Beauty in Crisis
Alexia Liakounakou, UCL PhD Candidate
I selected my field – or, rather, my field selected me – after I read an article in the international edition of Der Spiegel,published in May 2013. The article claimed that in ‘austerity Greece’, the wealthy segments of the population “are having more face-lifts and breast implants than anywhere in the world”.
I had often suspected that cosmetic surgery was popular in Greece. I grew up in Athens, and two of my friends in high school underwent the same procedures after turning seventeen: a nose job and, later, breast augmentation. Still, Spiegel’s jab at Greece’s social inequalities and reckless spending was more or less a baseless accusation: Greece is not the place where the most cosmetic procedures in the world are conducted. Many plastic surgeons confirmed to me that surgeries have dropped by an estimated 40% since 2010.Greece is not even included in the latest International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic Procedures, published by ISAPS (the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery), in its.
Nevertheless, I was eager to explore the Greek cosmetic medical landscape. Greece has largely been portrayed in anthropology as the de facto rural and ‘traditional’ outpost of Europe. Its ‘unique’ (read: fragmentary, incomplete) path towards modernity (Paxson 2004; Hirschon 2012)has been regularly a matter of dispute. But Athens is a modern city: it shares with most European capitals several basic and uniform characteristics, though Athenians themselves will still proclaim that their city is not fully European.Some will say this with pride, and others with scorn; it depends on whether they relate to, or feel let down by, ‘Europe’. At the same time, there has been a revival, a romanticized idolization of the past – of ‘traditional’ ‘Greekness’ – embraced by both by the scornful and the Euro friendly. It is most apparent in lifestyle choices and leisure activities (in travel destinations and dining, for example).Partly due to the dwindling of the majority’s finances, and partly because Europe seems less alluring now than it did in the past, most Greeks now turn ‘inwards’ to rediscover the nation and restore their relationship to it.
In this contested terrain, I have carried out my research for the past 13 months.
The first thing that became clear to me was that in order to understand the cosmetic medical landscape, one has to look at what existed before the financial crisis. Although the ‘austerity years’ have put Greece back on the map internationally, the country remains under- and mis-represented. The scale weighs dangerously in favor of its ‘glorious past’, and its modest present is always – either by accident or by intent, as is the case with the aforementioned Spiegel article – deemed disappointing. In anthropology, too, urban Greece up to the early 00s was almost entirely overlooked, with few exceptions. I argue that this recent past, in the cities and not just the islands or the remote villages, hold the key to understanding contemporary Greece. Ethnographies of Greece in their overwhelming majority have focused on the periphery, leaving the center unexplored and misunderstood.
Cosmetic surgery is not new to Greece. Georgios Polykratis,who treated wounded soldiers at the Greco-Albanian front during World War II, is generally recognized as the first modern Greek plastic surgeon (there exists an ancient ‘plastic’ history, too, but I will not elaborate on the matter here).He paved the way for the state’s recognition of plastic surgery as a medical specialty in 1954, and attended, representing Greece, the First Global Conference of Plastic Surgeons in Stockholm in 1955. Since then, Greece’s surgeons have been consistently training and working alongside other European, American (and later Brazilian and other) surgeons, and surgeries in Greece spiked during the 80s and 90s. A Greek surgeon, whom I have met and interviewed, was part of the first team to ever successfully complete a partial face transplant in France, in 2005.
Plastiki(originating in the Greek verb platho = to mould) is now one of the most lucrative medical industries, globally and locally. The technologies advance constantly, attempting to ‘correct’or ‘enhance’ an ever more expanding map of the human body, and big pharma has incorporated non-surgicals in their domain, with great success. (Examples include botox, chemical peels, hyaluronic fillers, mesotherapy and other ‘rejuvenating’ and anti-aging treatments). Allergan, the company who makes Botox™ and Juvederm (best-selling hyaluronic fillers), has a market value of 90 billion US dollars (as of May 2016) and was included in the Forbes list of the most innovative companies.
Non-surgical methods are especially favored in Greece at the moment. Most will argue that this is due to the fact that they are cheaper (but only in the short run). With capital controls in place, people cannot easily pay for an operation costing a few thousand euros. Smaller fixes cost less, are ‘less invasive’ and less risky, and – most importantly – they can be repeated, therefore individuals can ‘top up’ on their happiness every few months. This is, arguably, why injectables have become so successful worldwide, and why they are profitable a business globally. They fit perfectly in a consumerist environment, where spending takes place in regular intervals.
I also believe that anti-aging becomes a major preoccupation in a population that is indebted, financially stagnant, and feels pressurized to conform to more ‘progressive’ and competitive rules. Mas gernane prin tin ora mas, loosely translated as “they’re sucking the life out of us” is an expression I hear often. In this climate of slow decay, little cosmetic fixes might offer a “lift”, a “boost”, and a “way out” from what seems to be a future that is drab.
In a questionnaire I often give out to patients at a clinic, one woman wrote:
“I believe injectables have replaced anti-depressants, and plastic surgeons have replaced psychiatrists”.
Though much has been written about whether cosmetic surgery is able to actually make someone happy (Gilman, 2010),and whether individuals are ‘duped’ into buying their happiness (Frank, 2006) or if it is a legitimate conduit towards empowerment (Edmonds, 2010), I will close this entry with the words of a veteran plastic surgeon:
“Einai moda[it’s fashion]. Everyone does it because everyone else is doing it.”
Edmonds, A. (2010) Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Durham and London: Duke University Press
Frank, K. (2006) “Agency,” Anthropological Theory, 6:281
Gilman, S. L., (1999)Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press
Hirschon, R., (2012) “Cultural Mismatches: Greek Concepts of Time, Personal Identity, and Authority in the Context of Europe,” [Online] Available at: http://dev.anthro.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/images/staff/Associates/0–HIRSCHON_JA_corrected_Europe___Greece__13_july_2011_20_september.pdf
Paxson, H., (2004) Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Modern Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press