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'New and improved?' Using technology to transform the body

Demand for cosmetic surgery is rising by 230% every year. Invasive and non-invasive surgical procedures are advertised on every street corner. Is this the ‘democratisation of beauty’, with the body becoming a site where it is possible for an individual to maximise life by becoming ‘new, improved’ versions of themselves, employing the latest in science and technology? Or is there a dangerous corollary to this preoccupation of science with the creation of the perfect face and body? Manjima Bhattacharjya looks at the issue

In the course of my doctoral research on the life worlds of women working in the glamour industry in India (1), a section of my interviews focused on the women’s hard and gruelling inner world of work -- that of building and maintaining the ‘ideal body’. Through various techniques such as dieting, consultations with a bevy of experts, exercise routines, the gym, beauty regimes and cosmetics, the model’s everyday life is ordered around the maintenance of a disciplined life driven by the desire to transform, reform, or ‘correct’ her body according to both the imagined and real needs of the industry. A fit and ‘ideal body’ is an inherent demand of their profession, they point out, drawing parallels with sportspersons, dancers and other performers.

But an exercise regime or a dietary plan are still inadequate to fully exploit the potential of any body to be transformed. Many of the narratives reveal how medical technology today provides ample opportunities for this transformation.

Going under the knife: A first-person account

Mita, a Delhi-based ramp model from a middle class background, who had joined the India franchise of an international modelling agency, was advised to get a nose job done by her agency that felt she had tremendous potential, but for her nose. She was 19 years old at the time. Mita recalls taking the decision to go through with it:

My agent, who is like my godmother, only sat me down initially and said: “Look this is a problem. They saw it in the pictures. We feel you need to do this, but it’s completely up to you. No pressures.” So it was left to me. Initially I thought, “but what is wrong with me?”, I think what decided it for me was when I said to myself that there was no point in being in this industry if I didn’t do it. I was scared of course, worried in case something went wrong. I was getting work. But what’s the point in getting money and not getting recognition? So I decided to take the risk.

Mita and her agent consulted experts in the field and got a recommendation for a top cosmetic surgeon in Mumbai. They fixed an appointment and Mita herself was surprised at how smoothly and quickly the event took place, in a ‘barely-there’ encounter.

We went to Mumbai -- me, my agent and my mom -- met him one day and he explained the procedure to me. We didn’t have any telephonic conversations beforehand, nor did he show me any references or pictures. I was a bit surprised because I thought he would show me a computer image or something to show me an altered image -- what it would look like. He refused to meet my agent, because she was not related to me. Only I and my mother met him. He said it’s a regular operation, lots of people undertake it… He told me that they would not change my face as such, but just straighten a bit of bone on the bridge of my nose that jutted out to the side, and bring in the nostrils a bit by reducing the cartilage. He didn’t even draw a diagram. He only explained it indicating it on my face. He asked me to come to Breach Candy Hospital the next day at 9 am for the surgery.

It was a one-hour operation. When I was lying on the stretcher before the operation, I was nervous. One male nurse came to me and told me, “don’t worry, local mein hoga na aapka operation. Basically they were going to numb my face, the area around my nose, and do the surgery, so I would be awake through the procedure! That psyched me out a bit! But once I was wheeled in, I found myself being a bit drowsy and actually going off to sleep. They put an IV drip into my wrist. That was the only thing that hurt actually.

The procedure itself involved only two slits under both my nostrils which were stitched up later, and the stitches removed. They inserted some equipment; they could see the inside on a monitor in front of them and drilled, chiselled away at the bone on the nose bridge and brought the cartilage at the sides in. After the operation I could breathe only through my mouth for a while, and that was tough. I was having painkillers. They inserted two gorges up my nostrils for a day or so; after that a metal cover was placed on my nose for protection. It took about a week for it to be better. I could eat more or less anything. I found it difficult to speak as it was all connected, and mostly because of the tight bandages on the nose. My eyes were all bloodshot and the area under my eyes became black and blue and yellow… Apparently that was normal; in any kind of surgery to the face, the trauma is taken by the area around the eyes. It took more than a month for this to go. The doctor had not told me about this, so for one month after I had to cover it up with makeup or something.

