Body image and medicalization: Socially relevant behavioral “addictions” beyond drug use

We know that addiction can go beyond drug use, but are we becoming addicted to making our bodies perfect?

I put “addiction” in parentheses here because I think it’s important to distinguish substance-related addictions from behavioral ones. There’s no doubt that people’s behavior can become compulsive in the same way addicts become compulsive about using, but I’ve seen no evidence that behavioral addictions interfere with brain function in the way that cocaine, methamphetamine, and opiates alter actual brain mechanisms.

Still, this recent trend of obsessive plastic surgery is a dual-headed “addiction”, one that is both physical and social.  In many ways, people are now able to change aspects of their being that were once thought unalterable including their own physical appearances. To gain social acceptance, if you have money, you now have new tools!

This may also play a big role for those who are love addicted, at least if they have money…

Medicalization, What is it?

Plastic SurgeryThis new preoccupation with changing our bodies is called medicalization and according to recent article, there are many factors that may play a role in the development of this new trend according to the researchers involved.  They specifically note the decrease in religion for many people and the increase in the prestige of medical techniques as leading to the social factors surrounding the desire to change one’s looks. The term medicalization also refers to the idea that people of all ages and backgrounds now take “happy pills” for a variety of reasons to make their lives better. Look here for an earlier article on Michael Jackson’s possible addiction to prescription medication and obviously his eventual overdose death.

According to this recent research, the usage of plastic surgery and happy pills (or medicalization) is said to affect three areas: conceptual (idea that one will adopt to a social acceptance), institutional (the relationship the doctor plays), and interactive (the private relationship of patient and doctor).

Medicalization is said to often stem from a withdrawn personality, and any sort of pre-existing psychological or psychosocial issues will contribute to and worsen the effects of needing to be accepted by society. Here, people often want to manage their behaviors or appearances that are deviant from the rest of society and use medicalization to reach that conformity.

From a Darwinian point of view changing one’s appearance to become stronger or more confident is a natural thing to do to survive. Every country has different views and approaches to plastic surgery but most do partake in it to a certain extent. This dissatisfaction with one’s body also affects men and women equally.

According to this article, medicalization truly becomes an addiction when the patient has an obsessive yearning to continually make themselves perfect, and thus continue obtaining more plastic surgeries. There are three main reasons contributing to the rise of medicalization in America:

1. The constant exposure to Hollywood and television

2. The medical advances that make it easier and safer to use

3. The increase in acceptability and desire to have plastic surgery

It is said that people are now obsessed with their health.  People want to be perfect and take pills to avoid cancer, and other diseases as well as change their appearance regularly to look “healthier”.  Is this hurting the rest of society who cannot or do not want to partake in medicalization?

As I pointed above, I think that this obsession with medical procedures, especially when it comes to plastic surgery, can best be grouped with some of the other behavioral addictions including sex addiction, love addiction, gambling addiction, and so on. Unless the individual is partly compulsive about medical procedures because they like the drugs they are given during and after surgery, it seems to me that addictions that make use of our brain’s normal functioning are different than ones that hijack our brains and change the way they work. There is no doubt in my mind that both types of addictions have very similar factors associated with them, but the chemical difference is a big one in my opinion.

I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more and continue to cover it for you here at A3.


Addiction to Cosmetic Surgery: Representations and Medicalization of the Body. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. October 2008. Volume 6, Number 4.

Co- author: Jamie Felzer

3 responses to “Body image and medicalization: Socially relevant behavioral “addictions” beyond drug use”

  1. Great site!! Very interesting!
    I find this article very helpful and shocking!@


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