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.”