In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Lauren Gulbas of Dartmouth College explores the connection between cosmetic surgery, self esteem, and racial identity.
Lauren Gulbas is an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College. Her teaching and research interests include medical anthropology, structures of inequality, health disparities, mental health, and Latin America. She earned her Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University.
Dr. Lauren Gulbas – Cosmetic Surgery and Self Esteem
Globally, cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly popular. Doctors represent cosmetic surgery as a way to resolve psychological issues associated with poor body image and low self-esteem. My research evaluates these claims by studying why women have nose jobs, or rhinoplasty, in Caracas, Venezuela. I selected Venezuela as a research site because state-funded medicine makes cosmetic surgery free in public hospitals. Cosmetic surgery is in high demand, and consultations for nose jobs outnumber requests for any other procedure except cosmetic breast surgery.
Through intensive interviews and observations in clinics and hospitals, I found that most women had nose jobs to alter the perceived racial appearance of their noses – in other words, to have a nose that was associated with a racial identity of white. Although most Venezuelans are racially mixed, Venezuela has a history of prioritizing light skin and European physical features. Many women in my study sought rhinoplasty hoping to improve poor self-esteem that stemmed from a lifetime of racial discrimination.
Several women did describe temporary improvements in self-esteem after their nose jobs. But because a major source of poor self-esteem was racial marginalization, feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness quickly resurfaced as women continued to experience discrimination. Still, 84% of the women who had rhinoplasty said they would consider having additional cosmetic surgery in the future, although only Afro-Venezuelans anticipated having additional rhinoplasty. So although cosmetic surgery only acted as a stop-gap measure to raise self-esteem and body image, many remained hopeful that future rhinoplasties could alleviate their suffering.