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Keywords:

  • cosmetic surgery;
  • happiness;
  • Finland;
  • ageism;
  • appearance

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

The paper discusses cosmetic surgery in the Finnish cultural context. It is based on interviews with 22 women and men who underwent surgical procedures, 12 plastic surgeons, and two plastic surgery consultants. The article shows that surgery consumers over 55 years old discuss cosmetic surgery as an investment in a better quality of life. Consumers use cosmetic surgery to resist ageist stereotypes of old people and as compensation for tough life experiences which are believed to cause premature ageing. Although aimed at combatting negative attitudes towards old people, such efforts reproduce an ageist ideology by concealing the very qualities (e.g. wrinkles) associated with ageing. Finally, consumers use cosmetic surgery to correct perceived Finnish physical pathologies, such as heavy foreheads, sagging eyelids, and ‘potato’ noses, which make them seem less white, sadder, and older than they are. The traditional melancholic Finnish body is thus transformed via surgery to represent openness and positiveness – two qualities strongly associated with both youth and the Americanised ideal as it is touted in Finland. The article demonstrates that consumers use cosmetic surgery to transform both physical and emotional states and that cosmetic surgery must be understood as part of national and global cultural processes.

My second youth started after my first facelift (Hilja, 84, two facelifts).

When you get older, the corners of the mouth hang down; you look very ill-humoured. I am not an ill-humoured person at all so I don’t want to look like an angry old maid (Liisa, 56, a facelift and two upper eyelid surgeries).

Cosmetic surgery is frequently justified as a quality of life investment: ageing people who choose it often wish to feel happier by looking younger. People at times describe cosmetic surgery as an action that brings a new phase of life — one that brings a ‘second youth’. The belief that one’s state of mind could be manipulated by appearance was systematically developed by late 19th century plastic surgeons who compared the practice with psychiatric therapy; psychiatrists were also enthusiastic about the comparison (Gilman 1998). Since early modernity, youthful appearance has been an ideal in European and North American countries.

Cosmetic surgery is a form of biomedical practice aimed at preventing ageing and thus the unhappiness associated with it. It is one of the fastest growing fields of commercial medicine in which patients’ subjective needs are understood as proper indications for medical interventions. Instead of one procedure, many choose a set of procedures. Cosmetic surgery is one tactic people use to pursue what is commonly called positive ageing. Positive ageing promotes the idea that one can defy ageing by purchasing products or services that will help one look young, healthy, and happy (see Bytheway 2003Featherstone and Hepworth 1995).

Studies of cosmetic surgery and beauty culture discuss the growth in this field as both outcome and producer of an anti-ageing society (ageism). Ageing is thought to have a particularly stigmatising effect on women, who are viewed in terms of appearance throughout their lives. Thus, most cosmetic surgery patients have historically been female. Women are socially defined by and pressured to be concerned about their appearance (which includes a fear of ageing), and cosmetic surgery provides a technological response to this pressure (e.g. Balsamo 1996, Davis 2002, Fraser 2003, Jones 2004, Haiken 1999). Critical feminist research deconstructs gender power relations in practices and representations of cosmetic surgery, considering it as a form of objectification and subordination of women (e.g.Bordo 1993, Kinnunen 2008, Morgan 1998, Negrin 2002). On the other hand, some researchers emphasise cosmetic surgery’s potential to empower women who suffer ageist, sexist forms of discrimination (Blum 2003, Davis 1995, Gagné and McGaughey 2002, Gimlin 2002, Holliday and Sanchez Taylor 2006).

Although many studies provide insightful analyses of the cultural meanings of ageing, gender and cosmetic surgery, and some utilise interviews with ageing women consumers of cosmetic surgeries (e.g. Davis 1995, Sleven 2007), the discussion of lived experiences of elderly cosmetic surgery customers is insufficient, especially outside the Anglo-American context. Further, discussion of surgeons’ views is limited although their role in setting norms for bodily ageing is notable (cf. Blum 2003). In addition, older men are mostly excluded from published studies. This article contributes to the literature on cosmetic surgery by analysing why women and men over 55 choose cosmetic surgery. I argue that cosmetic surgery is believed to be a way to obtain happiness (which is equated with youth); emotions are embedded in this embodied practice. I also show how cosmetic surgery must be understood as part of national and global processes. In Finland, surgical manipulation of perceived ‘Finnish’ features results from an effort to be more ‘American’ and more ‘white’. Interviews with Finnish people between 55 and 84 years old who chose cosmetic surgery form the basis of the analysis presented. Here it must be noted that while generally people over 70 are considered old, in the world of beauty culture and cosmetic surgery those in their 30s undergo their first rejuvenation operations. That said, the vast majority of procedures are requested by people over 50.

