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British women more likely than Americans to have plastic surgery to please partner

A new study into cosmetic surgery suggests that British women are more likely than Americans to go under the knife to please their partner.

Dr Debra Gimlin, a Sociology lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, interviewed women on both sides of the pond about their motivations for having plastic surgery.

And her findings suggest that:

"I found that British women who have cosmetic surgery have a greater tendency to blame others for their decision," said Dr Gimlin, whose research was funded by the British Academy.

"In fact, while American respondents consistently claimed to have had cosmetic surgery 'for themselves', nearly one-quarter of the British women I interviewed indicated that they had done so to make themselves more appealing to a male partner."

Dr Gimlin interviewed 20 American and 40 British women ranging from 23 to 52-years of age. The British sample consisted of 20 women living in the Southwest of England and 20 living in Scotland. The Americans lived on Long Island, New York.

"All my respondents were concerned with their physical attractiveness, but only the British women said that they had undergone cosmetic surgery to suit the desires of a particular man."

In some cases, said Dr Gimlin, the men made their views abundantly clear through offers to pay for the procedure or snide comments about the woman's appearance.

"One British 39-year-old barmaid told me that her husband's criticism of her figure prompted her decision to have abdominoplasty. She said it wouldn't have entered her mind otherwise, but after she'd had her second child her husband said, 'I love the wee ones but I wish having them hadn't ruined your figure.'"

In other cases Dr Gimlin found that British women had cosmetic surgery in the hope of cementing their partnership.

"A 42-year-old book keeper explained that she probably wouldn't have had a breast enhancement if it hadn't been for her partner. She said, 'He's not as much in love with me as I am with him. I wanted to do things that might make things right – I thought the surgery might help.'"

Dr Gimlin said the two countries very different healthcare cultures was a significant factor in the women's contrasting accounts as to why they chose to have surgery.

"On the one hand, the privatised US system enshrines individual choice for those that can afford it, while the NHS ensures universal access," explained Dr Gimlin. "As such, healthcare in Britain is considered a social right rather than a consumer good or something to be 'earned'."

She said that Britain had also traditionally had a more conservative approach to medical procedures, in contrast to America, where insured patients are twice as likely as Britons to see a specialist during any 12 months.

"I found that within the market-based US healthcare system, many women justify aesthetic surgery via reference to the 'costs' of procedures and the 'investments' they have made. One 50-year-old medical technician, for instance, told me that while there were things her house needed, she felt she needed a facelift more than it did.

"Many American respondents also talked about self-sacrifice and saving for or taking a loan in order to have cosmetic surgery, but British women rarely mentioned such efforts. Instead, most who paid for surgery themselves said that they had done so with 'unexpected' money obtained from sources like insurance claims, divorce settlements, gifts and inheritance.

"Moreover, several British women said that although they knew the NHS might have funded their surgery, they felt morally obliged to pay for it themselves."

Dr Gimlin said this could be seen as a response to the "negative cultural meanings" of cosmetic surgery in the UK, such as its suggestion of self-centredness and selfishness.

"While the US women I spoke to frequently stressed their willingness to take control of their body rather than simply accepting the physical changes associated with ageing, the British women took pains to distance themselves from cosmetic surgery's suggestion of vanity.

"In some cases, British women explicitly contrasted their actions with - in the words of one 36-year-old office manager - Americans who had 'surgery at the drop of a hat.'

"These comparisons had the important effect of distancing my British respondents from women – real or imagined – who enter lightly into cosmetic surgery, but also normalised their behaviour by conveying a traditional British scepticism toward medical intervention."

However, British women also seemed less able than American women to reject cosmetic surgery's suggestion of narcissism and self-indulgence.

"They were far more self-critical," said Dr Gimlin. "One 28-year-old music teacher, who had undergone rhinoplasty, told me, 'I do worry about what this says about me … about my values. I should be less worried about how I look and more concerned with things that really matter.'

"British women were also far more likely than their US counterparts to conceal their surgery from friends and family, suggesting that even with the recent rise in aesthetic procedures in Britain, the country's nationalised healthcare system and historical conservatism in medical practice ultimately make cosmetic surgery difficult to defend," added Dr Gimlin.

"Even among British women whose ability to pay for cosmetic surgery with 'extra' resources might have lessened its implications of selfishness, several admitted to feeling remorseful about having spent a large amount of money on themselves."


Dr Debra Gimlin is Lecturer in the Sociology Department at the University of Aberdeen. She is author of Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture (University of California Press, 2002) and co-editor of Food and Society: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences (Routledge, forthcoming 2007)

Her paper, 'Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery in the USA and Great Britain: A Cross-cultural Analysis of Women's Narratives', is published in Body and Society (SAGE Publications), Vol. 13(1): 41-60. She has also recently completed another round of interviews, again funded by the British Academy, with 40 more American women who have undergone plastic surgery.


Notes to Editors

Issued by the Communications Team, Office of External Affairs, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen. Tel: (01224) 272014.

Issued on: Wednesday 29th of August 2007

Ref: 4302SURGERY

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