Nadia Ilse, a 14-year-old girl in Georgia, is attracting attention for getting cosmetic surgery to get bullies off her back.
In an interview with ABC News, Nadia described the torment that school bullies put her through, calling her names like “Dumbo” or “elephant ears.” Unable to afford surgery, Nadia got it covered by the Little Baby Face Foundation, an organization that provides free surgery to fix “facial deformities.”
The most striking quote in this article, for me, comes from Nadia’s mother: “It’s no different than somebody having teeth that require braces.” It is this same attitude that led the Little Baby Face Foundation to cover her surgery in the first place. Nadia’s ears, this argument runs, were deformed enough that the surgery to fix them was medical, not aesthetic.
And yet, Nadia didn’t suffer any physical problems from her “deformities.” Her ears sticking out never caused her physical pain. Unlike crooked teeth, which, if left alone, can lead to further problems, her ears would never develop into a medical issue. She wanted the surgery due to the intense bullying she faced. And seeing her looking happy and saying she sees “a new me, a beautiful girl,” in the mirror, it’s easy to think that the surgery has solved the problem.
However, the bullies who made Nadia so miserable that she contemplated suicide haven’t changed a bit. And while Nadia’s ears may have been the subject of the insults thrown at her, it’s a mistake to think that unusual physical features, or “facial deformities” are the only things that may make someone a target for bullying. Just about anything can provide a “justification” for bullying: the “wrong” look, the “wrong” clothes, the “wrong” background, or any of an infinite number of reasons. No one can successfully control whether or not a child becomes a target for bullying, and no one can guarantee that Nadia’s life will improve with her new surgeries.
At the beginning of the newscast, the ABC anchor introduces the story by saying “Usually [plastic surgery] is not the kind of thing we encourage,” but by the end of the newscast he seems to have changed his tune, chiming in with, “She looks fantastic.” The surgeon who operated on her says, “She wasn’t picked to have her surgery because she was bullied. She was picked for her surgery because of her deformities.” In other words, the surgery was important because it made her look more beautiful. And, as the news anchor says, it was clearly a success.
I can’t help but think that it’s less than helpful to comment on the looks of this girl who changed her face so that people would stop commenting on her looks. That casual comment from the news anchor is just the latest in a long history of people treating women’s bodies as if they’re up for public opinion. And Nadia’s plastic surgery is just the latest in a long history of women conforming their own bodies to more easily navigate a world where not being beautiful is considered unacceptable. It’s the patriarchal bargain: Nadia may be genuinely happy with her new self, but it contributes to a world where women are always the ones who have to change.
I’m not cynical enough to be unmoved by how serene and confident Nadia appears to be now—I genuinely hope that her emotional state improves, and that she remains happy about her choice. But a world where it seems like a better option to operate on a 14-year-old girl rather than change the bullying culture is troubling.
Magdalena Newhouse is a senior at Oberlin College, where she teaches a class on body positivity and fat acceptance.