This article analyses the motives that interviewees expressed for choosing surgical procedures. The theoretical perspective of the body follows Arthur W. Frank’s (1991) notion of the human body as constituted always in the intersection of subjective experiences, cultural discourses and institutional practices. In this case, patients and surgeons in dialogue with cultural and national discourses create a bodily ideal of ageing that highlights how cosmetic surgery is used to counter what are perceived as undesirable physical and mental features of being Finnish. Each dimension is important to include in the discussion of embodied meanings of rejuvenation surgery. After introducing the research material and methodology, I describe beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland. Although cosmetic surgery is a global phenomenon, and I refer to the predominantly Anglo-American published research, it is important to keep in mind the Finnish context of the discussion. Finland represents a periphery of the cosmetic surgery world; surgical intervention is far from normative in this context, and thus arouses strong suspicion in many people’s minds.

Research material and methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

I conducted 23 interviews in 2003-2004 with 55-84 year-old women (21) and men (2) who had chosen to undergo cosmetic surgery. Nine belonged to the 55-59 age group, five were between 60-64 years old and six were in the 65-74 age bracket. Three interviewees were older than 75. All were of Finnish ethnic origin. Half of the interviewees had a bachelor or upper degree and the rest had basic or upper secondary education or had completed vocational training. The material discussed here comprises part of a larger study on embodied meanings of cosmetic surgery.1

Beyond cosmetic surgery users, I interviewed 12 plastic surgeons and two cosmetic surgery consultants who provided customers to Estonian surgeons.2 Most of the procedures discussed here are categorised as rejuvenation surgery, which includes upper or lower eyelid surgeries, forehead lifts, facelifts, injections for wrinkles (e.g. Botox and Restylane) and lipo-transfers.3 Even the label ‘rejuvenation’ shows the ageist ideal at work. The ideal body is youthful and ageing men and women should rejuvenate their bodies to mimic youthful qualities. Breast operations, rhinoplasty and liposuction are typical for younger customers, but some individual procedures are represented in the research group as well.

The semi-structured interviews were conducted around five main themes: (1) background knowledge and procedures performed (when and where), (2) the criteria for choosing the surgeon or clinic and the level of satisfaction with the service, (3) the decision-making process ending up in opting for the surgery and its social sharing, (4) satisfaction with one’s own appearance, and (5) views about contemporary beauty culture and cosmetic surgery. Aesthetic, psychic and social expectations and results regarding the surgery were also explored.

Surgeons and consultants were asked about their career choice, cosmetic surgery as a medical specialty and personal attitudes about this field. Surgeons generally described a typical ‘good’ and ‘bad’ patient and talked about rewarding and frustrating experiences during their careers. One question asked surgeons to recommend procedures for an imaginary patient (the researcher) facing a mid-life crisis in her forties.

All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed. In the first phase, the gathered material was read through so as to understand each interview as an individual story of cosmetic surgery. In the second phase, the material was analysed through interview themes. Thereafter modes of experiences recurring throughout the interview were abstracted to find out the key meanings attached to the operations. On this basis it was also possible to characterise some patient types and isolate discourses of ageing and social control.

My interview approach was phenomenological-hermeneutic. This enabled the adoption of a position of pause and amazement in the face of the reflected experiences4 the interviewees offered to me (cf. Moustakas 1994, Van Maanen 1990). The final aim of the act of interpretation, for me, is to construct a credible narrative of the interviewee’s words or, as Charles Taylor (1987) puts it, to hermeneutically find the ‘sense’ of them. Still, instead of open questions and minimal reacting to the interviewee’s speech in the orthodox phenomenological sense, I understand phenomenological-hermeneutic interviewing as encouraging the interviewee to analyse their key experiences on the basis of shared cultural meanings (cf. Saukko 2002). Besides listening intensively, it demands using emphatic, ironic, provocative, exaggerating or understating comments to facilitate discussion. A researcher can even offer pieces of his/her own experiences and conceptions as tools for reflection. Thus, the phenomenological-hermeneutic method is understood to be fully realised in this study in dialogue with the interviewees.

Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Finland is one of the most sparsely inhabited, rural countries in Europe. It has also had very little immigration compared to neighbouring countries. Finland is marked by conservative values such as limiting the rights of sexual minorities, encouraging gender segregation of work and limiting women’s career possibilities. Among the Western countries, Finland leads the statistics of violence towards women in intimate relationships. Despite these indicators of gender inequality, the myth of the strong Finnish woman persists in post-war Finland. The myth exerts its influence on the beauty culture as well. In the Finnish countryside, a woman’s diligence has always been valued more than beauty, and the strong rural woman has been distinguished from the pretty, weak and clumsy city woman (Vakimo 1999: 139-40). Ageing rural women tend to complain more of the deterioration of their bodies’ functionality rather than their appearance (Palomäki 2004: 107). In North American and European countries, ageing has traditionally worried the members of the urban middle class more than rural or working class people (Botelho and Thane 2001, Featherstone 1987).

The work-centredness of Finnish women across social class categories means that they have not invested in their appearance as eagerly as, for example, their European, Russian or American sisters (Halonen 2004: 73). The stereotype of the functional Finnish woman in her shell suit and low-heeled shoes, contrary to the Estonian or Russian traditionally feminine and sexy woman, is widely shared in Finland. In 2004, Dove, a cosmetics company, conducted an international research project in co-operation with academics.5 The research compared 18–55 year old women’s conceptions of beauty in 15 countries. Approximately 300 women from each country participated. Finnish women tended to be more critical about the beauty culture than the average by claiming, for example, that the media set an unrealistic and narrow beauty ideal. In the Dove study, one in four Finnish women had sometimes considered cosmetic surgery, whereas in Sweden the proportion was one in three and in Brazil one in two. The view of cosmetic surgery, in particular within the post-war generation, has long been negative. It is no wonder that in my study only one-fifth of the patients felt that they could talk openly about their surgery. For many participants, I was the first to know about their surgery. In 2000, former Miss Finland, Lola Odusoga, sparked a wild public debate over her silicon breast implants. The act was reported to ‘divide the nation’ over opinions of Odusoga’s morals and intelligence.6 Since then cosmetic surgery has become more visible in the media, which can be easily seen, for example, in the increased advertising of surgical services in the leading paper Helsingin Sanomat. According to surgeons’ estimation, thousands of procedures are performed yearly.

Still, cosmetic surgery triggers strong reactions. Surgeons I interviewed complained that Finland is at the periphery of cosmetic surgery, a fact which they linked with ‘backwardness’, ‘primitiveness’ and the ‘ideal of indifference’. Interviewees who had undergone surgical procedures discussed general attitudes about cosmetic surgery. They linked several negative attributes to people with negative attitudes to cosmetic surgery, such as totalitarianism, fundamentalism, ugliness, feminism, malevolence, bitterness, peasantry, timidity, depression, ignorance, psychic instability, backwardness, and failure. In contrast, they linked positive attitudes to cosmetic surgery with tolerance, individualism, femininity, courage, carefulness, development, cosmopolitanism, happiness, joyfulness, realism, curiosity, education, responsibility, freedom and success.

According to the statistics of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), the number of cosmetic surgery procedures increases globally by 20 per cent per year.7 More and more middle-aged and retired women, for example, have the money needed for cosmetic surgery. On the other hand, ‘low price, low risk’ procedures, such as laser techniques and injections, are constantly developed to lower the threshold for buying surgical services (cf. Brooks 2004). Therefore, the global increase is also likely to concern Finland, as the surgeons that I interviewed believe. They had also noticed a gradual change in general attitudes; for some, cosmetic surgery represented a new exciting technology to pamper oneself. Some male surgeons and patients even pleaded a rational viewpoint of consumption, stating that cosmetic surgery freshened up the domestic economy. Currently, clinics are heavily centred around the area of the capital city in southern Finland. Some services are offered in smaller towns, where indications for procedures, i.e. the threshold for choosing surgery, however, are much ‘higher’ than in the capital area, as the interviewed surgeons underlined.

Curing the melancholic Finnish body

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

It is a Finnish national disease that the forehead droops (Surgeon).

A belief in the physical inferiority of the Finnish body has long troubled Finns. In the 19th and early 20th centuries several foreign scientists categorised Finns as of Eastern Mongolian origin instead of as European in origin. Finnish sports journalists countered this idea by, for example, maintaining that one reason for the Finnish athletes’ success was belonging to the ‘white race’ (Tervo 2002). The pathologisation of the Finnish body still exists and some interviewees evoked it as a justification for their surgical operation. Raija, 60, told me that her father – who happened to be a doctor – had always made it clear that he admired ‘slim and long-legged Scandinavian’ type women instead of ‘short-legged and round Finnish’ women. As a young adult, her father’s opinion had pushed her to seek a breast reduction. The Finnish ‘potato’ nose is one problematic feature, as one of the interviewees who underwent a rhinoplasty described:

Last summer we had a meeting between my maternal cousins and I remember particularly when one of my cousins said that he does not reveal his surname because one can recognise it from the big... Savonian8 nose. Finns have this in their genes, it is not beautiful.

