I have been aware of Melbourne’s rise in body modification for a while. It’s hard not to be when the City Botanical Garden track is on your doorstep. All it takes is some good weather, and after work, the track is full of cosmetically exaggerated women in matching exercise ensembles. In my sister’s company, I can laugh and lightly puzzle over the trend from afar. Though alone, I do my best not to contemplate it for too long as I quickly become confused about the world and what it means to be a young woman today. I didn’t realise the extent of the situation until I had an innocent coffee date with a close friend, where she explained she couldn’t stay long because she had a cosmetic appointment for her second round of ‘Baby Botox’. I nearly choked on the piece of almond croissant in my mouth. My friend said it “isn’t as invasive as the real thing but is just preventative”. This friend is two years my junior, Sicilian and possesses the best complexion of anyone I know. You’ve got to be joking; I did not say. Instead, I remind this friend of dear old Socrates, who taught Alcibiades all about the fact wisdom trumps beauty; and that true love is that of the soul, not the body. My friend laughed and sidestepped my comment, apparently missing my grave seriousness.
An Industry that Commodifies Insecurity
The trend confuses me because it contradicts the present moment of body positivity, all-size models, and no photo-shop campaigns. The injectable-cosmetic enhancement industry concerns itself primarily with physical appearance. Specifically: maintenance, restoration, and enhancement via medical and surgical techniques. If you browse online or pop into your local cosmetic clinic (you can do this now because they’re everywhere), you will see a wide array of treatments ranging from bio-stimulator injections, dermal fillers, chemical peels, and so on. However, no matter what you’re there for, at the root of the transaction is someone feeling insecure about a self-perceived flaw and fundamentally changing that “flaw” to be closer to an ideal. In this way, I’ve always understood it as an industry that monetises consumer insecurity and fuels the never-ending battle between societal standards and healthy body image.
So, what, then, might the following statistic suggest about the mindset of contemporary culture? Market analyses valued the Australian injectable industry at a whopping 4.3 billion dollars and projected an annual growth of over 25% until 2030. It seems like a lifetime ago when there was a lot of stigma placed on those who partook in cosmetic treatments, though now it is an entirely different landscape. Cosmetic enhancements are no longer a taboo or an exclusive luxury for the celebrity or the uber-rich. Something has shifted in our culture where these procedures are now considered a regular part of self-care.
Resisting Natural Human Development
I’m sure that at some point, your mind likely leapt to social media as one of the culprits of this increasing trend in cosmetic enhancements. And rightly so, screen time is a significant causal factor. Clinicians and medical experts are drawing strong parallels between the proliferation of smartphones and social media platforms along with the soar in injectable demand. Glance back 10-20 years, we often relied on observing ourselves in the standard mirror, at extra special events with professional photographers, or simply snapping away on film cameras. Now, we exist in a world of constant documentation, exposing us to angles and aspects of ourselves we might not like. It also makes it easy to observe the natural aging process immediately. Thanks to this, we are now living in an arena of self-scrutiny.
While most cosmetic clinicians have no complaints about the surge in demand, genuine and conscientious practitioners are alarmed. Dr. Teska, a long-standing Melbourne practitioner, last year told the Guardian she feels distressed about this alarming trend at her practice. She says it is not just the lack of professionalism that is concerning, but the welfare of her clients, primarily young women. She compares the influx of young clients coming in and holding up an image of someone online they want to look like to living in a disturbing dystopian era. What they don’t understand, she says, is that these images circulating online are simply not authentic and are cunningly altered to varying degrees.
The Disturbing Nonchalance to Disfiguring One’s Face
There has been a noticeable audience shift in cosmetic injectables. It’s a thing of the past for these procedures to be exclusively available to the wealthy or those in the constant limelight. Thanks to new technologies like preventative Botox aka ‘Baby Botox’, these procedures appeal to the middle class, young professionals fresh out of graduate school. These treatments are so accessible that it goes so far as being advertised as “lunchtime” procedures, allowing you to undergo these face-altering procedures within the time it takes to buy your sushi. To make it even more appealing, a list of financing options is available that spare the full cost coming out of your account at once. This, coupled with the tone and attitude purported online, means more people are getting the jab. For a long time, Hollywood has continued to this day, to dictate what is on trend in popular culture, leading to public consciousness. Celebrities and influencers do not hesitate to share their latest cosmetic work; often, they parade it around like a new designer bag making it very much a part of an individual’s social status. This shift in tone explains the nonchalance my friend displayed at the café that day, where the question seems to have shifted from ‘would you ever get Botox’ to ‘when are you going to start’? As if it was out of the question to let yourself -god forbid- age naturally.
Calls for Mandatory Mental Health Screening prior to Procedures
With the new soar in demand, we are seeing more clinics opening, who must be competitive with their prices. Though where there is cost cutting, there is also quality cutting. Mental health experts and long-time cosmetic practitioners call for regulation on three levels to address what they describe as a public health crisis. Firstly, they want thorough regulation of practitioners and clinics, including legitimate training, equipment, and procedures. They are also calling for mandatory mental health screening before injectable procedures. This is a plea to help psychologically vulnerable people engaging in such procedures that perpetuate and worsen existing issues. The final level of intervention is in the social media arena to regulate what they call ‘Social Media Injectable Influencers’ who document and disseminate injectable body augmentation like fast fashion.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder is an ‘I’m not good enough disorder’
At university, we studied Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), defined as a preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others. The physical symptoms of BDD include excessive grooming, mirror and camera checking, approval and reassurance seeking from others. The cognitive symptoms include rumination on looks, negative evaluations of the self, and comparison with others. It is said that individuals with BDD make up a very significant proportion of those who use cosmetic altering services as a weapon to alleviate our obsession with self-perceived flaws. Our previous post further explores how BDD often thrives in the space of constant improvement.
So, if Australia’s cosmetic injectable industry is currently projected to see an annual growth of over 25% a year, then might we be seeing a public health crisis, after all, a kind of collective body dysmorphia?
By Participating, we become Complicit in our own Suffering
As a 26-year-old woman, the topic of injectables is increasing in my social circles. None of my immediate friends have gotten the jab (yet), so we discuss and debate the trend in the realm of hypotheticals. Some friends argue in favour of cosmetic procedures by saying they are entitled to self-expression, self-confidence and doing whatever they like to make themselves feel ‘good’. But I do wonder, what is ‘good’? And who is defining this feeling for them? It is crucial to understand that one becomes complicit in one’s own suffering by participating in the trend – after getting an enhancement, you feel good for a while, but then, inevitably, need to return for a ‘top up’, or even increasingly intense procedures to feel as good. Participating means taking the beauty standard bar into your own hands and effectively raising it. We are now at a point where the bar is disproportionately high, and sitting out of this trend is the only logical way to lower it back to a realistic and attainable level. I stand with people like the writer and social activist Van Badham, who wrote about her feelings on the issue in an article for the Guardian. Van states it isn’t unreasonable to hope beauty standards shift towards a mature aesthetic one day. She is keeping her hands off the needle and knife and crossing her fingers that the rest of us will see the light.
To read more on shifting our attitude towards the aging process, you may like to read our blog post focusing on embracing ageing.