Alexander Edmonds on plastic surgery in Brazil

Brazilian magazine Plástica & Beauty

Anthropologist Alexander Edmonds, of the University of Amsterdam, recently wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone, about his work on plastic surgery in Brazil.  Much of the article focuses on how cosmetic surgery in Brazil has been transformed from a luxury and sign of wealth (or at least middle-class status) into what a poor informant of Edmonds’ called “a necessary vanity.”  The refiguring of plástica into a source of self-esteem has been led locally by surgeon Ivo Pitanguy, whom Edmonds quotes as stating, “The poor have the right to be beautiful, too.” Edmonds writes:

“The beauty of the human body has raised distinct ethical issues for different epochs.  The literary scholar Elaine Scarry pointed out
that in the classical world a glimpse of a beautiful person could
imperil an observer. In his “Phaedrus” Plato describes a man who after
beholding a beautiful youth begins to spin, shudder, shiver and sweat.
With the rise of mass consumption, ethical discussions have focused on
images of female beauty.  Beauty ideals are blamed for eating disorders
and body alienation.  But Pitanguy’s remark raises yet another issue:
Is beauty a right, which, like education or health care, should be
realized with the help of public institutions and expertise?

The question might seem absurd.  Pitanguy’s talk of rights echoes the
slogans of make-up marketing (L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it.”).
Yet his vision of plastic surgery reflects a clinical reality that he
helped create.  For years he has performed charity surgeries for the
poor. More radically, some of his students offer free cosmetic
operations in the nation’s public health system.

A right to beauty … seems to value a rather frivolous concern in a
country with more pressing problems — from tropical diseases, like
dengue, to the diseases of civilization, like diabetes.  Yet to an
outsider trying to understand a new society, such a view had a whiff of
condescension.  I remembered the remark of a Carnival designer: “Only
intellectuals like misery, the poor want luxury,”” (Edmonds 2011).

Edmonds explains that Pitanguy has been particularly adept at articulating a vision of cosmetic surgery as therapy for self-esteem:

 “[Pitanguy] argues that the real object of healing is not the body, but the
mind.  A plastic surgeon is a “psychologist with a scalpel in his hand.”

Pitanguy’s views of plastic surgery are in some ways no different
than those of the wider specialty.  Plastic surgery gained legitimacy in
the early 20th century by limiting itself to reconstructive
operations.  The “beauty doctor” was a term of derision.  But as
techniques improved they were used for cosmetic improvements.  Missing,
however, was a valid diagnosis. Concepts like psychoanalyst Alfred
Adler’s inferiority complex — and later low self-esteem — provided a
missing link.

Victorians saw a cleft palate as a defect that built
character. For us it hinders self-realization and merits corrective
surgery.  This shift reflects a new attitude towards appearance and
mental health: the notion that at least some defects cause unfair
suffering and social stigma is now widely accepted. But Brazilian surgeons take this reasoning a step further.  Cosmetic
surgery is a consumer service in most of the world.  In Brazil it is
becoming… a “necessary vanity.”  Or as one surgeon
said, “Faced with an aesthetic defect, the poor suffer as much as the
rich,””(Edmonds 2011).

Edmonds concludes:

“For many consumers attractiveness is
essential to economic and sexual competition, social visibility, and
mental well being.  This “value” of appearance may be especially clear
for those excluded from other means of social ascent.  For the poor
beauty is often a form of capital that can be exchanged for other
benefits, however small, transient, or unconducive to collective change,” (Edmonds 2011).

You can read the entire piece here.  For a more detailed account, check out Edmonds’ book–Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil (Duke 2010)–or the open access version of his paper, “The Poor Have the Right to Be Beautiful’: Cosmetic Surgery In Neoliberal Brazil.”