This pathologisation of the nose can be seen in a discussion on an internet cosmetic surgery site:

The hypothetical patient asks: My nose is otherwise straight but its tip has the typical Finnish ‘bulb’: in other words, it is the potato nose… Could it be reduced without surgery reaching the bone?…

The surgeon answers: The nose and its tip can be modified, reduced and extended. Fixing the rounded tip of the Finnish nose, the so-called potato nose, is one of the most common domestic procedures.9

In interviews, some surgery customers blamed their family genes for their ‘premature’ ageing: ‘It is in my family that the upper eyelids loosen’, as Sylvi explained. Surgeons believe that ‘heavy’ foreheads together with ‘sagging’ upper eyelids are typical for Finns and make many Finns seem older than they really are. Therefore, both ‘problems’ are seen as inevitable targets of surgery. One surgeon who considered recommending procedures for me commented on my upper eyelids, that their ‘structure’ is not typical for Finns but the eyebrows typically droop and eyes are deep-set (causing a heavy forehead). Cosmetic surgery clinics use the national gene discourse in marketing, too:

The Finnish eyes are typically deep-set and the upper eyelid crinkle is set low... often causing a sense of weight in the eyes.10

The gene discourse which contains the ‘truth’ of the typical racial and ethnic problems of appearance compared to the white race has spread all over the world. Since the war years cosmetic surgery has been used to guarantee ‘ethnic anonymity’ in the US and Europe (Haiken 1999: 186-94, Kaw 1998). In many Asian countries, eyelids and noses, for example, are moulded to appear ‘whiter’. Generalised surgical procedures have actually changed the concept of the normal body in many societies. In South Korea, for example, ‘double-eyelid’ surgery has been established as a normal rite of passage to adulthood (e.g. Kim 2003), or becoming a normative member of a Jewish family implies a nose job in some Jewish societies in the US (Blum 2003: 123-6). In capitalist societies, breast enlargement has, according to some scholars, become an initiation rite into womanhood to an extent which is comparable to the way in which circumcisions are perceived in some other cultures (e.g. Wilson 2002). If the rise of cosmetic surgery continues, it is possible that a forehead lift and upper eyelid tightening, for example, will become routine procedures of cleaning the Finnish body from its problematic ethnic features.

The talk of the typical heavy Finnish face can also be interpreted to refer metaphorically to the heavy Finnish mind. The striking forehead and sagging eyelids give an impression of melancholy, introversion and irritation, which are all associated with the Finnish national character. Together with unassuming and calm behaviour, these traits have traditionally been valued in the Finnish culture, but now the attitude is different. The new Americanised etiquette of interaction and emotional expression requires extroversion, smiling and the overall ‘positive’ attitude which is eagerly taught to Finns by numerous courses of positive thinking and behaving. The etiquette has been discussed especially in the context of the new working body research which has shown that a competitive body today should not only look young and fit but also sound right, perform, communicate and express itself in controlled ways (e.g.Witz et al. 2003).

It is believed that personality, emotions and health can be read from the outer body. Marks of ageing have begun to represent negative emotions and personality traits, such as anger, tiredness, depression, sadness and aggression in the emerging culture which stigmatises ageing (cf. Davis 1995: 71). Many interviewees described suffering from these unfavourable facial features before their surgery, and the rejuvenation procedures were used to cure the ‘wrong’ emotional messages of the faces. One of them was Liisa, a 56-year-old professor, who at the time of the interview described her decision to have a facelift as a ‘mental aberration’. Originally, her idea had been ‘only to get my neck back’ and have her eyelids ‘freshened’. Instead, she had decided to have a more general facelift partly because of her surgeon’s persuasion. But she felt that the result was a health and aesthetic disaster and it caused a serious haematoma. Liisa regretted her decision not only because of its outcome but also because she felt that she had behaved against her values. ‘As an academic woman’, as she defined herself, she felt that her self-respect should not hinge on her appearance. Further, she saw many dangers in the rise of cosmetic surgery, such as the ‘disappearance of personalities’, and she ‘felt pity’ for surgery enthusiasts. Still, she saw her two eyelid surgeries and the facelift as, in some sense, inevitable:

It was not the idea that I should look younger or prettier but that my face communicates something that I would not like to and that it would be very tiring to go around with a stupid smile on one’s face (…) so I thought that a facelift would help it (…) Still, I do not like at all that the corners of my mouth hang down so that I look angry but I have tried to learn a certain kind of basic smile.

