January 11, 2011

The Medicalization of Beauty

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

The show Bridalplasty has garnered a large amount of criticism since its debut in November. Featuring brides-to-be competing for cosmetic procedures and the chance to win a high-priced wedding, the show touches on many important sociological issues: gender, culture and beauty, marriage, and rituals.

Another important sociological concept--medicalization--is applicable here. The term refers to the practice of redefining a behavior, concern, or practice as a problem to be “solved” by doctors. At the core of this and other cosmetic surgery- oriented shows, individual differences in appearance are reclassified as problems to be solved through cosmetic procedures.

The process of medicalization makes it seem normal and natural for particular issues to be dealt with via medication or surgery. For instance, children’s behavioral problems can be reclassified as the medical problem of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and handled with medication. This seems normal and even helpful at a time when nearly ten percent of American children have been diagnosed with ADD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medicalization can have dangerous effects. In the 1940s, a new kind of surgery was used to “cure” various forms of mental illness. Lobotomies, described in this PBS film, involved severing part of the brain’s prefrontal cortex in order to produce a calming effect on otherwise agitated patients—sometimes children. This practice continued until the advent of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s.

You might know people who are genuinely helped by various forms of behavioral medication—I do—and wonder why sociologists even talk about medicalization. Certainly there are positive effects of medicalization.

In the late nineteenth century, peddlers promoted so-called health tonics which often contained powerful drugs like morphine and cocaine. The medicalization of pharmaceuticals has helped reduce the dangerous ingestion of dangerous drugs. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, patent medicines kept their ingredients secret, so people might have been taking a tonic laced with heroin and not even know it.

Medicalizing various conditions, like Tourette syndrome, which can lead sufferers to speak and move unintentionally, has helped to provide not just treatment but also understanding; other people might have previously blamed sufferers for failing to control themselves.

The concept of medicalization does not ask that we dismiss the institution of medicine at all; the point is that we should critically consider how we think about some things previously believed to be “normal,” and how these issues become problems that have medical fixes. Some behaviors that were once considered to be simply sinful—such as heavy drinking—are now widely thought to be illnesses, and medical treatments and facilities are available to help sufferers.

clip_image002[4]And of course physicians think critically about medicalization too, particularly those concerned with ethical practices. One surgeon told ABC News that the show Bridalplasty violates several ethical principles, particularly the notion that surgical procedures are “rewards” rather than carefully made decisions, weighing the potential health risks with benefits.

It’s also interesting to consider which issues become medicalized, and when. At a time when many doctors are struggling to provide basic care for patients facing rising medical costs, cosmetic procedures are a very lucrative business. Since many procedures aren’t covered by insurance, patients pay the fees directly and doctors don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of reimbursement.

The appearance of aging becomes defined as pathological right at the same time as we have a very large cohort of aging baby boomers, a ready-made market for new products that supposedly help people look younger. Mix in a tight job market where age can be an obstacle to finding work, and the demand to alter one’s appearance becomes even stronger.

Do you know people who have had cosmetic surgery? I do; in fact I know several. The more we know people who have had such procedures done, the more we see ads and hear celebrity news about new drugs and procedures, the more normal and natural the medicalization of beauty becomes.

Who doesn’t want to do whatever they can to look “better?” This post is not meant to be a criticism of those who seek to alter their appearance, but instead as a discussion of the impact of medicalization. What other effects of medicalization can you think of?


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I really enjoyed reading this article! I am only 17, and with the way society is becoming, it seems as though, you have to have all this medication, and surgery to be normal. I think that doctors try to prescribe pills, and different medicines, for things that can not be helped by medicines.

I've watched this show and I think that many of the girls are doing it for the wedding and not to alter their entire body and i think that the ones that are doing 10-15 procedures on their wish list are only doing it because they think thats what they should look like. That has a lot to do with society, it is becoming a very harsh world where everyone is being judge for everything that is done. They get judged for being overweight but when you do something about it, you have an eating disorder. Society is pushing people to think they have something wrong with them, yes there are medical conditions where you need medicatioin but not because your moody a lot. That shouldn't be a symptom, because that can be fixed by reexamining yourself.

This article was really interesting. And shows how the world is becoming very harsh for ugly people and overweight people. Doctors that give all these medications to girls and whoever doesn't always help certain people.