I only saw my face after I got home. Home, as in home in Mumbai where we were staying -- with my distant cousins. We had to tell them, as we were to stay with them, because I think it was important for my mother that she be with people she knew, to have her own support. It was difficult for her, she was worried, crying a bit… but she was okay.

When I returned to Delhi, people could not really tell. It was only in my pictures that you could make out the difference. And it did make a difference. There were no restrictions; I could do anything really, as before. By and by people came to know. Lots of people do it but don’t say… I don’t know why.

Common procedures in the glamour world

While most of the women I interviewed acknowledged that cosmetic surgery was increasingly acceptable and common amongst those in the glamour industry, and a matter of ‘personal choice’, few were ready to disclose further details or share their experiences in detail, even if they admitted to having gone under the knife. “Everyone wants the world to think that they are naturally beautiful!” said one of the respondents by way of an explanation. Only some respondents admitted having undergone certain cosmetic procedures (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

These procedures -- skin polishing, hair treatment, laser treatment, etc -- are seen to be more normal (and less controversial or taboo) than others like breast implants. In many cases, respondents underwent multiple procedures. The same respondent who admitted to having undergone teeth whitening also said she had had dental surgery and laser treatment. Those who had undergone procedures were mostly from the newer generation of models in the industry. While there is still some hesitation about turning to cosmetic surgery among the older generation of models (although there is certainly contemplation), the younger generation has tried out various procedures, from non-invasive procedures like laser hair removal to invasive ones like rhinoplasty (a nose job).

Respondents were more forthcoming about discussing procedures that were generally common in the industry (as opposed to those they had undertaken themselves). Figure 2 shows the perceptions of respondents as to which procedures are common in the fashion and beauty industry.

Figure 2

The most common procedures mentioned were hair removal on the face and body using laser technology, reshaping the nose, and dental surgery -- almost a necessity in an industry where it is crucial to have ‘the perfect smile’.

The director of an Indian franchise of an international modelling agency puts forward their stand on the use of cosmetic procedures:

Cosmetic surgery is common and I have nothing against it. Because a little change in the shape of your nose can make an immense difference to your career. Because in photo-shoots, it’s all about being seen at close proximity. It is common abroad for agencies to make specific requests to models to get that little nose job, if they feel it’s going to impact that much. We do too. Sometimes in terms of teeth, sometimes in terms of the nose… And it’s a safe surgery now you know, it’s not complicated. 

Teeth is very important… So we are constantly telling people to get cosmetic dental treatment. Laser hair removal is not so important -- it’s really their choice, whether they want to do it or go through the hassle of shaving everyday or whatever. But yes, teeth, nose, I’ve suggested ear tucks… because that can make a lot of difference. Sometimes maybe Botox, which is also sort of easy and safe. You can get it anywhere, normally for just Rs 2,000-3,000. Botox is very cheap. Dental will depend on what you need. A nose job will probably cost you between Rs 50,000 and Rs 70,000 -- and that’s if you go to the best in the industry.

All the respondents mentioned that while surgery was extremely common in the film industry, it was relatively less common amongst women in the modelling industry. However, the transition from modelling work to the film industry was assumed to require some amount of ‘fixing’, with popular legends being narrated of beauty queens winning titles like Miss Universe or Miss World and then undergoing nose jobs, Botox, bust enhancement surgery, etc, afterwards (even though they had just been judged the most beautiful woman in the world or universe) to enter the film industry.

