A young woman’s smile, flawless skin, delicate nose with perhaps a trace of worry in her eyes, pictured under the words: “When will your man start seeing a younger woman?”
The advert, recently thrust through the letterboxes of householders in north London, contains a cunning piece of marketing speak – does it seem almost inevitable that your man will start “seeing” a younger woman? Why not become that younger woman, it urges. The advert is for botox injections.
The Highbury-based clinic’s flyer is one of a steady stream of adverts for what are termed non-surgical cosmetic treatments that breach the Advertising Standards Authority’s guidelines. The clinic’s botox treatments are classed as Prescription-Only Medicine by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, for which direct advertising to customers is banned altogether.
Olivia Campbell from ASA said: “Although we don’t get lots and lots of these, they do pop up on a steady basis. Mostly they are by small firms who either don’t know the code or deliberately flout it.”
She said the restriction on advertising also covers other licensed medicinal treatments such as Viagra, for which the firm AMI recently fell foul for placing prominent billboard adverts for “longer lasting sex” across London.
Adverts for surgical procedures such as breast resizing or facelifts have also come under fire. In September, adverts showing a picture of an unhappy, flat-chested woman alongside a second picture of her with a wide grin and substantial breasts, and another unnaturally shaped woman alongside the line “Gorgeous breasts just got easy with cosmetic surgery” were pulled by the ASA.
The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, BAAPS, warned against “anatomically impossible breasts” and the suggestion of “lunchtime facelifts” or “easy” surgery.
“Surgery is a serious undertaking which requires realistic expectations,” it said, recommending that adverts should only include real life cases, not professional models, enhanced or otherwise.
It also criticised clinics that offer discounts for clients that signed up for surgery quickly and those that downplayed potential problems, encouraging people not to think about the consequences.
The use of cosmetic surgery and non-surgical treatments has rocketed over the last five years, propelled by a combination of falling prices, easy credit and celebrity endorsements, such as Kylie’s use of botox. The industry, which topped £1billion last year in Britain, carried out 230,000 treatments like botox or collagen injections in 2005, doubling to 472,000 in 2006. Surgical operations have tripled from 10,700 in 2003 to 34,100 last year, according to a survey of BAAPS members.
A growing number of men are also having treatments, from reshaping the nose or chin, to brow lifts, wrinkle reductions or liposuction.
The industry has benefitted from a virtuous circle of media coverage and increasingly overt advertising. Advertisements in Britain have risen from 132 in 2003 to 417 in 2007. The industry has moved from something deemed unpleasant, somewhat reprehensible and rarely admitted, to something commonplace. A Liverpool radio show even offered a free breast enhancement awarded by public vote to the contestant with the best reason for wanting a “new pair of funbags.”
American psychotherapist and author Catherine Baker-Pitts said advances in technology and an image-obsessed, visual culture were to blame.
She said: “The advertising market sells cosmetic treatment as empowerment and appeals to women’s desires to take control of their bodies. The irony of course being that surgery involves risk and complications, and while under anaesthesia there is a total loss of control.”
Even non-surgical treatments presented as ‘botox parties’ are presented as something for a fun, champagne-quaffing, feel-good, girl-bonding exercise, rather than injecting a poison, Botulinium, into the skin.
Celebrity culture and fantasies of perfection, as seen by television programmes like The Swan, I Want a Famous Face, Plastic Surgery Live and many others have all “normalised” the idea of reshaping the body as deemed necessary.
“The paradox is that women seek cosmetic surgery but aim to emerge looking ‘natural.’ Clinics emphasis the work involved in maintaining an acceptable female image, yet this work is meant to be invisible,” Baker-Pitts added.
The need to reappraise and if necessary alter the body is also driven by billboard, newspaper and magazine images that are increasingly unreal. Cover shoots are no longer model+photographer but the complex result of teams of stylists and experts, lighting and digital manipulation that enhance the model’s image beyond what is naturally possible.
On one estimate, we see between 2,000 and 5,000 images a week that have been digitally manipulated or ‘Photoshopped.’ While incidents such as Kate Winslet’s complaint about being slimmed for the cover of GQ magazine make occasional headlines, it is utterly routine – the March 2008 edition of Vogue contained 107 adverts and 36 fashion pictures including the cover that had been digitally altered. One highly sought-after re-toucher, Pascal Dangin, said: “It is known that everybody does it, but they protest. The people who complain about retouching are the first to say, ‘Get this thing off my arm.’”
Baker-Pitts said: “Even when consumers know that retouching happens, these images seep into our unconscious lives. Just as someone might binge eat or start planning their next diet in response to emotional distress, now people are turning to a cosmetic makeover, a sizeable distraction, to avoid uncomfortable feelings.”
A recent press release from Transform, one the UK’s largest cosmetic surgery clinics, trumpeted: “How to avoid redundancy during the credit crunch – get a boob job!” claiming that “while millions are struggling to buy food, pay for fuel and cloth themselves, boob jobs are playing a bigger part in our society.”
For as long as companies are able to exploit women’s insecurities or subconscious desires – and for as long as women allow them to – that is likely to be the case.
[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, April 2009]