Can medicine be aesthetic? Disentangling beauty and health in elective surgeries

Med Anthropol Q. 2013 Jun;27(2):233-52. doi: 10.1111/maq.12025. Epub 2013 Jun 19.


This article analyzes tensions between aesthetics and health in medicine. The blurring of distinctions between reconstructive and cosmetic procedures, and the linking of plastic surgery with other medical treatments, have added to the legitimacy of an emerging "aesthetic medicine." As cosmetic surgeries become linked to other medical procedures with perceived greater medical necessity, health and aesthetics become entangled. One consequence is that medical needs are magnified while perceptions of the risks of surgery are minimized. Drawing on ethnographic work on plastic surgery, as well as other studies of obstetrics and cosmetic surgery, I illustrate this entanglement of health and aesthetics within the field of women's reproductive health care in Brazil. I argue that while it would be difficult to wholly disentangle aesthetics and health, analysis of how risk-benefit calculations are made in clinical practice offers a useful critical strategy for illuminating ethical problems posed by aesthetic medicine.

Keywords: aesthetic medicine; female reproductive health care; legitimation work; plastic surgery; risk-benefit calculations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Medical
  • Elective Surgical Procedures*
  • Esthetics*
  • Humans
  • Reconstructive Surgical Procedures*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Surgery, Plastic*