‘No one talks about the pain’: Another account

Swati underwent painful dental surgery to correct her smile in order to facilitate her transition from being a model in print commercials, to television. Swati is from a middle class Jat family based in Delhi and was 24 years old at the time of the surgery. She had left her job as an airhostess two years before the surgery to pursue modelling, and had been getting regular work in mid-level assignments. Swati was a runner-up in the Gladrags pageant, which gave her a platform to get exposure to the industry abroad, and also model for a different league of brands as part of the Gladrags win. She went in for surgery after her win at the pageant. Here is her account: 

I’ve got my smile corrected because I had a slight problem. Photographers always told me that I have a little line jutting out here… it was a flaw we had noticed in the pictures. So I went to Apollo, consulted a dental surgeon and got my smile corrected. What they do is that they grind your teeth -- your original teeth -- about halfway, and then they cap it. It’s a very expensive treatment… in fact a lot of my savings went on it… but it’s worth it. And it’s a very common treatment; all the Miss Indias get it done.

The doctor has a lot of people coming in for this treatment. Not only models, people from everywhere -- those who are about to get married, specially airhostesses, people in the service industry, and models. At least ten references she showed me, so she had a lot of people.

It was quite painful (laughs)… She didn’t tell me it was going to be so painful! So I wasn’t really scared. When I went for my first sitting I realised that it wasn’t easy. They had to give me local anaesthesia, two-three shots, and there was a lot of bleeding, a lot of pain. I really suffered for a month. I couldn’t do any work. For three sittings she is just grinding your teeth! Meanwhile, she gives you temporary caps, which look horrible. I couldn’t work while the caps were on. Neither could I go out and meet people. The whole thing was completed in about one-and-a-half months; each sitting was with a gap of ten days. But it was worth it. I was quite satisfied.

I had second thoughts after the second sitting. But then it was halfway there, I couldn’t go back on it. It was a bit too much, all this… bleeding and… it was horrible (shudders). And anything sweet just went and hit my gums so badly that the pain lasted for two days, three days. But I managed… I took a lot of painkillers! The temporary caps are just (a loose) fitting, so there’s a gap between them and your gums… and those gums had already bled, right? So they were still raw. So if anything sweet hits your gum (in that state) there’s a very, very bad pain… But I have to be careful. Now for the rest of my life I can’t bite into anything hard with my teeth; like an apple. I have to slice everything and eat. The doctor just told me (about) the apple! But I realised four months back that I could not bite into corn on the cob, my favourite! So there are pros and cons.

Chain reaction

It is too early to gauge whether Swati benefited from doing the surgery and giving up simple pleasures like eating corn on the cob. But Mita did indeed get much more work after the nose job. Her career grew from strength to strength; she became the agency’s top model and even went on to win the Miss India title. In an interview (as the new Miss India) on television, in a chat show where the host enquired about using such new techniques, Mita made no mention of the nose job she had undertaken a year ago, but confessed to having undergone gum surgery to fix her smile. She explained that when she saw the videos of herself winning the crown, she realised she had a “nervous smile” which she felt was a flaw. So in the throes of the post-win analysis, she went through minor gum surgery which she hoped would steady her smile and increase her chances of winning at the international level. The host, in turn, applauded her honesty and herself confessed to having taken a few Botox shots to smoothen the lines on her forehead, and how she was feeling just fabulous about it. In the conversation that followed they were echoing the overall refrain that cosmetic surgery is a matter of choice, it is a ‘right’ like any other, and (as a generation) we were lucky that we had the opportunity to avail of such advances in technology and were entitled to make the best of it.

Mita’s second surgery also validated what many of the respondents had said: it doesn’t end at one procedure. Those who overcome the mental inhibitions to surgical procedures get into a cycle and become “surgical junkies”. First you do a dental job, then a nose job, then a facelift, then liposuction to reduce the hips, then one Botox injection… the cycle continues.

Mrinal, who has been a choreographer of fashion shows and events in the industry for about 25 years and has seen many young women ‘change’, even physically, as time went by, says:

Just before they go for, say a Mrs World or that sort of contest, many of them take shots of Botox to be able to get rid of the laugh lines or frown lines or the creases and all that… because it’s such an easy way out for that one photo-shoot, or for that one spell of one or two days of looking picture-perfect. But I think what’s alarming is what happens thereafter, because it’s like a merry-go-round. You cannot step off it, you know. Which means that whatever the frequency is supposed to be (Botox I think needs to be re-administered every three months, six months, or every three weeks)… whatever the frequency of whatever you’re getting done for that instant fix -- do you ever get off that? Can you ever have the guts to get off that, having experienced the ease with which you can improve and enhance your appearance? But what do you do… it’s all part and parcel of the package that comes with the ‘look good’ industry.     

