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Week 22: Dying to be beautiful? Medicine and modern embodiment

Lecturer: Howard Chiang

This lecture considers a distinct frontier of medicine in which technological intervention redefines the normative ethics of healthcare and the perceived responsibility of doctors: cosmetic surgery. Straddling on the borders of bodily enhancement and cure, minor and major plastic surgeries have gained popularity in specific historical contexts across the globe, reflecting the rise of consumer culture, the evolving realignment of mental and physical health standards, and the gendered and racially saturated connotations of mainstream body images. Above all, this area of medical intervention raises important concerns about medical ethics, patient demand, and the role of the medical profession in contemporary society. Students will think through the complicated ethical dilemmas posed by the cosmetic surgery industry by looking at concrete examples of bodily modification practices—from tattoo and piercing to obesity treatment to sex reassignment surgery.

Discussion/Essay Questions

  • In what ways has plastic surgery transformed the doctor-patient relationship in the twentieth century?
  • What is the role of the cosmetic surgery industry in perpetuating certain stereotypes about the body, and according to what logic of relating the biological (or ‘natural’) to the social?

Required Readings:

Sander L. Gilman, ‘Judging by Appearances’ (Course Extract chapter 1) and ‘The Wrong Body’ (chapter 8 ), in Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 1999), 1-42 and 258-294. [Due to copyright protection, only one chapter can be digitised. However, please note that six copies of this book are available in the Main Library at RD 119.G4]

Karen Throsby, ‘“I’d Kill Anyone Who Tried to Take My Band Away”: Obesity Surgery, Critical Fat Politics and the “Problem” of Patient Demand’, Somatechnics 2 (2012): 107-126.

Further Readings:

Tim Armstrong, Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Anne Balsamo, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Duke University Press, 1996).

Lois W. Banner, American Beauty (Alfred K. Knopf, 1983).

Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press, 1993).

Kathy Davis, Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery (Routledge, 1995).

Sander L. Gilman, Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul (Duke University Press, 1998).

Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 1999).

Mario González-Ulloa, ed., The Creation of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (Springer, 1985).

Eliabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Gwen Kay, Dying to be Beautiful: The Fight for Safe Cosmetics (Ohio State University Press, 2005).

Sharon Romm, The Changing Face of Beauty (Mosby Year Book, 1992).

Nikki Sullivan and Samantha Murray, eds., Somatechnics: Queering the Technologisation of Bodies (Ashgate, 2009).

Anthony F. Wallace, The Progress of Plastic Surgery: An Introductory History (Willem A. Meeuws, 1982).

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used against Women (William Morrow and Co., 1991).