provide full nutrition via breastfeeding and that even without surgery, I could fall within that 70% who need to supplement. I’ll never know where I stood pre-surgery.
I am a super feminist. I strongly believe that women shouldn’t alter their appearance to fit within the male gaze that directs our patriarchal society. I did not undergo surgery to standardize my image—I think I unconsciously did so, in part, to turn away from it, because my big breasts invited unwanted and uncomfortable attention. I felt so detached from my reflection that it was harmful to my confidence. I needed to build a healthier relationship with myself. However, I recognize that there is a super-fine line between utilizing modern surgery to enhance one’s self-image and taking drastic measures to “fix yourself.” I believe it’s important to ask yourself “Why?” If you have struggled with feeling disconnected from a physical part of your body, I support you! Women need to empower each other while recognizing that we are autonomous decision-makers who know what is best for ourselves.
I received a jaw surgery when I was 18. My orthodontist encouraged me to fix my bite—he emphasized it would make me prettier. This made me feel hideous, and in turn, unlovable. When I learned that I could eliminate my biggest insecurity, I was overjoyed. It was covered by my family’s insurance. The procedure took place in a city several hundred miles from my hometown, and I spent one night in the hospital. I remember fainting when trying to use the bathroom. The recovery was without a doubt the most physically unpleasant experience of my life. The discomfort was constant and seemingly endless. I drooled all over myself because I had not yet regained feeling in my chin. Thinking of food made me nauseous, so eating was near impossible. My head was enormous from swelling. To this day, when it’s cold, I feel a strange numbness in my chin.
When I looked at the “before” and “after” photos, the stark difference delighted me. Before, I constantly thought about how other people saw me, but I have no recollection of anyone’s reaction post-surgery. I felt beautiful to myself for the first time in my adolescent life, so I didn’t even need the affirmation of others—for a while. It’s been nearly 10 years, and I continue to wear a retainer every single night because I am terrified that my chin will revert back. My long face is still my biggest insecurity. I now realize that I am extremely privileged in many ways, but I still care about my appearance as much as I did when I was a teenager. If I could change one thing about myself, I would change the way I look to be more in line with what society deems to be “beautiful.” From what I’ve observed, being prettier means life is easier. Most people are image-obsessed, and will immediately like you more, which opens all kinds of doors.
When my boyfriend takes a picture of me, I want to pose confidently. I want to look at the photographs of myself and think, “Everyone would agree: This person is beautiful.”
I received liposuction on my thighs and hips when I was 18. I was a competitive tumbler from the age of five, and much of my body insecurity arose from being immersed in toxic training culture. My coach was psychologically abusive, withholding praise and verbally berating me if I didn’t perform at his optimal level. I was routinely told that my frame was too tall and large to compete as a gymnast. This haunted me. I experienced puberty early and grew resentful of how my body had differentiated itself from that of my peers. I felt trapped, so I sublimated that anger into a need to control my scholastic achievements. But chasing perfection led to increased anxiety and depression, and my parents offered me the opportunity to have liposuction, in a self-identified “problem area,” as a Hail Mary to alleviate my unhappiness.
The memories of the surgical consultation still linger. My surgeon used a marker to outline the areas of my thighs where fat deposits could be removed. He explained to me that if I gain too much weight, the effects of surgery would be nullified, and I internalized his words as an invitation to gaze even more critically at my body. The recovery process was bizarre. The swelling in my legs was so painful that I once fainted on my way to the bathroom. I found the shape-wear girdle that I had to wear 24-hours a day for the first month infantilizing and humiliating. My parents’ guilt for encouraging me was palpable. The faint incision marks were startling. I felt alarmed that I had been willing to put my body through this. I questioned the success of the surgery then and continue to question it now.
It’s been 17 years, and I ache for my parents, the helplessness they must have felt watching me suffer. I hurt for my teenage self. I feel a mixture of anger and empathy for the surgeon, who did not know how to effectively communicate with young women. I feel unspeakable sorrow that cosmetic surgery became one more building block in the foundation of my disordered eating, the ramifications of which have included lasting consequences for my health. I’ve found that living with regret does not serve my well-being. It’s hard to be judgemental of my younger self and her pain; all I want to do is wrap my arms around her and tell her she is safe and loved. I now regard my personal experience with cosmetic surgery as an act of self-violence. Most days, I am even able to feel a bit of gratitude, as my surgery led to a lesson in self-acceptance and self-love, which I’ve slowly been learning over the last five years.
I received blepharoplasty, or eyelid surgery, when I was 17. I first learned about the procedure from my parents. I had tried using a surgical tape specifically designed to mimic a “double” eyelid, which had both intrigued and freaked me out. My mom decided to take me with her on a trip to Seoul to visit family, and brought me to a consultation. At the time, I was just curious. But my mom had undergone surgery and I always thought she was the most beautiful person. Maybe, I thought, I could look like her.
I was sedated but gained consciousness during the surgery. I opened my eyes and experienced an uncomfortable tugging. For a couple of months, my eyelids were swollen and I had to wear sunglasses to hide my eyes from the sunlight. [Once I healed,] I was surprised by how much I liked how I looked. My parents told me that they would have made my eyes even bigger. I grew up thinking that Western beauty was the ideal standard—big eyes, porcelain skin, high nose bridge, and cheekbones—because that’s how beauty is marketed in Korea. I felt embarrassed that some might see my decision as a sign that I was ashamed of how I looked, or a desire to look more white. But I’ve never felt any regret. One time, in middle school, a friend’s younger brother asked if I saw smaller because of my eyes, and I still think about it. I think there were so many tiny moments like that growing up.
Korean culture is very different. Almost all K-pop stars have had reconstructive facial surgery—it’s even given to some as a reward for graduating from school. Sometimes, people go on first dates and bring a “before photo,” just so their date can know what to expect if they were to have kids.
Luckily, the narrative has begun to shift to include more diversity in fashion, beauty, ad campaigns, movies, and TV. I’m glad that different looks are being celebrated. Everyone has their own perception of beauty now. Not everyone has a singular idea of how that should look. I can see a version of myself and my race being regarded as beautiful. Previously, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
*Names have been changed and interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.