The democratisation of beauty

Swati’s account, however, reveals that these procedures are not limited to people from the ‘look good’ industry, but are coveted by people in all walks of life. Recent studies point out that cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly popular not only in the glamour industry but in general, and is popular amongst men as well as women, not necessarily from the elite. A study by Max Healthcare (2), at its three Delhi hospitals, analysed the profiles of 400 consecutive cosmetic procedures done in 2005 and found that, as compared to 2004, the demand for cosmetic surgery had gone up almost three times, by 280%. It also found that 30% of those undertaking surgery were men, and the greatest demand (77%) for the surgeries was from people in the age-group 18-40. Sixty-seven per cent of those who came for surgery were from the middle class; patients from rural areas or the suburbs increased from 5% in 2004 to 16% in 2005. This phenomenon is now being termed the ‘democratisation of beauty’ -- anyone can avail of surgery to make themselves ‘masters of nature’ and open up wider life opportunities (3).    

Newsweek’s November 2003 cover story is revealing (4). It talks about the ‘perfect face’, global standards of beauty that are being created, and is solely focused on technological developments that help ‘ordinary people’ get a global makeover. Its legitimacy is propped up on the pillars of an unquestionable ‘science’, medicalisation of jargon and expertisation of the ‘professionals’ -- today, there are experts on health, fitness, grooming, styling, nutrition, cosmetology, and so on.

The most striking is the relentless preoccupation of science with the creation of this perfect face and body for the female form. In fact, scientists claim to have hit upon the perfect ratio for the perfect face, called the ‘golden ratio decagon complex’.  

Besides this, mainstream media -- fashion and glamour magazines, TV shows, lifestyle shows, ‘makeovers’, new forms of creating visual discourses like fashion photography -- has a large role to play in creating a visual and textual discourse on glamour and beauty, and in normalising it. In fact, issues like cosmetic surgery are being portrayed as natural, easily accessible, and the extension of an ordinary routine of cosmetic care for the person, or the natural extension of a woman’s toilette. The former editor of a woman’s magazine that conducts the Miss India pageant, in response to my question on her views on cosmetic surgery, said:

If you can wear contact lenses, that’s again a cosmetic change. It’s also a need. But you are still interfering with nature. To a certain extent, (you do it) when you are conscious of a cosmetic need to hide something that would otherwise not make you look as glamorous. So if you can do that, if you can wear lipstick… These are all questions of degree.

It is therefore implied that cosmetic surgery is a natural extension of being ‘feminine’… akin to ‘wearing lipstick’. Actor Pooja Bedi feels that the ten-minute Botox treatment (a ‘lunchtime procedure’, says the media) is like a magic wand. She says: “Botox is a natural purified protein that relaxes wrinkle-causing muscles creating a smooth, rejuvenated and more youthful appearance” (5). Vinita, another model based in Mumbai, also used ‘human nature’ to justify the impetus to “improve oneself”. She says: “Human beings are like that; they never feel their body or face is good enough.”

Emerging concerns

In the current discourse, the body has become a site where it is possible for an individual to maximise life by becoming “new, improved” versions of themselves, employing the latest in science and technology.

It is difficult to judge whether this is ‘false consciousness’; much of it is indeed based on the assumption and experience of material gains. People appear to feel that certain physical attributes will widen economic, career and social opportunities and facilitate social mobility. It is not just for vanity but for practical reasons -- marriage, a better job, a smoother climb up the corporate ladder (a newspaper report finds that men in the corporate world are undertaking surgery, as looking good has become increasingly important in the boardroom). Much has been written, for example, about the rush in China for cosmetic procedures -- people wanting to widen their eyes, reshape their nose, even undertake painful leg extensions in an effort to be taller -- in order to get employment in the new economy sectors for which many of these seeming superficialities are actually a prerequisite.