The above quotes reveal that cosmetic surgery is not necessarily used to deny ageing but to control the representations of emotions and the condition of the body equated with ageing. It is an attempt to construct an image of complacency representing not only successful ageing but the whole life: looking youthful means being happy, harmonious and loved, which are all included in the concept of beauty. I asked the study participants to describe a beautiful person. Phrases such as ‘harmonious’, ‘content’, ‘inwardly beautiful’ and ‘self-confident’ were mentioned more often in the descriptions than direct references to outward features. The American professor of bioethics and philosophy Carl Elliott (2003: 295-304) talks about the ‘tyranny of happiness’ as an American obsession which surfaces in the eager use of all kinds of body enhancement technologies ranging from serotonin and hormone pills to aesthetic dentistry and surgery. My data show that happiness is pursued for its representative value; that is to say, a positive aesthetic.

Resisting stereotypes of old people by being forever middle aged

The women and men I interviewed described their decision to get cosmetic surgery as one that allowed them to combat stereotypes of old people. Old people are often stereotyped as slow, technologically illiterate and unattractive, for example. Modern medicine has equated old age with deformity, deficiency and disease (cf.Gilman 1998: 9); something to be avoided and removed. Thus, people who are old according to these cultural definitions cannot possibly be happy. Cosmetic surgery is marketed as a weapon to guarantee ‘hygienic’ ageing, as one of the surgeons that I interviewed expressed it.

Some interviewees described their lifestyle as socially, mentally and physically active. Youthful appearance was perceived as a part of or even a prerequisite for an active life and these women eagerly consumed beauty products and services besides pretty clothes. Tyyne, a 76-year-old pensioner, was one of the interviewees who did not hesitate to wear colourful clothes, youthful make-up, and to indulge in volubility and hearty laughter. Tyyne studied at night school and worked as a photo model, actress and sales agent. She admitted she felt happy among people half her age and wanted to ‘look good’ in her many activities. She had already had surgery on her upper and lower eyelids and planned to get a facelift and liposuction. Tyyne wondered: ‘Why should I look a hundred years old?’ Besides, ‘I cannot be a kind of old person (…) and never will be, sitting at home in a rocking chair and knitting socks’, she explained.

Similar to other interviewees whom I call rebellious consumers, Tyyne linked the surgery with her subjective age identity which was younger than her chronological age. These women emphasised that their aim was not to hide their age but to look good for their age. One woman clarified the idea by comparing two legendary actresses, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. The first one (presumably operated upon) looks great, she said, but the latter one (presumably not operated upon) looks ‘like [she was] punched’ in the eyes. After upper and lower eyelid surgeries, a facelift and a rhinoplasty, 72-year-old Vieno talked about getting old as feeling like falling into a well, and also something against which you can fight but which has to be faced one day.

You always compare and then give yourself extended time wondering about when I get really old. Ten years ago it was a bigger challenge but now, at this age, you already take it more easily. I don’t say I’ve given up but I have got used to the idea.

Vieno, like many other interviewees, represents the cult of agelessness whose key idea is the right to a ‘stretched middle age’ (see Jones 2004: 527-8). One interviewee, 70-year-old Oili, actually referred to her age group as ‘we middle aged’. An idea of the essential self having been actualised at the early middle age is typical for many cosmetic surgery patients. Along with ageing, the body is felt to gradually move away from the real self. Interviewees had felt ‘strange’, ‘depressed’ or ‘frightened’ in front of the mirror and they had just wanted to become ‘themselves again’ by undergoing the rejuvenation surgery. The comparison between photographs and their image in the mirror had been the typical final motive for seeking surgery. With the discovery of photography and the spread of affordable cameras among the wider public, it has been possible to scrutinise individual bodily processes in detail and compare them, for example with others’ ageing (Turner 1995: 251-5). Some people feel they do well from such comparison, like Elsi, who told me about a photograph of her old schoolmates gathering together after long decades:

I looked the freshest of all, I always have. The fact is that at this age, at last, your body starts to sag... But you can do a lot by yourself.

Elsi emphasised the importance of one's own responsibility in keeping one’s appearance youthful. She had undergone a facelift, an upper eyelid surgery and her breasts had been reduced and lifted. In addition, a tummy tuck had been done and a liposuction had been performed on her thighs, hips and knees. At the time of the interview, she was planning still more liposuction. Elsi was clearly proud of her hard work on her body.

