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Reception of Representation Cosmetic Procedures

As mentioned in the Methodology chapter, the focus group I conducted with a small group of women aimed to understand readers’ engagement with the advertising and editorial content related to cosmetic procedures in various women’s lifestyle magazines. The discussions alluded to some of the themes that have been explored in earlier sections and chapters and, most importantly, provided some insight into how these young women understood the relationship between cosmetic procedures and the wider beauty industry.

Echoing discussions of the normalisation of cosmetic procedures, one of the first issues that was raised by the participants related to the question of how and which (cosmetic) procedures have become ‘common’ and/or ‘normal’. Charlotte, for example, mentioned how “it’s interesting what has become normal and expected” in relation to her experiences with braces - “in the States, braces are completely ubiquitous, unless you have perfect teeth you get braces” - and laser eye surgery. Referring to these procedures as “tiny little alterations that we don’t really consider a big deal”, she wondered how they “became completely normal” and asked the question whether perhaps breast surgery will become increasingly commonplace and accepted too. Drawing on Charlotte’s contribution, Sophie talked about the cosmetic surgery market in South Korea, stating that “everyone gets the rhinoplasty or the double eyelid surgery and stuff”. However, she juxtaposed the popularity of cosmetic procedures in South Korea with the market in the UK, although she did indicate that the UK market is changing:

[B]ut I think it’s coming, like I think we’re going to see more and more [cosmetic procedures] um and I don’t know whether [pause] it kind of makes me uncomfortable but at the same time I think people’s access to medical technologies is not only like corrective but as a form of self-expression, so like tattoos, piercings11 all this kind of stuff is gonna [pause] I think all the boundaries between them are gonna kind of coalesce.

Interestingly, Sophie introduced the idea of ‘boundaries’ without any external prompts; in relation to Sophie’s comment, Emma recounted seeing a spa that offers cosmetic procedures and argued that beautifying procedures and products both draw on society’s emphasis on “[wanting] better things and [wanting] to look better”. Echoing Emma’s statement, Kate argued that beauty products and cosmetic procedures “are closely related because they draw on the same vanity reasons”.

As the idea of blurring boundaries came up naturally in the focus group, I asked the participants what they thought of the continuum on which beauty products and cosmetic procedures are being presented. Overall, the participants responded in a very matter-of-fact manner, noting the inevitability of the way things are and providing reasons as to why cosmetic procedures are becoming increasingly commonplace. Shannon, for example, explained that because the medical technology is becoming more accessible and prices for procedures are reduced, “people are looking at cosmetic surgery as not such a distant, distant idea really”. This point is echoed in a later comment by Sophie, who notes, “I think as medical technologies and research increases [pause] it’s getting cheaper, because I think when something is first invented it’s exclusive, it’s expensive and then it trickles down it becomes kind of proprietary, everyone is using it”. Moreover, Sophie declared she is “a strong believer that [cosmetic procedures do] belong on the continuum”, stating how there are particular (non-invasive) procedures that are “like halfway houses”. In addition, she remarked how there appears to be a “two-way blurring” where medicine and technology become consumer items and “consumer products are becoming more and more medical and technological”. Related to this, Kate also pointed out how some beauty products are blurring the boundary, as she gave an example of a lipstick which included “some kind of chemicals” that increase the size of a person’s lips.

As there seemed to be a consensus within the group, I decided to offer one of the main objections to presenting cosmetic procedures and ‘regular’ beauty products/services on a continuum, namely the risks that may be associated with cosmetic procedures. This caused some division between the participants; on the one hand, Emma and Shannon both expressed concern about the lack of a warning concerning the risks associated with cosmetic procedures, particularly in light of other marketing materials and/or product packaging that do carry (health) warnings12. On the other hand, Sophie remarked how “there are plenty of things which are advertised which are risky activities”, like driving a car and playing sports, which also do not carry health warnings.

It is important to note here that the comments discussed in this section so far were made before I presented the women with various lifestyle magazines containing several examples of adverts and advertorials for cosmetic procedures; opinions of the blurred boundary between cosmetic procedures and (other) beauty products and services changed quite drastically when I asked the participants to look at these stimulus materials. The promotional features in the lifestyle magazines in particular met with resistance from the participants; Kate even remarked “this is shocking” as she pondered, “it’s just like how does this become so [pause] legal? Like how is this still allowed?” In addition, Emma noted, “it’s worse when there’s more text around it... like there’s a subconscious element of ah let me read this article”, which causes a reader to spend more time on the material. Whereas the women agreed that advertising may be easy to refute or make fun of as it is “cartoonish and over the top” (Charlotte), the promotional material is more “insidious” (Sophie) and more “difficult to refute” (Charlotte).

Despite the resistance to the promotional materials for cosmetic procedures, the majority of the participants were eager to distance themselves from the effect the promotions may have. Sophie, for example, noted how promotions

[are] more subtle and therefore potentially more insidious but at the same time 11 actually don’t feel particularly offended by this kind of thing because I think like, I mean as a, someone who is obviously in medical training, I am trained to look at the sources of stuff to see oh it’s a promotion and it’s got a company name on there so to take it with a pinch of salt...

Similarly to Sophie, Anna and Kate also drew on their academic backgrounds; Anna explained that her journalism degree would “straightaway [make her] figure it out but maybe other people wouldn’t”, whereas Kate referred to students more broadly as she stated, “not everyone questions [these] magazines as much as like, you know, you would probably do because you’re a student”.

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