Macho makeover

Aurora Prize Winner Michael Atkinson studies male cosmetic surgery phenomenon

Date published: 2/25/2008 1:21:25 PM

Three years after receiving his doctorate, McMaster University sociologist Michael Atkinson has already gained a reputation as a pathbreaking researcher.

His analyses of social control and social deviance as revealed in tattooing, body modification and violence in sport demonstrate the creative thinking, rigorous fieldwork and theoretical sophistication that made him the unanimous choice for the 2004 SSHRC Aurora Prize.

Atkinson wants to provoke reflection and increase awareness among both social scientists and ordinary Canadians. His latest research centres on the rapidly increasing numbers of Canadian youth and men who choose to undergo cosmetic surgery.

Do the skyrocketing rates of male cosmetic surgery and the popularity of television programs like Extreme Makeover and Nip/Tuck merely show that individuals are choosing new ways of self-expression and self-improvement made possible by modern medical technology?

Or do they reveal something darker about the social forces at work in Canada? "There are indications," says Atkinson, "that, as a society, we are imposing ideals of beauty that most people simply cannot attain, that we are privileging form over function and style over substance. This raises hard questions about the values and priorities we unconsciously learn from the society in which we live."

For example, is greater equality between the sexes taking the form of stressed-out professional women forced to sacrifice quality of life for career advancement and insecure men willing to sacrifice their health for social approval and professional success?

Atkinson won't draw premature conclusions, but it is clear that his ongoing research will have a lot to teach Canadians about the significance of popular social practices that most of us take for granted.

Michael Atkinson's research on male cosmetic surgery is supported by a SSHRC Standard Research Grant.