Breasts: a new commodity?

Posted by jcm22 at Jul 18, 2014 11:50 AM |
In western culture women’s breasts have long been objects of visual and discursive attention. Dr Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor explores some of the consequences of our growing desire for 'perfection'.

What do you call breasts? Boobs, melons, bee stings, fun bags, jugs, hooters, knockers, brace and bits (tits)?

In western culture women’s breasts have long been objects of visual and discursive attention. For some feminists, the breast is a hyper visible part of womanliness and therefore the ultimate symbol of femininity (Young,2005). While for others, they lead to the objectification of women because they are sexualised by the male gaze.

Although they are an integral part of a woman’s body and not ‘things’ as such, more recently they have become objects that can be bought and sold across a market like any other commodity. The market for breast augmentation surgery has highlighted a number of interesting questions for sociologists, first about the demand for cosmetic surgery and medical consumption and second, about the morality of consuming breast augmentations as objects and what this tells us about how our society understands femininity.

In 2012, 11,135 procedures for breast augmentations were undertaken the UK, a growth of 13% from the previous year despite the Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) scandal (BAAPS Statistics, 2013). The market for breast augmentations is encouraged by a number of factors. There is the cultural construction of breasts as objects, which allows the cosmetic surgery industry to talk about ‘sagging’ breast, ‘mis-shapen’ breasts, ‘small’ breasts as ‘bad’ breasts which can be altered, fixed and repaired with medical treatment. This, together with the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, tends to detach cosmetic surgery from ordinary medical concerns and restraints. Indeed some argue that breast augmentations are trivialised and often sold as beauty treatments rather than medical interventions involving major surgery.

Cosmetic surgery therefore straddles two areas of consumption which are generally thought of and imagined as very different, that of medicine and beauty/fashion. The recent PIP implant scandal highlighted tensions between these two areas.  Commentators often blamed women who had PIPs because they had a breast augmentation for reasons of ‘vanity’, while making women who needed breast reconstruction the real ‘victims’ of medical malpractice and the criminal behaviour of the PIP boss. The PIP implant scandal also drew attention to the way that consumers of breast augmentations can be constructed as ‘bad’ women for having turned to the market to buy the ideal breast. These debates illustrated how breast augmentations are not viewed in the same way as other medical procedures (nobody would blame a patient who had suffered a faulty hip replacement operation for having brought the trouble on themselves). But neither are they viewed simply as consumer objects like bras.  They are a ‘contested commodity’.

The cosmetic surgery industry sells breast augmentations as aids to increased self confidence, self esteem and as fashion accessories. In this context, more women are thinking of their breasts as fashion/status/feminising objects which can be reshaped and changed at will. If this trend continues then breasts will increasingly come to be viewed as objects, ‘things’, commodities that can be owned. The ethical, medical and political implications of this will continue to be debated by sociologists and the public.

Further reading:

Journal articles

‘The Power of Breasts: Gender, Class and Cosmetic Surgery’, Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 35. No.6: 458-466.
: 10.1016/j.wsif.2012.09.003

‘Buying and Selling Breasts: Cosmetic surgery, Risk and Beauty Treatments.’ Sociological Review. Vol. 60. No.4: 635-653.
: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2012.02127.x

Comment in 'The Guardian': ‘When cosmetic surgery is a marker of ambition’. By Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor


UK cosmetic surgery procedures - BAAPS data (View the Excel Spreadsheet, hosted online)

The Guardian: 'UK cosmetic surgery statistics 2013: which are the most popular?'

Article written by Dr Jacqueline Sanchez TaylorDepartment of Sociology, University of Leicester

Download the related presentation (PDF, 308KB)

Archived website

The Social Worlds project ran from March 2014 to November 2015. This site is no longer being updated but provides an archive of all the articles which were created as part of the project.

Search Articles

Download publication (PDF)

Dr Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor

Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor

Research interests

My primary research interests are in the sociology of gender and sexuality with a special focus on:

  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Female sex tourism
  • Prostitution
  • The sale and consumption of embodied process of self production and medical tourism
  • Intersections between gender, race, sexuality and empowerment.

Supervision interests

  • Exploring issues of race, gender and sexuality through a focus on sex tourism, sex work, cosmetic surgery and questions of embodied labour.

Current research

I am currently exploring the ways breast augmentations are consumed and commodified and the implications of this for the market for cosmetic surgery.

T: 0116 252 2820

Visit Jacqueline's staff page