However, like many other interviewees who admitted having got into a vicious circle of cosmetic surgery, Elsi moralised about those others who had gone too far with their beauty projects. The interviewees typically imagined a future apocalypse with over-tightened faces and swelled lips everywhere. Some were horrified by the idea that their own mothers, for example, would have ‘denied’ their ageing and undergone surgery. One’s own ideal, instead, was believed to be natural, and one’s own procedures were seen as well founded. Many also stated that their own choices had been voluntary while others were probably pushed by someone. Others might also expect too much from the surgery, but one’s own expectations were believed to be realistic (cf. Blum 2003: 286-7). Interestingly, the same kind of attitude is typical with regard to other body enhancement technologies (see Elliot 2003: 296-7).

In sum, interview participants felt that to stay forever middle aged was morally acceptable and even admirable although exceptions exist. One woman said that as a religious person, her numerous surgeries had caused her a moral dilemma. In Finland, Lutheranism has traditionally included a moral view of beautifying as vain and sinful and cosmetic surgery is probably the ultimate form of this. Those who reject or oppose cosmetic surgery often also perceive it as unnatural or violent. Some older surgery enthusiasts, however, have adopted the opposite attitude to body modification, resembling modern primitivists, who perform extreme piercing, tattooing and other techniques, or performance artist Orlan’s conception of the body as ‘just an inert piece of meat, lying on the table’ (see Davis 2003: 110).

A human being is not untouchable [...] Solely the spirit is sacred. But the body, this is only like any matter. You can mould it as much as you will if you’re happy with that. (Pirkko, 57, underwent a breast augmentation and planned several new procedures.)

Yet, even some of those who, in the privacy of interviews, said that it was morally acceptable to pursue cosmetic surgery, remained secretive about their use of surgery when with friends and family.

Well-deserved compensation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Some women rationalised having had cosmetic surgery on the grounds that they believed they had aged abnormally quickly due to hard life experiences. One group consisted of women who had always borne heavy responsibilities and had experience of life changes, such as divorce. One of them was Hilja, 84, who talked about her life as if it had long been sacrificed for others. During the war years, she had served as a member of the women’s auxiliary services at the front. Later, as a young wife, her marriage ended in divorce because of her husband’s violence, alcoholism and infidelity. Hilja became a single parent of three children and supported them by working multiple shifts as a midwife. Those years were hard and Hilja’s dream was a good night’s sleep. Later, Hilja started to purposefully empower herself. At the time of her retirement she told her children that she ‘would not be their bank or baby-sitter’. Instead, she decided to invest her time and money in herself, including getting two facelifts, and started to travel with her friends. Hilja explained that the third age had definitely been the ‘best part’ of her life and cosmetic surgery had helped so much in renewing her life that she would definitely get a third facelift, if she knew for sure that she would live to the age of 90.

Interview participants used cosmetic surgery as a means of ‘starting over’ after emotionally difficult experiences. Some felt that sorrow and worries were literally cut off from the body and had been left on the operating table. Two women, Vieno and Laila, both 56, for example, wanted to relieve their suffering by having facelifts after the deaths of their husbands. During the interview, Laila started to cry while she remembered all her sorrows:

My husband got cancer and lost his job (…) I also lost both parents and my children moved away from home. A phase of seven years when I lost everything; my husband died and my mum died right after. During his last days I took care of my husband at home, learnt to inject the morphine myself (…) It was so tough that I thought that I must erase those years from my face.

Anja, 67, on the other hand, said that several Restylane injections in three periods and upper eyelid surgery had helped her to get on her feet again after many exhausting battles with her brother concerning their family business. Tuula, 62, had suffered from cancer for many years with varying phases. She had had two facelifts and two upper eyelid surgeries because the illness and its cure had left her face so ‘sad’. Tuula’s opinion was that ‘the days you have left should be made the best possible, with the means you have’. At the time of the interview, Tuula was going to have her third eyelid surgery and was willing to have the third facelift too, if the cancer did not come back soon. In summary, for many women, cosmetic surgery offered an opportunity to move on from difficult life events such as abuse, divorce, sickness, and depression.

