I have been reflecting about plastic surgeries for a couple of weeks now. It started when my friend told me that his sister got breast implants. Later, I was watching my 1-year old daughter running around naked in the hallway, blissfully comfortable in her body and almost unaware of her nakedness. The thought of a surgical intervention simply to improve the appearance of her perfect little body never came up before, perhaps because the concept just seems unethical and unnecessary, even grotesque. Yet, the thought crossed my mind, and I cringed. Then, I went on to ruminate about how beautiful toddlers become imperfect adults later in life — at least according to the stereotypes of our modern society — and suddenly a cosmetic procedure becomes acceptable, even desirable. When does this transition happen? It occurred to me that my friend’s sister was once an innocent perfect-looking child, and I wondered when her dissatisfaction began.
When I first heard my friends’ news I was not surprised by it, rather, his comment came across as a confirmation of the impression I have of his sister. To be fair, I don’t know her very well, or at all. I met her only once in person during a trip to do rafting in the American River in Sacramento. She and I exchanged only a few words but I noticed that she was wearing fake eyelashes and that caught my attention, mainly because I would not wear them myself to do rafting. Beyond that first impression, I know her through my friend who has shared with me tales of their upbringing together and a couple of her romantic fallouts. I know that she has been slightly overweight until recently and that her family often thinks she could date people with brighter futures. So, I could not help but think that she got breast implants with the hope of finding love.
I feel sympathy for anyone starting their quest to find love on the operating table. Ten years ago, I was still learning how to love myself and I considered the same path. For me, the discomfort began in my teenage years when others pointed out that my nose was something that stood out from my appearance. Those comments, although mostly inoffensive, made me self-conscious about my nose’s shape. Later, the discontent grew with the typical insecurities of young age and the mismatch of this part of my body with the existing beauty stereotypes. Looking back, I recognize that growing up I was not dissatisfied with my nose. As an organ, this part of my body has been extraordinarily healthy throughout my life. I have never suffered from severe allergies, asthma, respiratory or nose bleeding issues. Thus, I am fortunate that my nose’s function is something that I never had to think about. But, when other people commented about this thing that sits in the middle of my face, I started obsessing about how it deviates from the beauty standard.
I know that my problem was never really my nose. In fact, I would have had an equivalent reaction if people had commented on anything else, such as my breasts, my weight or my chin. I would have just considered a different surgery. It was the mismatch between expectation and reality, a seed of dissatisfaction that tends to grow wildly in women, in adolescence or in old age. Being such a prevalent concern in a world where attractive and young people are rewarded for their looks, plastic surgeries can come across as empowering, a way to enhance confidence and self-satisfaction. I heard once that life is too short to spend it unsatisfied with ourselves, so why not let the doctors help us to increase our self-esteem? but I really think that the question we should be asking is: will cosmetic surgery make me happier?
If you search around the internet you can find information supporting your view about this topic regardless of what are your thoughts about it. Some scientific studies claim that most people are satisfied with the outcome of their surgery, with many reporting more confidence, joy and even a higher sense of life-satisfaction; the only regret these patients hold is not having done it before. Other studies show that liking or disliking your appearance does not predict if you’ll get plastic surgery; a better predictor is whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and choosing to undergo these interventions could be an indicator of mental health issues, such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) — the famous artist Andy Warhol comes to mind. These studies are imperfect because there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration along with those results, such as education, economic level and how normalized are those procedures in the patient’s social environment. I prefer a more conservative answer to the question ‘will plastic surgery improve my quality of life?’, and that is: ‘it depends’.
If you are the survivor of a fire incident or breast cancer, plastic surgery might do more than just improving your life, it could offer you a second chance to live a ‘normal’ life. If you are considering your 6th nose surgery because you are unsatisfied with the previous 5— like Michael Jackson did — you probably would be better off re-directing your money to a psychiatrist. As someone new to the world of plastic surgeries, I was surprised to find out that a significant portion of patients do fall in these two clear-cut categories. In 2019 the American Association of Plastic Surgeons (AAPS) reported that 25% of the plastic surgeries are reconstructive procedures, and a meta study revealed that up to 15% of cosmetic surgery patients suffer from body dysmorphic disorder. However, the majority of cases still fall in the grey area. These are mothers who want a tummy tuck after having kids or women getting breast implants because they are going through divorce and they want to get back in the dating game. It makes sense, cosmetic procedures are specially appealing to women whose genetics or age are not in their favor and want to level the playing field, and with good reason; whether we like it or not, women are valued all the time in terms of their appearance.
I decided to ask several women what they think about cosmetic surgeries, and everyone had either at least entertained the idea or is currently considering it. One of my friends has seriously looked into a process called lipo-sculpture, which is similar to liposuction but only removes small pockets of fat to give you muscle tone and shapeliness. In her first consultation, the surgeon explained the risks, such as possible damage to deeper structures such as nerves and abdominal organs. Naturally, my friend does not like these risks, but she would love to recover the body she had before having kids and comfortably wear a bikini. So, she is willing to make a bet for it. As she shared her thoughts with me, I kept wondering if she would look much different after the surgery. My honest assessment was that she could sculpt her abdomen — which right now is the average for a mother of two — to resemble Gwen Stefanie’s, but she would still have a larger frame due to her past pregnancies and an age-slowed metabolism, so, she would have to keep it up likely with more surgeries.
Some of my interviewees admitted that, although the idea has crossed their minds, they tend to judge those who choose this path to solve their self-esteem issues. Even my friend who is considering the lipo-sculpture procedure disagreed with her 70-year old mother who is thinking about getting a face-lift, a procedure that my friend considers unnecessary and inconsequential for a woman of her mother’s age. After I started paying attention, I realized that there is significant stigma around plastic surgeries in groups of people with higher education, and such negative connotations are reinforced by television shows — especially European ones— and other media formats who portray these practices as superficial, at best, or originated by mental health issues, at worst. After thinking about cosmetic surgeries for several days now, I began to think that the source of the stigma is lack of empathy. Regardless of education, most people struggle with some aspect of their appearance. However, if a given person lives in a country like the US, South Korea or Brazil, he/she is more likely to get a plastic surgery because they are affordable, accessible and normalized. After all, our behavior is modeled after our friends, family and the society we live in.
Yet, when I see my daughter I am reminded that we are not born hating our bodies. We learn it as we grow up while being exposed to unattainable beauty standards created by media campaigns and advertisement, and that is no joke. The dissatisfaction with our bodies is a huge market; in 2020, Americans spent $17.2 billion only in cosmetic procedures, and these numbers are expected to increase in 2021. Today, I would not risk my healthy nose by exposing it to a bistoury, and I prefer to focus on all the good things that it does for me. Yet, I still spend too much money on clothes, make up, skin and hair products. I wish for a world for my daughter and little girls where beauty and their bodies are not a commodity, a world where they can continue feeling comfortable with their bodies as they grow up. Plastic surgery is one way to empower them to feel better about themselves, but we can teach them instead that there is nothing wrong with their bodies or how they look. If we truly believe it, we might be able to convince ourselves of the same.
Sara Tafoya is a young professional and mother. A biophysicist by training, a ceramist by heart, an aspiring author and a chocolate enthusiast. She spends her time thinking about biotechnology and art, singing lullabies and making sense of her life experiences.