British Journalists Sound Off on Surgery

Online readers about cosmetic surgery are probably all too familiar with the “age gracefully” versus “freedom to enhance” type arguments.  The UK Observer just published an editorial that sums up each position fairly well.  British journalist Alice Hart-Davis and Grazia beauty director Annabel Jones offer contrasting opinions in response to the question “Can cosmetic surgery ever be a viable solution to aging?”

The question is inherently flawed; can anything at all be a viable solution to aging?  Unless you’re very optimistic about regenerative medicine and  stem cell research, the aging process is a fact you must accept.  So, perhaps the word “solution” is misleading; cosmetic surgery doesn’t have a solution to aging, but it does offer many options.

The options for dealing with the effects of aging are highly individualized.  One person may be totally satisfied with “great skincare, clever makeup, and an amazing haircut” – but that doesn’t mean you or I need to be.  This concept of individuality seems to be an underlying point of contention between the two journalists.

Ms. Jones naively asks, “What’s the point of having work done if you end up looking like an identikit version of every other woman in your doctor’s surgery?”  She assumes that plastic and cosmetic surgeons aim for some objective, ideal form of beauty, with no concern for the patient’s autonomy or individual aesthetic.  As any good cosmetic surgeon should tell you, this assumption is way off the mark.

Because it can enhance a person’s individual beauty in accord with that person’s desires, cosmetic surgery can actually serve as an expression of autonomy.  The end result should always reflect a combination of three things: the patient’s goals, the patient’s natural characteristics, and the surgeon’s aesthetic sense.

Their arguments also beg the question, where do we draw the line between reasonable and excessive cosmetic interventions?  Ms. Hart-Davis refers to “a slippery slope on which everyone will have their own stopping point,” and she’s correct; trying to make a distinction between cosmetic interventions that are deemed reasonable or excessive will likely use some arbitrary criterion, so the distinction must ultimately be made by the individual.

However, Jones employs the same “slippery slope” concept in absolute terms saying, “once you start [cosmetic surgery], there’s no going back.” It is unclear whether she means to argue that there is no “stopping point” or that there’s no returning to your “real” self once you’ve begun.

First of all, each individual can decide when enough is enough.  Second, because aging and life change our bodies and selves over time, there’s no “going back” for any of us – surgically enhanced or not.