Regaining respectability

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Most dramatically the compensation for tough life experiences and, simultaneously, the regaining of respectability had been sought by those women who had decided to be born again after their husbands had left them. Liisi, 57, like Elsi mentioned above, literally remodelled herself after being humiliated by her husband who ‘changed her for a younger and more stupid woman’. After the divorce in her forties, Liisi became seriously depressed and abused alcohol, and could barely manage her work as an entrepreneur. After years of hard life she even considered killing her youngest child and herself. Finally, Liisi managed to seek help and started to recover little by little. She went to see a plastic surgeon and asked for a metamorphosis to include ‘as much as possible in a single anaesthesia’. The breasts were lifted up with a nipple transfer and augmented, and liposuction was applied to the knees, thighs and stomach. Her upper eyelids were operated upon and implants were set in the cheeks. Gradually, Liisi’s tears dried up, as she described her change. At the time of the interview Liisi was planning a new breast operation, several liposuctions and ‘tightening the skin everywhere where it has loosened’, she said, and added that a facelift would also be performed ‘immediately the face sags’. Liisi described her motive as an ‘awareness of being wanted by men’ although her aim was not really to find a partner. The feeling of being accepted was enough.

Many single ageing women, however, long for an intimate relationship. Interviewees deplored the small number of dating candidates of their own age group, which forced them to ‘compete’ with younger women, and believed that men usually preferred women younger than themselves. In a culture where an ageing woman is asexualised (e.g. Dinnerstein and Weitz 1998) or her sexuality is represented as ridiculous or grotesque (Markson 2003) cosmetic surgery offers a possibility and licence to extend romantic life. Ageing women are valued more for their role in the home, but this does not save them from pressures linked with ageing. Some women become grandmothers after their working careers and seek to gain extra advantages by having cosmetic surgery. Some had ended up in cosmetic surgery because their children had passed remarks about their wrinkles or even explicitly asked them to undergo surgery. Two of my interviewees, Oili (70) and Anni (62), had timed their procedures near their children’s wedding days to be as youthful looking as possible. Oili described her decision to get a Dermalive injection which, unfortunately, caused a serious rejection and had to be removed by several more operations.

My daughter said ‘please go and fix those crying wrinkles (…) so that you look a little better (…) it’s so easy, just go, just a half hour thing’. [She was getting married] (…) Actually, they were not bad but a woman is vain and when her child asks, the mother wants to look a little bit better.

Jeff Hearn (1995: 101) has stated that because men are valued predominantly for their career achievements, ageing manhood is often understood as a pre-death phase. That is to say, retirement means a radical retreat from active life and respected status. Both phases of manhood are valorised by the following stories from Pentti and Pertti. In commenting on his appearance before his lower eyelid surgery, Pentti (a 61-year-old retired pilot) emphasised that his ‘bulldog face’ was not a problem for him but for others:

Anybody - a child, for instance who is in a shop with her mum: ‘Why does that old man look like that?’ I also walk badly, I have trouble with my back, and then a bulldog face. It really attracts attention [...] Downstairs there is a smart shop and the lady who is the owner was having it photographed for some advertisement. I was doddering down the street and had a windcheater on, perhaps dangling a little, and a cane [...] She said to a man in the photographer's group: ‘Don’t shoot; wait till that old lush goes by’. Or I was in a bar with X and was going to order some beer and they said: ‘We will serve the lady but not the gentleman’. I was not drunk, it was only my appearance.

Another male pilot I interviewed, 62-year-old Pertti, who was still working, also had a lower eyelid surgery. His motive had been to look ‘credible’ at his work because he had noticed that his eye sags had caused unfavourable attention from clients. Pertti explained that, in his job, ‘tired’ eyes are just impossible especially in the morning because clients may suspect lack of sleep, intoxication or hangover. For Pertti, his colleagues agreed that after the surgery he looked like a more focused worker. Thus, cosmetic surgery can be seen to help in regaining respectability at work or in romance after humiliating experiences linked with an increasingly aged appearance.

Mask of happiness?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

I have argued that Finnish consumers purchase cosmetic surgery to improve their quality of life. Improving quality of life for these consumers means masking signs of ageing and of negative emotions. Informants’ motives for surgery range from self-pampering and therapy to pressure from family members and a desire for social respectablity. In most cases, the interviewees felt that the surgery changed their appearance to better reflect their inner self, and helped them start again after tough life experiences. In some cases, women and men felt that surgery was inevitable. The negative social feedback given to visual signs of ageing almost demanded a surgical solution. Yet, even though men and women strategically resist ageist stereotypes and discrimination by choosing surgical procedures, they simultaneously help reinforce such beliefs by trying to reconstruct youthful bodies through surgery. This is troubling, as increased rates of cosmetic surgery can shift cultural definitions of normal ageing.

