Kathryn Schweishelm


False Faces: Women, Cosmetic Surgery and the Cultural History of a Contested Practice

Dissertation Abstract

Cosmetic surgery has always needed a story. As a form of medical intervention that is fundamentally voluntary, it is inherently vulnerable to critique and therefore constantly demands the development of persuasive rhetoric to justify its practice. For the most part, the story surrounding cosmetic surgery in North America has unfolded in the popular media, with the arguments of both boosters and critics finding expression in the advertising, promotions, and press reports of the public sphere. While most of today’s commentators on cosmetic surgery focus heavily on the contradictions and controversies of the present moment, debates surrounding cosmetic surgery’s legitimacy and meaning – particularly for women, who are by far its greatest consumers – have been ongoing for more than a century. These debates surround what constitutes a legitimate and rational – i.e. culturally intelligible – reason to undergo cosmetic surgery, and ultimately point to deeper struggles between various representatives for the right to speak to what should define an appropriate, “authentic” relationship to the body for women.

My dissertation traces the shifting boundaries of this public debate within North American popular media over the past century, and how it has adapted to different cultural contexts and novel criticisms or rationales. In so doing, I both critique and extend the common discussions of today that so often centre on postfeminism and neoliberalism as jointly responsible for cosmetic surgery’s upsurge. By showing how far back many of these discussions reach I question the claim that this phenomenon is unique to today, while at the same validating these perspectives by tracing their roots and showing them to be an extension of longstanding debates.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft