An interesting case study involving the human body can be found in Brazil. Here, elective plastic surgery by women has seen a surge in popularity. The high demand has made the price come down, and opened the market to the middle and lower classes. Brazilians see this change as positive, and many point to the rise as a direct result of growing economic prosperity. This perspective is especially popular with Brazilian news media.
The growing prosperity of the middle class has allowed millions of people to have their ideals of beauty to be realized through plastic surgery. This demonstrates a case where material factors caused a social transformation, a core principle of economic anthropology. This analysis may be partially true, but is believed by a least one anthropologist to be incomplete. One anthropologist observed that the increase in plastic surgery (or “plástiqa”) is not because of increasing economic prosperity, citing data showing that the rise of plastic surgery was during the 1980’s and 1990’s when Brazil saw mounting economic inequality.
Edmonds (2010) argues that a range of problems—with social origins—manifest themselves as “aesthetic defects”. This manifestation can be treated by the so-called beauty industry. In this way, systemic problems can be “solved” with a procedure. The women who choose to have these procedures (it is almost exclusively women) do so for many reasons, including some who believe that having their nose changed, or breasts augmented, would allow them to earn more money—women make up much of the service industry in Brazil. This illustration of patriarchal power is not atypical, and demonstrates the power of a male dominated hegemony. The author analyzes this phenomenon using the ideology of feminist anthropology. Women know that they are more likely to be hired if they are closer to a socially recognized standard of beauty.
It goes without saying that there are ethical issues with treating poverty or low self-esteem with surgical procedures—but the doctors see themselves as therapists, treating the mental, not physical conditions of the patients. Their laissez-faire attitude towards plastic surgery seems incongruent with our American ideal of health care, but most doctors see the underlying social problems. As one plastic surgeon put it: “her principle illness is poverty”. Brazil has a long history with distorted perceptions of physical beauty, and stereotypes of women with exaggerated curves are pervasive. Globalization of western ideals of beauty have led to women wanting to look more “western”. This has led to women desiring tan skin—but having surgeries to correct noses that look “negroid”—the way they describe African facial features. The combination of global media and Brazilian aesthetics of race and beauty has produced a form of body modification that acts as a proxy for many social issues of the working class.
 Edmonds, A. The poor have the right to be beautiful?: Cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute J Royal Anthropological Inst, 363-381.