In a recent attempt to forget that this world is engulfed in misogynistic flames, I decided to binge the last season of Real Housewives of Atlanta. I made it all the way to the reunion show, when Andy Cohen, the surprisingly objective ringleader, began, “I know that black don’t crack …” Immediately, I cringed upon hearing a white person attempt to comment on melanin’s natural reluctance to age while also dipping his toes in the ebonics pool. Cohen continued, “... but do any of you get botox or fillers or anything like that?” The camera cut to smirks and side-eyes across the circle of women.
I paused and remembered that the previous season’s most titillating story lines surrounded problematic historian Porsha’s enhanced derrière. The ladies threw jabs about its authenticity and the source of the money that paid the expensive bill. “Child, she got some African prince to foot the bill,” the always- perturbed Phaedra said, with enough judgment to overturn a Supreme Court ruling.
Back on the reunion show, Cohen proceeded to survey the women about their surgeries and procedures, a sort of plastic-surgery edition of Never Have I Ever. Cynthia and Porsha politely offered their plastic-surgery receipts, and Kandi Burruss proudly announced, “I just joined the club!” as she gestured toward her breasts. The women cheered and nodded in polite approval as Kandi exclaimed, “I’m going to take these from sleek to on fleek!”
As my Bravo binge came to an end, I was left wondering why black women are lining up for nips and tucks. After all, black women are known for their titanium-strength confidence. As a black woman myself, I was taught that no matter the shape of my features or the number on the scale, I am beautiful. This confidence is almost evolutionary in our need to survive a society that goes out of its way to objectify and ignore us.
A part of me believed that most black women outside of prime-time TV take some silent oath that our bones need not be chiseled to any other ideal of perfection but our own. But with a little research, I learned that RHOA illustrates a tidal shift in black women’s perception of plastic surgery: The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that cosmetic augmentation among black people increased 56 percent between 2005 and 2013, and it’s still rising. According to the 2016 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report, black people accounted for 8 percent of all plastic-surgery procedures in the United States — that’s double the percentage from 1997. (Black people make up only about 12 percent of the overall population of the United States, which underlines the significance of these plastic-surgery statistics.)
So why are black women increasingly going under the knife? “Sometimes black women have too much pride in not admitting they don’t like something about their body,” says Andrea Hughes, 47, a black woman in Clarksville, Tennessee, who had a breast augmentation and a tummy tuck in 2005. “We’ve been tasked with having to be strong for so long,” says Hughes, whose own confidence radiates through the airwaves. “I don’t think anybody should ever be ashamed to admit, ‘Yeah, I have some issues [with my body]. I see this bulge right here, and I don’t want it.’”
I’d subconsciously assumed “discontentment with your own body” had a “whites only” sign hanging on it. But for black people and plastic surgery, a lot has changed in the past twenty years.
Modern-day plastic surgery came about in the early 20th century to treat war injuries. For the first time in history, soldiers were actually surviving their injuries. As Dr. Peter Geldner, MD, of the plastic-surgery practice the Geldner Center in Chicago, explains, plastic surgery was something “that could restore function and aesthetics.” It became a special form of rehabilitation, empowering people to live the lives they felt they were meant to live. “If an individual sees their appearance as a hindrance to be the person they wish to be,” Dr. Geldner explains, “it’s the role of the plastic surgeon to facilitate that physical change to allow them this state of normality.”
For Susan Drayden, 35, a black woman in Dallas who got both a breast reduction and breast implants in 2015, a state of normality meant being able to enjoy physical activity again. She loves sports, but her large breasts were making it hard for her to participate without serious discomfort. “You want to find a doctor that’s honest with you,” Drayden says. She asked her doctor to make her breasts very small, but the doctor advised otherwise. “He said, ‘I want you to like yourself when you wake up. You’re asking me to put small furniture in a big room.’ I valued him for saying that,” she explains. “As blunt as it was, it was the truth.”
Together, Drayden and her doctor agreed on a breast reduction to eradicate her daily discomfort and implants to shape her smaller chest. After some intense weeks of recovery, Drayden was back to being active. “I was able to join a running club! My chest didn’t hurt from running anymore.” Drayden’s plastic surgery afforded her a new lease on an active lifestyle.
