Look this way: The growth and diversity of plastic surgery in contemporary America

Tara Parrello, Fordham University


Plastic surgery has evolved from a medical subspecialty to a lucrative global business. Despite its popularity and mass appeal, though, extant scholarly literature on this subject still often implies that plastic surgery attracts primarily white middle or upper class women who are subjugated by cultural and social standards of beauty. Moreover, the few studies that do examine diverse groups of men and minority women patients focus on people of color who "pass" as white; these studies tend to dismiss plastic surgery's growing popularity and usually do not include the voices of actual (and actually diversifying) patients. By contrast, using a multi-dimensional approach that treats plastic surgery as an indisputable "social fact," this study focuses on changing groups of patients. Taking plastic surgery to be a cultural phenomenon composed of multiple social actors, the study also includes analyses of popular cultural representations and interviews with plastic surgeons and their office staff. The methods employed were in-depth interviews with eight plastic surgeons and twelve office staff members; eighteen pre and post operative plastic surgery patients and, an analysis of television programs, magazine articles and Internet websites focusing on plastic surgery. These methods were used to analyze the social and cultural significance of the plastic surgery industry's growth and popularity on both the macro and micro levels. Key points from "case study" chapters are as follows. One of this study's chapters suggests that plastic surgery has become normalized through expanding media coverage. Another chapter, based on interviews with plastic surgeons, found that most lucrative practices combine medical, psychological and business acumen to treat and counsel patients and to be successful in a highly competitive industry. In a chapter devoted to patients, it is noted that while plastic surgery is a personal decision, social attitudes toward it vary among whites and blacks and women and men. Here, one finding is that most female patients embraced their post-plastic surgery appearances while men tended to fear being judged by others. Most patients experienced criticism to some extent, but blacks specifically faced charges that politicized and racialized their plastic surgeries.

Subject Area

Sociology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Parrello, Tara, "Look this way: The growth and diversity of plastic surgery in contemporary America" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3240064.