Implanting oppression

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It hasn't been a great winter for the breast implant industry. First the French company Poly Implant Prothèse (PIP) was discovered to be using industrial instead of medical grade silicon to fill its implants.

Now surgeons from the British Association of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons want to ban advertising of cosmetic surgery altogether. It is extraordinary that it has taken them so long to notice that there's an ethical problem with surgery being offered with BOGOFs (Buy One Get One Free) and the sickening "yummy mummy makeover" packages of surgery for women shortly after they've given birth, or those particularly aimed at newly-divorced older women.

An advertising ban would be a relief from the airbrushed images of Barbie-like "perfection" that surround us, but it's not going to solve the problem of why so many women are unhappy with their bodies.

Thirty years ago women had breast implants as part of reconstructive surgery or because they worked in the porn industries. Now, thanks to the rise of "raunch culture", the relentless commodification of our bodies and the sexualisation of popular culture, millions of women around the world are sold breast implants as the solution to the dissatisfaction they feel with their bodies. But, as one Marxist once put it, "ideas do not fall from heaven and nothing comes to us in a dream" and women are not born feeling misshapen, ugly or unfeminine.

We learn what is viewed as acceptable and "normal". The relentless bombardment of images of "ideal" female bodies mean that most of us are too thin, or more often too fat, and we don't have the right size breasts. And because of our alienation, our lack of control over our own lives, we attempt to reclaim some control by trying to make ourselves more attractive. We are sold the solutions through diets, exercise regimes, padded bras and then implants.

The companies selling cures for insecurities that they have helped create do so for enormous profits. In Britain implant operations used 10 percent of all PIP's implants sold worldwide. Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 30 percent increase in implant operations compared to the previous two years and a further 10 percent increase from 2009 to 2010.

So it was inevitable that someone would eventually cut corners to increase their profits. That company turned out to be PIP. Jean-Claude Mas, PIP's recently arrested owner, saved 11 million euros since 2001 when his company started filling implants with industrial-grade silicon suitable for mattresses.

Saving 1 million euros a year might not appear a lot, much less than a banker's bonus, but it meant that PIP implants cost one eighth of its industry rivals'. It also meant that women with less money, working class women, got these implants rather than better quality ones. But for capitalists the importance of that competitive edge makes the risks worthwhile, and it's not as if they are using them on their own families.

Another company that made huge amounts of money from PIP's implants is The Hospital Group. It has offered free removal of the implants it used between 2001 and 2009, and has also offered to replace the implants for a subsidised rate of "only" £1,500, but there is a catch. The women have to sign a waiver of their legal rights and they have to promise not to talk to the press.

Meanwhile women are expressing the fear that they are going through. Many cannot find out whether they have had PIP implants or not, partly because many private clinics have not kept proper records. Some women are saving every penny to get replacements as fast as possible, but others just don't have the money.

An online questionnaire from Clinical Partners found women depressed, anxious and insomniac with worry: "One woman said she felt as though she had an alien inside her. Another said, 'I am back to feeling disgusted and unhappy with my body."

There is a relatively straightforward solution to this horrible situation. The NHS should provide check-ups and screening with free removal and replacements of PIP implants and charge the cost to the private clinics that fitted them.

But the misery women experience when they are unhappy with their bodies will not be solved by an advert ban, better implants or even curbing parasitic private clinics. We will have to rid ourselves of oppression and alienation, which means getting rid of capitalism. As Leon Trotsky put it, a "deep going plough is needed to uproot the heaviest clods of earth". In Egypt women are leading in the revolution, proving that the most effective makeover, making history, will change their lives for ever.