My apathetic assumptions about plastic surgery as a black woman were all wrong. Real black women get plastic surgery for a variety of reasons, from cosmetic to lifestyle — reasons most can relate to. The sound of relief in these women’s voices as they shared their stories was palpable. But I also noticed the presence of another underlying trend: that social media and the black male gaze are seemingly inescapable.
Social media is the first culprit most think of when they think of plastic-surgery normalization, but Dr. Geldner accredits a much earlier source. “Oprah was the catalyst for a lot of discussions,” he says. “She knew her audience had a fascination with plastic surgery.” From her 1986 show discussing the latest in plastic surgery to her 2004 show interviewing a mother addicted to going under the knife, Oprah brought cosmetic augmentation into America’s living rooms. Dr. Paul Vitenas of Houston’s the Fine Art of Natural Cosmetic Surgery even points to shows like Dr. 90210 for planting the seed long before social media hit the scene.
“Black women are like white women in that they want to look good,” Dr. Vitenas says. Melissa Llewellyn, 33, a black woman from Philadelphia, can certainly attest to this. “It was a personal choice for me,” she says of the liposuction she got on her abs and thighs in 2016. She has always been active as a professional dancer and Zumba instructor, but once she entered her 30s, Llewellyn says, “I didn’t like the shape my body was taking on.” Now she’s back to the size she feels most confident at.
The 36-26-36 bust-waist-hip ratio is also ever-present, and one particular influencer is impacting black women’s request for this hourglass silhouette: “Kim Kardashian has single-handedly opened a revolution in butt augmentations and fat grafting,” Dr. Vitenas says. Gina Joseph, 35, a post-operation specialist in Brooklyn, adds that she’s the number-one wish pic women bring in as an example of how they want to look. Both Dr. Vitenas and Joseph agree that women of all races get butt augmentations, but Dr. Vitenas points out that nonblack women will usually add it on as an afterthought to other procedures. “Black women focus on it,” he says.
Unequivocally, the Kardashians represent the modern-day apogee of plastic-surgery normalization, largely using the black body as their muse. Curves used to be the bane of a white American woman’s existence, a negative body type suitable only for stereotypes like spicy Latinas and finger-snapping black women. The Kardashians made these disenfranchised silhouettes their physical ideal. Joseph laments, “I speak to a lot of people who say ‘I wish I looked like Kim Kardashian.’ But [I want to say], ‘Kim Kardashian is trying to look like you!’”
This desperation for surgical perfection stems from many concerning factors, but I’m willing to guess that the black male gaze plays a significant role. Case in point: Future’s “Extra Luv” video, which features a variety of bikini-clad women — largely white, fair-skinned Latina, and Asian women with presumably enhanced booties, lips, and everything in between. “In the past, everybody wanted to look like a white chick,” Dr. Geldner says. “Now, it’s going in a different direction.”
In a video posted on Instagram by Trick Daddy, the hip-hop artist warned black women to “tighten up,” since white and Hispanic women are “getting finer.” He punctuated his warning with a premonition that black women would render themselves useless if ever white and Hispanic women learn how to fry chicken. Of course, this messaging is flawed for countless reasons, but the sentiment isn’t lost on black women. “The black race is the only race where you look at the man, and you admire him, and you have to wonder if he even likes his own women,” says Drayden. “We have to compete.”
Pop culture has been working overtime to influence black women’s beliefs about beauty, and to some extent, these efforts have been successful. However, it’s encouraging to witness a shift toward an alternative narrative: celebrating black beauty.
Beyoncé, arguably the most important cultural architect of our time, unforgettably declares “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” in her song “Formation.” In a cultural landscape filled with waist trainers and flat-tummy tea, it is so refreshing to hear an influential black woman honor her own features. In Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” he raps “Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” The video for that song features mostly brown-skinned women. Contrary to Trick Daddy’s premonitions, Lamar reminds us that plenty of black men are still excited about black women. Slowly but surely, we’re shifting the conversation away from a constant pursuit of perfection and toward a celebration of simply feeling beautiful in our own skin.
While it’s important to continue examining the ramifications of these constantly changing beauty standards, it’s also critical to celebrate black women’s right to safely alter our bodies. As Llewellyn says, “I look at black women as strong women, opinionated women, and we do whatever the fuck we want.”
Jennifer Epperson is a proud Texan living in New York. She’s a writer and product designer who doesn’t believe in laundry-delivery services. Follow her on Twitter @comeonjennfoo.