Through a diet of image-rich media – TV, magazines, newspapers, the internet and social networking – aspirations for a “perfect” body are now far higher than ever before.
Expectations of cosmetic surgery are also greater as we are exposed to more and more images of the way we should look. Increasingly, and perhaps worrying, cosmetic procedures have become normalised.
Young girls, in particular, are under intense media and peer pressure to achieve physical perfection, as evidenced by the recent Keogh review of cosmetic procedures. The review cites: “Younger people see cosmetic procedures as a commodity – something they might just ‘get done’ to achieve the body ideals of their famous idols.”
British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) council member and consultant cosmetic surgeon Kevin Hancock says: “Normalisation, or the word we use, commoditisation, where purchasing plastic surgery is seen as just like buying a new handbag, is worrying.
“Non-surgical treatments, such as fillers and Botox, have been trivialised and no longer considered medical, but all these procedures, from breast implants to teeth whitening, are not without an element of risk.”
Women and equalities minister Jo Swinson adds: “There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but I think there is far too much pressure on young people nowadays to conform to a narrow set of unrealistic images of beauty.”
She champions the government’s Body Confidence Campaign, which was set up to tackle the many factors leading to body dissatisfaction. “What is different now is the sheer volume of images people are bombarded with – on the television, in advertising, on the catwalk and high street, the internet and in magazines,” she says.
The pressure on teenage girls appears to be borne out by a 2012 study by the Girl Guides Association, which found that while 65 per cent of girls aged 7 to 8 were very happy with their appearance, the figure dropped to just 8 per cent by the ages of 14 to 16.
Not only does this increase in perfect body imagery mean surgical procedures are less feared nowadays – consultant surgeon Mr Hancock regularly hears the phrase “It’s only cosmetic, what can go wrong?” from potential patients – it also means they are expecting magazine-image results and are disappointed when they don’t get them.
The most commonly requested procedure remains breast augmentation, with nearly 10,000 delivered by BAAPS members in 2012, and managing expectations is one of the biggest pre-op tasks. “It is about realistic expectation and it is crucial from the first consultation for patients to understand that,” says Mr Hancock. “We ask them to bring in images of what it is they are hoping to achieve and, if we can’t provide that, we won’t offer it.”
While we in the UK may aspire to what Ms Swinson feels is “a narrow idea of beauty”, the definition of a perfect body varies greatly across the globe. A recent study, commissioned by medical device manufacturers GC Aesthetics, into the most favoured implant sizes, shapes and projections for breast procedures found widely varying demands in different parts of the world.
UK women seeking a “boob job” were found to favour an increase in roughly two to three cup sizes (251-350ccs of silicone), with 48 per cent plumping for a high projection of the breast, the sort of look you might associate with a glamour model or character from ITV’s influential The Only Way Is Essex.
Nations liking larger breasts are Israel and Venezuela, where more than 60 per cent of all implants are three or four cup sizes larger (351-450ccs), which is inverted in Japan where only 1 per cent of women opt for this bigger size.
In terms of projection, Colombian women almost exclusively go for extra high implants – what might be termed as the “stuck on” look – with Brazil coming in second as the country most commonly favouring these extremely high-set breasts. This elevation makes the breasts a focal point of the body without having to add too much in size. Both countries opt mainly for an increase of two to three cup sizes.
In the Far East, this look is almost entirely eschewed, as cultural demands dictate a more subtle shape as the most attractive. Some 80 per cent of implant sizes in Hong Kong and 83 per cent in Japan fall into the one or two-cup-size increase (151-250ccs).
With many breast augmentations done to give a better cleavage or to fix sagging breasts after childbirth, the overarching ideal to come out of the research is that for most countries, a round breast is still preferable to a more natural, teardrop shape.
DOES BEAUTY EVER CHANGE?
While it may seem that beauty innovations are as transient as seasonal coat colours – a new injection here, a revolutionary cream there – the actual facets we wish to create with such interventions, such as symmetry, proportion and youthfulness, are likely to be hardwired into us from birth.
“There is evidence indicating that humans prefer symmetry, as it suggests that the two independently developing sides of the body are both evolving as they ought to,” explains Professor Ian Stewart, a mathematician and author of Why Beauty is Truth: The History of Symmetry. A genetic defect is generally only present on one side of the body, so a hopeful spouse will assess symmetry and translate this to beauty.
The move over the last 30 years from skin-tightening facelifts to the latest filler treatments, which concentrate on creating volume in the face, may be a new development, but it is actually adhering to our predisposed desire for proportion.
Historical evidence supports the idea that the surgical trends we see today are merely being used to achieve timeless beauty ideals. “The belladonna drops of the Romans, which they used to create ‘take me to bed’ eyes, are really just the Botox of the 21st century,” says cosmetic surgeon Dr Patrick Treacy. “The trends change little; the demands of the enhancement market essentially follow technological developments.”
However, a timeline of female beauty shows varying trends in preferred body shape. Renaissance women, depicted in art, are voluptuous, while Victorian ladies used corsets to achieve a small waist. The 1920s saw fashionable women wanting to straighten out the curves. The hourglass figure made a comeback in the 1930s, until thin became sexy in the 1960s.