Exploring Commodity Fetishism of the Human Body: Plastic Surgery Fetish and Celebrity
Celebrity and Promotion of the Ideal Body Type
As society becomes more materialistic, we begin to place value on objects which were not intended to be commodities in the past. With the expansion of the media, marketing and advertising, we became a society of consumers. We are surrounded by advertisements; even when we drive, through the radio and billboards. The amount of advertisements which an individual consumes each day is tremendous and people can recognize an equally impressive amount of the major brand names and products. The relationship between the brand and its product is vital to the way we understand consumer marketing. Recently, celebrities have created brands out of their names—their images. The media has found a way to sell more merchandise by advertising with the use of celebrities. These celebrities have become their own commodity and have a powerful influence on the what people look like and what they buy.
This essay explores the use of an individual as a brand name and its effects on how society acts. By analyzing the theories of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu, this essay’s main focus is to explore how celebrities as commodities create an ideal body-type—a product out of the human body. Many Americans, particularly women, have become obsessed and fetishistic toward an ideal body-type. In order to achieve this body, they may go as far as to gain an eating disorder (what some call, the “cult of thinness”), or go through intensive surgeries for a hefty fine. The amount of influence celebrities have on our society is dangerous; the media promotes an ideal body through these people and simultaneously effect how people define beauty.
Fame and Fortune
Celebrities were once defined by their talent. In this postmodern society, they are now products which produce profit for a company. Paris Hilton was recently in an MTV autobiography which claims that she is an intelligent intellectual and is only acting otherwise. Like a product, Paris Hilton was marketed in the past as an unintelligent, promiscuous, spoiled girl. Recently, she has changed her image (her product’s image) to make a profit. Through careful manipulation, Paris Hilton has succeeded in making millions through her appearance in the media and controls her profit by controlling her image.
Disney’s star, Miley Cyrus, has become two products in one. On her Disney Channel series, Cyrus simultaneously plays herself and pop-star Hannah Montana. Cyrus releases two albums at once, one by Hannah Montana, and the other by country singer, Miley Cyrus; (the true fans bought both). By creating two products from one individual, Disney doubled their profits, appealing to a large audience. Similarly, many celebrities have become accustom to gaining profit by shaping their image.
Up-coming, female rap star Nicki Minaj has made it clear that she is in show business to market herself, her body and her image. Through her relationship with mega-rapper ‘lil Wayne, she has went from youtube.com to producing a song with Mariah Carrey in four months. She mainly focuses on her music, but she is also starting to sell clothing and other merchandise which advertises not only her albums, but herself as a product. Nicki Minaj promotes Barbie and Harajuku Girls to appeal to different markets. Nicki stated in an interview last year:
“I’m not a female rapper. I’m just an entertainer. The problem with female rappers is they allow themselves to be boxed in. I’m not allowing the industry to box me in. It’s a big reason why you haven’t seen Nicki Minaj on MTV or BET yet. I’m making my own terms. A lot of record companies are like, ‘Why is she rapping and singing? Is she the bad girl or she the good girl?’” (Honey Magazine , 2009).
Nicki is both the bad and good girl. She talks about drugs, sex and violence, while making cleaner songs which are available on the radio for younger listeners. She has clearly stated that she is not in the music industry to create music and share it with the rest of society; instead, she is an entertainer, ready to change her image to boost sales. Through online media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, Nicki maintains and develops her fan-base.
These celebrities choose to make themselves and their bodies a product, a brand. Miley Cyrus has a clothing line which is sold in Wal-Mart; everything she produces is for a product. These celebrities are so influential that someone completely unconnected to them can make money off of their fame. A photo of a celeb in action is worth a lot of money to magazine companies and newer blogs. More and more, society creates products out of individuals; this process is damaging to the public and the image people have of themselves and their bodies.
The Human Body as a Product
Beauty magazines (such as Cosmopolitan, Elle, Seventeen and more) preach sexuality, femininity and displays images which are damaging to our society’s youth. Because of the well-known slogan in marketing, “sex sells,” our society has become obsessed with celebrities, with perfect bodies. The media perpetuates these body images through beauty magazines with the technology to digitally enhance any photo. These magazines often fill their cover with a single celeb—a digitally enhanced image of a human body which does not exist. In some cases, the cover photos are so enhanced, that they display an image of the human body which would be impossible to achieve.
This image (I cannot legally put it on this site) is the cover for the 2009, Tom Hanks film, My Life in Ruins. At first glance, the image seems normal, but if one looks closer, they will notice that Nia Vardalos’ shins are as long as her body. This body is physically impossible to obtain, yet, the media promotes it as reality. Consequentially, how the media presents the ideal body will ultimately change the way people view themselves and others.
