Cosmetic Surgery: Modification or Mutilation?

Photo by Aiena Zahira Daim (Flickr CC 2.0)

Contributing Writer Lanya Liebler-Bendix, ’20

From Botox injections to leg-elongating procedures, the lengths that people will go to emulate a specific beauty idea seem limitless. Cosmetic surgery has become a thriving and prosperous industry in America, where people spent over 16 billion dollars on surgical enhancements in 2016 alone.  Like many other nations, the current culture and society of America feed directly into the thriving cosmetic industry. The phenomenon of cosmetic surgery is on the rise globally, with 23,266,374 people turning to this elective procedure each year. Yet medical risks, emotional tolls, and financial burdens are at the heart of these procedures. 

Although the practice of cosmetic surgery is spread ubiquitously around the world, each nation differs regarding the most popular procedures, which usually aim to emulate the country’s determined standard of beauty at the time. A common trend in American cosmetic surgeries is fat reduction procedures; this is most likely because obesity is not only highly stigmatized but also anti-obesity campaigns are completely normalized.

Although obesity is a national health concern, some people believe the stigma surrounding the issue also does considerable harm. Dr. Linda Bacon, a professor, researcher, and author of two best-selling books about health and body thinks “weight stigma does not reduce ‘obesity‘—and health care should be about self-care and promoting the health of the person in all its forms.” This opinion is not well-received in America, and the sentiment continues to be shot down. This normalization has contributed to the 286,388 people in the U.S. who had liposuction done in 2018, making it the second most common elective procedure. 

In both South Korea and China, cosmetic surgeries have been taken to a different level. South Korea, specifically the capital Seoul, is known for being a cosmetic surgery mecca. Most of the customers are Chinese women who are known as “medical tourists,” people who travel abroad to have medical treatments. Often they go because the quality of treatment is equal or better, and the prices are lower than clinics near them. According to a Huffington Post article, “About 50,000 foreign patients received plastic surgery in the country last year, paying a collective sum of $189 million for double eyelid surgeries, double jaw surgeries (a procedure that cuts and rearranges the upper and lower jawbones to create a slimmer jawline) and other various facial and body modifications.” 

As the appeal of cosmetic surgery has become pervasive in today’s world, unfortunately, so have the medical risks, mental and emotional toll on patients, and a substantial cost that bankrupts many or leads them to make poor choices.

Today, many U.S. teenagers receive cosmetic surgery as a gift when they graduate from high school or college. In 2006, 244,124 procedures were performed on teenagers from ages 13-19, which included about 47,000 nose jobs and 9,000 breast augmentations, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Although the idea of gifting plastic surgery is growing, the ethics behind it are often questioned for a good reason. Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D. and President of the National Center for Health Research, writes about elective cosmetic procedures on healthy adolescents in an article in the AMA Journal of Ethics. One of the main concerns about cosmetic modifications for teenagers is that their bodies are still developing and always changing. Not only can cosmetic surgery mess with the homeostasis of the body, but it can also alter things that the body hasn’t developed yet. Therefore by the time a teen fully develops, their “need” for certain plastic surgery may have changed.

Another problem with getting cosmetic procedures in adolescence is understanding the risks and processes of the surgeries. Research done by the University of Rochester Medical Center has shown that the brain does not fully develop until around the age of 25, so there is a concern whether teenagers will rationally consider the risks of undergoing possible life-threatening procedures. Any surgery, elective or not, regardless of how big or small, needs to be taken seriously. 

Writer Alexander Edmonds from the LA Times discusses his view on cosmetic surgery and why it should be banned. Edmonds is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Amsterdam as well as the author of “Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex and Plastic Surgery in Brazil.” In 2010, a scandal was revealed involving a French company called Poly Implant Prothese selling breast implants around the world made of low-quality silicon, resulting in some women getting cancer. These breast implants were also 2 to 6 percent more likely to rupture. Edmonds writes about the vast area these implants were sold, covering 65 countries around the world. As a staunch opponent of breast augmentation surgery, he goes even as far as to say that it could be considered a violation of the Hippocratic Oath as elective cosmetic surgery has potential harm without curing and or preventing any disease.

The negative impact of unrealistic beauty ideals is apparent in the mental and emotional costs of cosmetic surgery. Using advertisements and other media, the industry itself preys on people’s insecurities to make them feel that they need to alter their appearances. For example, there have been numerous reality TV shows in the U.S. about cosmetic surgery such as “Dr. 90210,” “Nip/Tuck,” and “I Want a Famous Face.” In South Korea, the appeal is the same for shows such as “Let Me In” and “Back to My Face.” Both take a regular person who has had no surgery, point out their flaws, and then show the after effects and the current face, which has been enhanced. These shows lead many teenagers to believe that changing one part of their body will improve themselves or raise their self-esteem, but no studies examine and prove any long-term benefits.

In 2013, the growing phenomenon of cosmetic surgery turned the annual Miss Korea pageant into a “clone parade” as the online magazine Gawker claims. With many of the contestants looking eerily similar, concern about South Korea’s plastic surgery normalization has became a growing dialogue. 

The similarity is attributed to all the contestants getting cosmetic surgery to achieve more prominent eyes, smaller noses, but heightened nose bridges and v-shaped jawlines, among other things that adhere to the popular beauty ideal in Korea. Other news organizations such as the entertainment magazine E! have commented on K-pop stars and actors whose appearances seem to resemble identical twins. 

Along with this, the South Korean Government also put out guidelines on look-alike K-pop stars, discouraging the mimicking of their appearances to try to promote diversity. However, citizens called the suggestions censorship and compared them to the 1980s, a time when South Korea was under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The economic costs of elective cosmetic surgery are substantial, and health insurance rarely covers the fees. For safe operation, thousands of dollars are required. Since many people do not have this kind of money lying around, people are driven to seek out lesser clinics that may not be as expensive but also are not as safe, which can result in cosmetic surgery nightmares. 

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average cost of the most common procedure done worldwide, breast augmentation, is $3,824. However, that does not cover anesthesia, operating room facilities, or other expenses. The total cost would be closer to $6,450. Many times women cannot pay off their initial surgery and end up needing corrective surgery as well but do not have the funds for it.

In a recent event, four felons opened up cosmetic surgery facilities and advertised low-cost procedures. The inexpensive costs drew many people in for breast augmentations and tummy tucks. Unfortunately, the criminals were not licensed to practice these surgeries, the operating rooms were not sterile, and 13 women ended up dead and many others suffered severe injuries. This cost-cutting, unsafe clinic is not the only one getting business, and because people do not have the money for safe surgery, they end up with botched procedures in their attempt to beautify themselves.

As the phenomenon of aesthetic cosmetic surgery is gaining popularity around the world, medical risks, emotional tolls, and finances burden these procedures. It is important that any risks associated with cosmetic surgery be fully publicized and explained to prospective patients. At the end of the day, cosmetic surgery is elective and the choice lies in each person. 

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