Much of my life I had crossed eyes, and it was embarrassing and I hated it. I never made eye contact with people because I was afraid they'd make fun of me or judge me or look at me funny. Luckily, by the time I was in seventh grade, the crookedness was so bad, that it became a medical issue. Therefore, the insurance would pay for me to have surgery. If i wanted surgery beforehand, it would've been considered a cosmetic procedure. After the surgery, I was so glad I had it because it's so much nicer to be able to look at people without any worries. It built up my confidence a lot. Medicalization can really help people, but I think some forms are more appropriate than others. Although my surgery was medical, the reasons I wanted it were mostly cosmetic. I couldn't see having any other type of cosmetic-like surgeries though. I think that alone can bring judgement upon people and cause some emotional problems for the person.

Medicalization is a social change that came about during the 20th Century but has become very prominent during the last 20 years or so. The main social process that seems to have led to this is discovery. As doctors and scientists discover the causes of behavior they will classify it and try to "fix" it. The example this story gives deals with children's behavior problems being reclassified as ADD. Society has changed from accepting physical traits and behaviors to trying to change them whenever possible.

I really liked this article. It was very interesting! It shows how many people are getting to become very mean to obese and "ugly" people. You always see commercial about people who are overweight and all these things you can do to help and how many people are over weight. Then, people take all the prescription and eat all these food and things and they don't even know what is in them. There could be something very bad for them in it and the people taking it doesn't even know.

This should not be legal.
Using resources to do such a thing is ridiculous. Women are too insecure at this time and the media is not potraying women in the right way. The media is to blame in this case

All you see on television is how people are trying to change there bodies be diets and exerise not usually both at the same time. I think that plastic surgery should be able to happen looks bad for your body and is bad.

This was a very interesting article. Although, I do not agree with the concept of going out and doing a bunch of cosmetic surgeries for the wedding. I feel that women feel the need to undergo these types of surgeries because society pushes people to look like that. The world is full of judgement and instead of being the way you were born, people go out and get these surgeries so they can look "normal" or "better".

Medicalization has became a very popular topic in the past decade. Personally I do not believe in cosmetic or any type of plastic surgery unless it is done after an injury, such as burns and so forth. Large amounts of cash are thrown into this industry and the high health risks seemed to be over looked just to change your appearance. Today's society seems to embrace the fact that being different is bad. Is it right to get surgery just to fit in?? or to look like the celebrities and movie stars everyone looks up to?

I find it interesting that am apart of the 10% of kid's who have been diagnosed with ADD. I think getting cosmetic surgery should be done only if you need it. Getting it for a wedding is wrong, i'm pretty sure the guy is happy with the way you look. It's weird how they used heroine and cocaine as an ingredient for a drug to try to help the patient. I would never get surgery to fit in, or just because celebrities are doing it. If you haven't notice celebrities are not the best people to look too. Some of them stay out of the bad habits and are good role models but others are alcoholics or drug addicts. Their marriages rarely last more than a year.

Pills have become a source of answers in the past years. We have pills for weight loss, pills for weight gain, pills for looking better, and pills for feeling better. It seems that what used to be something you had to work at to fix has turned into a simple tablet that you pop into your mouth and wash down with a swig of water. And no, I do not believe this is right and neither do I believe that plastic and cosmetic surgery is right. This is a trend that will only continue into something worse.

This article was interesting about how people want to look and be when they get married. Why would you just want to get it if your getting married because that is more money on doing that then your wedding so your doubling your price. They are taking the priscribition without knowing whats in it and what it could do to them. Like they are putting cocaine and heroine in it. I would probably ask them what in it before I take it.

I feel like this is a huge issue, which seems to worsen every year. It seems like everything that's a problem, can be presumably cured with a drug. Even if there isn't something wrong with someone, they choose to put themselves at risk by taking pills or getting cosmetic surgery. Most people have no idea what they are taking until they develop a side effect and it's too late. It makes me wonder what kind of extremes people are willing to go to.

This is a very interesting article about Medicalization of Beauty .This is a big issue in every country.This article gives maximum information about Medicalization of Beauty.Every woman must read this article .Thanks for posting such a nice article.

Some of us are not satisfied with the way we look. If plastic surgery is the way to increase our self-confidence and have a more positive outlook in life, then there is nothing wrong with it. But it is important to remember that too much of something is never good.

Carissa, at your age, you should know to weigh things, and be responsible; know how to filter the information that you're getting. Surgeries are normal, provided that the patient and the doctor know the limit when it comes to the medicalization of beauty.

The concept of what's normal changes over time. In the end, this medicalization can be considered a norm of our time, or perhaps the next generation. As the current generation, the best thing to do is to try to prevent excess. Normal is fine, but excess - too much medication, and too much plastic surgery - is iffy.

nice one

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