The implications of these trends are sombre. Being fat/short/dark is alluded to as a problem in the popular media, and solutions are simultaneously offered. Invasive and non-invasive surgical procedures are advertised in every neighbourhood, on street buntings, outside the local beauty parlour, in the leaflets that fall out of the daily newspaper, on the back of magazine covers lying on the table in the dentist’s waiting room. New products -- creams, lotions, hair-dye, serums, gels, vitamins -- from competing brands promise to provide an ‘ageing solution’ and embalm you in a timeless vacuum. In a twisted real-life incident, newspapers reported a shocking case of a young girl in Delhi who killed herself because she felt she was too fat (6). The incident brought out various other reports by counsellors in schools who shared their concerns about the mental trauma that they were witnessing fat and less beautiful children going through (7).

Clearly, the preoccupation with body image is problematic. But at the same time, is it fair to pass judgement on something that people do legally, voluntarily, with some level of informed decision-making (although the absence of documentation of the actual experience of such interventions is achingly absent from the public domain, as Mita’s and Swati’s surprised reactions show) to enhance their own lives? Is the use of medical technology to change the body a private matter or a public health issue? What about regulations, legalities or monitoring around this sort of intervention?

These trends raise concerns we are only beginning to understand, as cosmetic surgery has so far not been really perceived as an ‘Indian issue’ or one that affects anyone other than a handful of wealthy socialites. Increasingly, evidence shows that this is not true.

Stories of those who have used medical technologies to transform their bodies are still few and far between; until we excavate their experiences and their reflections it is difficult to fully grasp the tensions around the issue.

(Manjima Bhattacharjya has a PhD in sociology and has been active in the Indian women’s movement for over10 years. In the past, she has worked with Jagori, a feminist resource centre, and the International Secretariat of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva. She is currently on the executive committee and governing body of Jagori. Her special areas of interest include gender, globalisation, work, feminism and other social movements, sexuality, trafficking and migration. She currently freelances as a writer, researcher and consultant for NGOs and international organisations, combining her academic training and activist experience to provide support and expertise on gender-related issues) 


1 This article is based on my doctoral thesis titled ‘Globalisation, Women and Work: A Study of Selected Centres of the Glamour Industry in India’ from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, for which I conducted in-depth interviews over two years (2004-2006) with 30 women between the ages of 19 and 45, working in ramp and fashion modelling, the beauty pageant industry, or aspiring to be TV actors, based in Delhi and Mumbai, as well as other key players in the glamour industry. I also undertook participant observation backstage through two Fashion Weeks (2004 and 2005). All names of respondents have been changed in this article to protect their identities 
2 Report ‘Cosmetic Surgery Goes Macho: Delhi Men Ready to Go Any Length For Looks’ in Hindustan Times, New Delhi, December 28, 2005
3 It is pertinent here to note some statistics from China. A newspaper report claimed that the Chinese beauty industry is now estimated to be worth more than $24 billion a year. One hospital in Shanghai, the Shanghai Ninth People’s Hospital, conducted over 30,000 cosmetic procedures in 2003, a jump of 40% over 2002 figures (The Indian Express, November 7, 2004). Dominant reasons for the procedures were for greater social mobility and wider opportunities in careers, jobs (to get an ‘edge’ over others in a competitive job market) and in social life
4 Newsweek, November 10, 2003, ‘The Perfect Face (How a Global Standard of Beauty is Emerging and What People Are Doing to Get It’); interestingly, the cover story ‘The Global Makeover’ came under the science and technology section of the magazine
5 Cover story ‘The Power of Beauty’, The Week, October 3, 2004
6 Report ‘Lean and Mean: The looks that kill’, The Times of India, April 13, 2003. Anjali Goyal shot herself in April 2003 in New Delhi believing that she was too fat; she was reportedly five feet tall and weighed 50 kg
7 This apparently prompted public schools such as Delhi Public School to tie up with weight-loss clinics like VLCC (Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves clinic) to draw up special diets for children that could be served in school canteens (Times of India report, op cit)

Infochange News & Features, December 2010