- Cosmetic surgeries such as Brazilian Butt Lifts (BBL) are being popularized on social media, notably TikTok.
- Social media may skew perceptions of the frequency, rewards, and risks of potentially dangerous procedures.
- The BBL celebrates and commodifies a beauty standard originally found among Black and Latinx women.
- Embracing beauty in all forms may not be the best solution for reducing body anxiety and dissatisfaction.
If you have been living under a popular culture rock, you may not have heard of the recent body modification fad known as the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL). It involves taking fat from the stomach or back and inserting it into the buttocks of a woman who wishes to have a larger, more shapely behind and a relatively smaller waist.
The BBL has been largely popularized on the video-sharing platform TikTok—the hashtag #BBL has garnered 2.9 billion views. That fact alone would merit psychological scrutiny, but women are also risking their health and sometimes their lives to get this procedure done by opportunistic doctors who are not necessarily board-certified in plastic surgery. Moreover, even some of the most trained doctors have deemed it an unethical elective procedure because of the risks involved. Although the BBL phenomenon has now given rise to a satiric TikTok meme, as many others have noted, the trend is still far from over and concerning.
What role does the media play in fueling body modification surgeries, particularly among women, and what, if anything, might be done about it? (This is not to downplay the increasing prevalence of men’s body anxieties, but according to 2020 statistics, 92 percent of those receiving cosmetic surgery were women.)
Social Media as a Visual Megaphone
Human beings are not always rational, but we usually make calculations based on perceived norms and their associated rewards. Women may subject themselves to potentially dangerous cosmetic procedures because they believe:
- it will lead to social and financial success
- their peers are on board
- the benefits outweigh the risks
Not coincidentally, our current cultural environment may be artificially inflating each of these perceptions, via the “trick mirror” of social media (shout out to Jia Tolentino's 2019 compelling critique of media culture, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion).
Social media has become a type of visual megaphone, with new beauty ideals ricocheting from celebrities and influencers to “regular people” and back again. Celebrities and influencers remain larger-than-life trendsetters whose status and popularity increase their "modeling potential" among motivated viewers.
However, they also seem more “just like us” than ever, as they blend seamlessly into our existing social networks and give us ostensibly authentic behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives. We can feel a sense of parasocial (seemingly social) intimacy as we scroll through their posts and perhaps attempt to break the fourth wall (wait, fifth wall?) via likes or comments. To the extent that celebrities and influencers have become our seeming peers, major differences between their lifestyles and incentives and our own may be obscured, and we may be more likely to think of them as appropriate aspirational targets of social comparison.
On the other hand, “regular people” also now have the opportunity to cultivate audiences and fame on the social media stage by optimizing and curating their own posts and images. As Marwick and Boyd (2011) have noted, we now have the ability to participate in “micro-celebrity practices” that may appeal to our human needs to be seen and valued, but with a potentially high cost to health and well-being, particularly for women. As we attempt to embody and emulate new beauty ideals, we become our own warped mirrors; indeed, research has shown that taking and editing selfies leads to increased anxiety, dissatisfaction, and negative mood among young women (e.g., Tiggeman et al., 2020)
Beyond providing a cascade of visual exemplars of how young women can and should look, social media enables us to quantify the degree to which such performances are socially successful. As girls and women watch others on TikTok happily showing off their evolving post-surgical bodies to the tune of millions of likes and positive comments, invasive cosmetic surgery may seem all the more desirable and worthwhile. Interestingly, although many of the videos also showcase young girls and women looking bruised and uncomfortable, the ultimate shot is often of a smiling, dancing, satisfied customer.
The social media landscape may thus simultaneously skew our perception of how many of our peers are signing on to cosmetic surgery and our perception of problem-free outcomes. When you add it up, the sky-rocketing popularity of procedures like BBLs start to make intuitive, if disheartening, sense.
All of the above is even more concerning when we consider young women who bring existing vulnerabilities to the table. Research typically shows that those with existing anxiety about approval or body image (both of which may have evolved early, in step with cultural norms around gender and appearance) also tend to be the most likely to consume, compare themselves to, and be impacted by idealized media images. This may set a vicious cycle in motion: anxious women may scroll social media to inform their own regimens and standards, which may then widen the gap between their actual and ideal selves, and lead to extreme practices and/or feelings of demoralization as they attempt to bridge that divide.
The Role of Race
An additional striking feature of the BBL “movement” is that, unlike other beauty ideals that feature a European American look with an emphasis on overall slimness, the BBL celebrates/appropriates a body type that is more common among Latina and Black women. Some credit reality TV mogul Kim Kardashian and her sisters for shifting the mainstream body image paradigm towards a more voluptuous silhouette.