These images do not only effect women. Men are also effected by the ability to digitally enhance photos. Take Brad Pitt for example. In the advertisement for Edwin Clothing Company. His upper-body is proportional, yet his legs seem to be much smaller than they are supposed to be. With digital enhancement, Pitt’s image is physically impossible. When most people are flipping through a magazine, they will not realize the impossibility; they see Brad Pitt.
The media attempts to reconstruct our views of bodies and sexualize them to promote sales. Sociologist Susan Bordo explains its effects on society’s women:
“Thus, we all ‘know’ that Cher and virtually every other female star over the age of twenty-five is the plastic product of numerous cosmetic surgeries on the face and body. But, in the era of the “hyperreal” (as Baudrillard calls it), such ‘knowledge’ is faded and frayed…unable to cast a shadow on of doubt over the dazzling, compelling, authoritative images themselves” (Bordo 103).
These created images of bodies effect how we see bodies as a society. We cannot attempt to emulate the bodies in the media; in some cases, it is physically impossible (as the image above). The way celebrities are worshiped and displayed in our society gives the common person a very difficult job when it comes to emulating beauty.
Why People Change their Bodies
Heidi Montag (from MTV’s The Hills) has become a symbol for plastic surgery. She has been called “obsessed” and “addicted,” but she is simply fetishistic about the way she looks and appeals to society. Recently, she underwent ten surgeries in a single day, making her appear like a walking Barbie doll. Although she is still recovering (and will be for the next year), she is flaunting her new body. She claims that it is illegal for her to get anymore plastic surgery; her body is so fragile, she is afraid for it when she gives someone a hug. Unfortunately, the younger market she influences through MTV will consequentially be influenced by her also. In order to understand why people get plastic surgery, we must examine a quote from Montag about her reconstruction:
“I was made fun of when I was younger, and so I had insecurities, especially after I moved to L.A. People said I had a ‘Jay Leno chin’; they’d circle it on blogs and say nasty things. It bothered me. And when I watched myself on The Hills, my ears would be sticking out like Dumbo! I just wanted to feel more confident and look in the mirror and be like, ‘Whoa! That’s me!’ I was an ugly duckling before” (Huffington Post ).
Because of her insecurities, she was pushed toward getting reconstruction surgery. The unfortunate reality is that her influence on other girls which idolize her will be influenced by her choice. If beauty of a body is becoming physically and naturally impossible, it has proved itself to be a commodity, which can be sold and manufactured.
It is possible that people pay to change their bodies as a type of conspicuous consumption (Veblen)—a way to illustrate their wealth or status by displaying that they can spend their money on luxuries. Montag spent approximately $30,000.00 on her surgeries. The average person cannot afford this. If it is a way to show wealth and status, it is connected to the ideology that sex sells and looks will get one far in life. In order to break free of inequalities, we, as a society, must promote acceptance—not deliver the message that beauty comes with a large price tag.
People might change their bodies to cause jealousy through beauty; Veblen calls this invidious consumption (when one spends money on objects to create envy). Montag has drawn a lot of attention to herself through these enhancements and caused a lot of backlash. Her new album (which cost about $2 million to make) is entitled Superficial. Indeed, Montag is a marketing genius, simultaneously destroying society’s image of beauty.
Marx would not argue that body modification has any use value. Unless it is for medical purposes, plastic surgery is not necessary and in some cases can cause health problems. The symbolic exchange value is the only important type of value for this commodity. A body is something that defines a person; it represents them. The body has become a commodity which causes our society to be more superficial, judgmental and capitalistic. Plastic surgery and body image in the media promote capitalist ideologies through the illusion that beauty as only obtainable through wealth.
The body has acquired sign value; it is a way to communicate wealth, prestige and status. Unfortunately, our society is fed images of the human body which are not physically possible, but are accepted as beautiful. This damages body images in our society and creates higher rates of eating disorders, plastic surgeries and lap bands. The creation of this body commoditization comes from the branding of celebrities. As we begin to look at celebrities as products, this begins to influence our view on the body and ourselves as a commodity. As a society, we must not let these images sway our thoughts on beauty and individual. Our bodies are not simple commodities; we, as people, are not products to be branded and sold. We are a beautiful society and we must not let the media transform us and our bodies into products.
Bordo, Susan. “Hunger as Ideology.” The Consumer Society Reader. (The New Press: New York), 2000. 99-115.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Aesthetic Sense as the Sense of Distinction.” The Consumer Society Reader. (The New Press: New York), 2000. 205-211.
Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret.” The Consumer Society Reader. (The New Press: New York), 2000. 331-342.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Consumption.” The Consumer Society Reader. (The New Press: New York), 2000. 187-204.