10 January 2019 | Story Charlene Stanley | Photo Anja Aucamp
Dr Allessandra Kim Heggenstaller
Dr Allessandra Kim Heggenstaller’s doctoral thesis found that cosmetic surgery can lead to an enhanced sense of empowerment.

With human rights at the centre of our modern society’s psyche, the concept of women taking ownership of their own bodies is often interpreted as standing up against all forms of abuse as well as celebrating their own physical uniqueness.

But what about the interpretation that ownership also gives you the right to alter your physical appearance through cosmetic surgery?

The stigma traditionally surrounding cosmetic surgery which is purely done to correct a perceived physical flaw or shortcoming and not for health reasons, has always intrigued Alessandra Kim Heggenstaller. So much so, that the 31-year-old Sociology graduate made it the topic of her doctoral thesis (The role of cosmetic surgery in the embodied experience of female beauty).


Beauty and success

“Nowadays, the concept of human ‘beauty’ is intricately linked to that of identity: beauty is seen as

bringing success in occupation, love, and marriage. Accordingly, beauty is often treated as a commodity – social status is attributed to it, and negotiated with it,” says Heggenstaller.

She wanted to test the prevailing negative perception that women who opt for corrective surgery are vain and superficial and are motivated by their desire to fit into a stereotype of ‘the perfect female body’.


Surgery a last resort

In her research, Heggenstaller interviewed 10 Free State women who had cosmetic interventions.

The women were from various ages and backgrounds. However, Heggenstaller found certain commonalities:

“None of them did it for a male partner or to fit a perceived stereotype. All of them had done intensive research beforehand and for each of them surgery was really a last resort,” she says.

She found that the women’s main motivation was that they didn’t ‘feel at home’ in their own

bodies because of the perceived shortcoming.

“The study found that a cosmetic procedure was an action and choice that began a journey of change and self-discovery. When the physical body portrays a more accurate image of how the individual feels, she engages her lifeworld and social environment with an enhanced sense of empowerment,” says Heggenstaller.


No regrets

“It was also significant to hear that not one of my case studies had any regrets about opting for surgery. In fact, they all felt that they should have done it sooner.”

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