This complex history of belated glorification and commodification of a historically marginalized body type merits an ongoing and important conversation in its own right. As Areva Martin underscored, during a panel on body modification I was invited to join (see references for more info): “As the mainstream media began to incorporate beauty standards that have long been held by Black and Latinx women… it continued to idealize the White women who conformed to these standards, and allowed them to profit over Black and Latina women, whose bodies the same industry had previously critiqued.”
The increased cache associated with a curvier ideal may nevertheless seem like a cultural win, and in some ways, it may be—being in the media spotlight both confers and reflects status, however temporarily. However, a “slim thick” body style, as some have termed it, also presents a new standard of beauty that is difficult for many women to achieve by natural, healthy means.
Moreover, women of color may have to navigate not only weight- and shape-related beauty ideals, but also those associated with White American ideals. Recently, Wilfred and Lundgren (2021) have devised a “double consciousness body image scale” to capture Black women’s negotiation of both White and Black body ideals, which included items such as “I have avoided going out because I did not have extensions or a weave in,” “I feel pressure from society to have light skin” in addition to other body-related concerns. Higher scores on these items were related to eating disorder symptoms.
Is There a Way Forward?
For Black and Brown women in particular, whose bodies have been historically treated, alternately and inhumanely, as asexual or hypersexual, depending on the stereotype of the moment, taking control of one’s own body and its aesthetic marketability can be viewed as nothing short of a revolution. Indeed, in the aforementioned panel discussion, Dr. Rokeshia Ashley, a race and body image scholar, critiqued a “deficit framework” of body modification, which she noted could be considered instead an “investment” in yourself and the chance to build a business, if done the right way.
But where is the line between heathy self-acceptance and unhealthy adherence to others’ expectations? The slope can be slippery and some of us have better traction than others. Actress, exotic dancer, and pole artist Coy Malone, who also joined the panel, spoke of the pressure she and her peers are under (from each other, male audiences, and managers) to embody an ideal physique, her own rules for body modification, and the challenge of not becoming a “product of [her] environment.”
So how do we enlarge the ways in which all women can be valued for who they are? Embracing beauty in all forms is one approach (i.e., Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign). However, such campaigns nevertheless keep our focus on beauty per se.
Body positivity movements are also on the rise; however, text-based "disclaimers" about the artificiality of social media images do not always seem to diminish their impact on subsequent body concerns of viewers (e.g., “Not real life—I didn’t pay for this outfit, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram,” Fardouly & Holland, 2018). It seems that salient visuals, as they tend to do in other contexts, trump sensible words. One notable exception to these findings seems to be the use of self-compassion tags (e.g., “be gentle with yourself,” Slater et al., 2017).
What if we attempted to dial down the relentless emphasis on female beauty in our culture—to, as Tolentino writes “de-escalate the situation, make beauty matter less”? Megan Nolan addressed this radical possibility in her April 2019 New York Times op-ed: “Why Do We All Have to Be Beautiful?” When I posed this question, Dr. Ashley responded that as much as she would love to believe that was a realistic goal, the financial incentives on all sides for participating in beauty culture make that seem like an impossible dream. And, of course, there are the primitively positive assumptions that we ascribe to beautiful people (and animals, and landscapes!), recently summarized on this site by Dr. Joshua Rottman.
So, if we assume that dismantling beauty culture from the outside in is a somewhat unrealistic prospect (is it though? My money is on the next generation of young women, men, nonbinary, and trans adults who are redefining how we think about gender, sexuality, and beauty as we speak), another strategy might be dialing up the extent to which girls and women learn to value themselves in ways that have nothing to do with physical appearance or, even, social media.
This means continuing to battle structural racism as well as sexism, both of which reduce opportunities for young girls and women to experience their own agency and to engage authentically with others. And it means continuing to spotlight young people like Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman for their remarkable tenacity, talent, and ambition.
We might also focus on dialing in. Mindfulness and self-compassion meditation rituals, as well as gratitude and appreciation exercises, have been shown to refocus our attention on substantive and positive emotions, relationships, and behaviors. As with so many other critical issues swirling around us these days, it’s worth a shot.
This post was inspired by a dynamic panel discussion I was invited to join, courtesy of CNN analyst Areva Martin, on her digital pop culture and politics show The Special Report with Areva Martin. Guests included Coy Malone, an actress, exotic dancer, and pole artist, Dr. Andrew Ordon, a plastic surgeon, as well as myself and two other academics, Dr. Kevin Jenkins and Dr. Rokeshia Ashley.
Thanks to my research assistant at Vassar College, Formosa Huang, for her help on this piece.