Many people think that cosmetic surgery is not good because it is not necessary, and that people should simply accept the way that God (or Nature) made them. However, merely because something is not natural and not necessary does not make it bad. In most temperate climates clothing is not actually necessary, but people still choose to wear it. Televisions are not natural or necessary, but people still enjoy them. Cosmetic surgery is indeed good because it allows for personal empowerment and/or comfort, it allows an individual to define or redefine their social indentity, and it is an expression of the right of the individual to self-determination.
Cosmetic surgery is a very old practice, and understanding its history might help to understand the practice.. People have used various methods of body modificationg surgery since the stone age. " This medical specialty is ancient, dating back to 800 B.C., when hieroglyphics describe crude skin grafts. ... A long time ago... Jewish slaves had clefts in their ears. And some of the first plastic-surgery operations were to remove those signs of stigma." (Slater) Even today, many "primitive" tribes use many different forms of cosmetic modification. For example, they may use piercings and stretchers to make lips and earlobes much larger, or use ritual scarring to make a young man or warrior look stronger and braver. In the Victorian era, many members of the aristocracy went in for piercings of their ears, bosoms, or genitalia in order to make themselves more appealing to others. In that era the first advances of what is now called "plastic" surgery were made. Surgeons used paraffin wax "to flesh out the depressed noses of those with 'saddle-nose' deformity..." (Tackla) Today all sorts of fillers, including some that are known neuro-toxins, such as botox, are used to improve people's looks. Since 1980, liposuction has become overwhelmingly popular, as have face is, tummy tucks, and all such manner of alterations. Not all doctors and social critics have been happy about these changes. Dr. Richard Dolsky explains that: "Interspecialty conflicts and disputes over doctrine have colored this field, particularly those concerning the legitimacy of 'aesthetic' as opposed to 'reconstructive' surgery," (Tackla)
Cosmetic surgery is good because it allows for personal empowerment. One group of people who do a great deal of cosmetic surgery are the modern primitives, who are more or less defined as a group by "their variety of body modifications. [and]... desire to explore and experience the body as a method to express themselves in ways society finds difficult to tolerate." (Larkin) They speak of the way in which, by altering the body, one can bring the physical into alignment with the spiritual. "There is a growing group of individuals who are camouflaging the scars of their mastectomies and bums with meaningful tattoos that represent 'beauty' and 'symbolic healing.'" (Selekman) By removing or altering scars or other problems, one can help to heal the emotional trauma associated with them. The earliest known cosmetic surgeries mentioned earlier were no doubt partly of this sort -- seeking to remove the memory of having been a slave.
How one appears is very important to the way in which one feels about one's self. This is so true that an entire psychological disorder has been discovered called "gender dysphoria," dealing with the ill affects of feeling that one is a specific gender while looking like the other one. Sexual reassignment surgery (which is also a cosmetic surgery) is used in these cases so that an individual can feel "like herself" because the body and the inner picture of the self line up. Even in less severe cases, a person might not really feel like themselves if they do not look as they imagine themselves looking in their minds. Sociologist Charles Cooley talks about the "looking glass self, [which] is formed by our imagination of the way we appear in the eyes of others... If we are lucky, we feel pride in that imagined self; if not, we feel mortification." (Elliot) Cosmetic surgery can heal that looking glass self, so that a person can feel spiritually at home in their body and physically empowered to deal with others.
Some might argue that people should be content with changing the way they "feel" about their bodies, rather than trying to change their bodies. However, the whole person is defined as body, mind, and emotion. Why should someone be content with changing the way their mind and emotion interact with the world, but feel that they shouldn't change their bodies?
Cosmetic surgery also allows an individual to change the way they are perceived by others and in so doing to change their social identity. It is very important that people have the right to a mutable identity. For example, a girl who has always been seen just as a sexual object may wish to have a breast reduction, so that she can be treated more as a person than as a pair of triple-Ds. On the other hand, someone who has always been the shy and awkward "ugly duckling" may wish to redefine themselves as having more sexual flair and knowledge, and increase breast size and face symmetry. "In fact, the desire for self-transformation has been a part of American life since the earliest days of the republic. How many other countries can count a best-selling self-help author such as Benjamin Franklin among their founding fathers?" (Elliot) One remembers how the stories of rags-to-riches captured the imagination of early America, describing how paupers found education and manners, learning to dress and speak properly, and finally finding their way into the top echelons of society. Today, we have reality TV shows about extreme make-overs that have essentially the same plots, albeit it condensed into a matter of hours and starring not only new clothes and accents but also new faces. This has been true for generations, of course. "Over a hundred years ago Jacques Joseph, another of plastic surgery's founding fathers, wrote that beauty was a medical necessity because a person's looks can create social and economic barriers. Repairing the deformity, therefore, allows the man to function in a fully healthy way in society." (Slater)
Changing how one looks not only changes how people treat an individual, it can also quite literally change the roles that he or she is allowed to play, based on the identity which is assumed for them. "We are not simply born into a caste or social role. We. are expected to build an individual identity for ourselves by virtue of how we live and the way we present ourselves to others. Manners, accent, clothes, hair, job, home, even personality." (Elliot) Thus it is clear that appearance today is not unrelated to caste in another day, or even to manners and clothing. By changing the way that one appears, one can change the role which one has in society. This is especially true with indulging in (or getting rid of) extreme cosmetic surgeries such as massive facial piercings or tattoes. Piercings, tattoes, and "alternative" cosmetic surgeries such as getting forked tongues or pointed ears can permanently place one in the role of outside -- which is a role which many shamans and artists of various sorts seek out willingly. "Believe me," says influential Dr. Rosen, "Wings are not way off." (Slater) When they come, they will give their wearer a truly new role.
Of course, this issue of role is absolutely true with more normal alterations too. "It's no surprise that from its inception, cosmetic surgery has been enthusiastically employed to efface markers of ethnicity, such as the 'Jewish nose' or 'Asian eyes.'" (Elliot) Critics would say that this tendency is precisely why surgery is bad -- it implies that one should conform to the desires of society rather than be one's self. However, while in an ideal world it might be better to keep one's original body rather than conform, this is not an ideal world. People regularly make decisions to compromise or adapt their ideas and emotions and behaviors in order to get what they want out of life -- every day people are told to "grow up" and learn how to survive in the real world. If adapting one's behavior in order to fit into real world roles is a good thing, how could it be a bad thing to adapt one's body to fit into such roles?
Finally, cosmetic surgery is good because it is a physical way of laying claim to one's right to do whatever one wishes with one's own life and body. Cosmetic surgeries, especially those which are the most radical, are like planting a flag in one's body and screaming out "this is my territory, no one else can define it." This is part of the motivation for those who do extreme modifications. It is also important even with normal surgeries, to some degree. By allowing cosmetic surgery, our culture is acknowledging that no one has such a pressing…