The ideological core of cosmetic surgery — and the ideal of positive ageing linked to it — is that age is a subjective attitude rather than a biological fact, and one can actively resist mental and physical ageing (e.g. Bytheway 2003). In fact, the subjective attitude cannot be detached from the cultural discourses of ageing. The rise of the rejuvenation surgery stems from the everyday representations of the normative body, which is young, beautiful, healthy, happy, effective, and often white. Cosmetic surgery is perhaps not used to deny the accumulation of years, but to control the visual signs of negative emotions and of the body equated with ageing. The use of cosmetic surgery is thus an attempt to construct an image of happiness and interconnectedness, representing not only successful ageing but having a good life. My informants revealed that looking youthful meant being happy, harmonious and loved, which are all included in their definitions of beauty. I have shown that cosmetic surgery involves the manipulation of emotions both at the lived and representative levels, since, in an aestheticised culture, the boundary between the lived bodily experiences, such as emotions, and representations of the body have become blurred (cf. Ferguson 1997, Shusterman 1997). On the other hand, lived emotions sometimes change by moulding the body’s surface. The association of youth with happiness is so strong that feelings of oppression and depression not directly caused by ageing are cured by surgical procedures which lessen the marks of ageing, as some of the above cases have shown.

This analysis also adds to the understanding of the local contexts in which cosmetic surgery is pursued. In a country that values the sturdy woman and views cosmetic surgery negatively, cosmetic surgery rates are growing, revealing hierarchies of whiteness and appearance. Finns are thought to have heavy foreheads, sagging eyelids and potato noses in comparison with the ideal white, ‘Caucasian’ face. Through cosmetic surgeries, the traditionally melancholic and reserved Finnish body is moulded to represent positiveness and openness; that is to say, that surgery is used to imitate American outgoingness and constant cheer (e.g. Martin 2007).

Although 90 per cent of all cosmetic surgery consumers in Finland are women, the same as, for example, in the US, this should not lead to an expectation that ageing men would not stress the importance of their appearance. Several studies indicate that ageing seems to threaten men’s experiences of masculinity (e.g. Rosenfeld and Faircloth 2006, Öberg 2003: 120), and the cases discussed here offer some examples of that perceived threat. Further research is needed to fully understand the social meanings attached to this gendered phenomenon worldwide.

Footnotes
  • 1

    The research was funded by the Finnish Academy. The research material regarding patients consisted of a survey and/or interviews of 142 Finnish respondents: 126 women and 16 men between 19-84 years of age who had undergone 2 cosmetic surgery procedures on average. They were sought through cosmetic surgery clinics and a newspaper announcement. The surgeons were contacted personally by phone or e-mail. Depending on the interviewee’s choice, the interview was conducted in a cafeteria, restaurant, workplace, or the interviewee’s or my home. Each interview lasted on average 1.5 hours. The research aimed to get an overview of this minimally studied phenomenon in Finland, and to gather heterogeneous material. The participants were encouraged by paying each of them a 50-euro honorarium for an interview, with a raffle of six 150-euro gift tokens among them. The surgeons were offered an analysis of the ‘Customer satisfaction’ part of the patient survey in cases where the participants were gathered through their clinic.

  • 2

    Ten of the surgeons were men and two were women. One of them was an Estonian whose patients are predominantly Finns, and the rest of the surgeons interviewed were Finnish.

  • 3

    Rejuvenation surgery was not restricted only to the oldest age group. The youngest individuals in this study who had undergone anti-wrinkle injections or eyelid or face surgeries were in their late thirties.

  • 4

    Phenomenological research is directed at individuals’ experiences as a form of reality when the language is understood to reflect authentic sentiments and lived experiences. However, I noticed in the research how easily public discourses infiltrate bodily experiences and the words by which the experiences are described, although something is, of course, ‘left outside’ the shared discourses. In addition, when the interviewees talk about events which may have taken place years before, the descriptions typically organise themselves into narratives, which are always discursive constructions. Therefore, I do not categorise my viewpoint concerning the theory of the body or my methodology as either realist or constructionist, since they are seen to be intertwined.

  • 5
  • 6

    Mari Manninen: ‘Kureliiveistä silikoniehostukseen’Helsingin Sanomat, Sunnuntai 17.12.2000, D7; Ilta-Sanomat, Viihde 28.11.2000, 34–35; Helena Liikanen: ‘Onko silikonirintainen typerys?’Ilta-Sanomat, Uutiset 20.12.2000, A8.

  • 7
  • 8

    Savonia is an eastern province in Finland.

  • 9
  • 10

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Research material and methods
  4. Beauty culture and cosmetic surgery in Finland
  5. Curing the melancholic Finnish body
  6. Well-deserved compensation
  7. Regaining respectability
  8. Mask of happiness?
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
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