I recently read an article about women from Argentina suing French company Poly Implant Prostheses (PIP) and two German companies (TUV Rheinland and Allianz) over faulty, leaking breast implants. More than 300,000 women worldwide had unknowingly had low-grade industrial silicone (not fit for human use) put into their implants. The plaintiffs recently won their case against TUV Rheinland, which had certified the implants. The verdict in the case against PIP and its founder, Jean-Claude Mas, is expected to be announced in December 2013.
This affair had me thinking about society, our currently promoted perceptions of beauty and the price many women (and men) are willing to pay to achieve that, and the inherent risks involved. The acronym PHAT is a popular — and, some would say, chauvinistic — acronym for pretty hot and tempting, but nowadays it might as easily stand for plastic helpings and tucks, given society’s current obsession with altering physical beauty and, more worryingly, our ability to now achieve it.
Your lips aren’t full like Angelina Jolie’s? Get Botox treatment. Your chest is too flat? Get breast augmentation — it’s an everyday procedure now! You don’t have a butt like Jennifer Lopez’s? There’s a fix for that too! The worst part of this modern epidemic, in my opinion, is that the women (and men) who are the guinea pigs for these procedures now find it acceptable. Popular media has seen this become embedded in our subconscious with shows like Nip/Tuck, Extreme Makeover and Dr. 90210.
Plastic surgery refers to surgical correction or restoration of a form or function, the word plastic referring to plasticity (shaping and remolding of tissue). There are two main streams of the practice:
1. Reconstructive plastic surgery — this is to correct functional impairments caused by events such as physical trauma, burns, congenital or developmental abnormalities, and the ravages of some diseases (e.g. cancer, leprosy).
2. Reconstructive/cosmetic plastic surgery — this is done to improve appearances or remove signs of aging.
Of course, reconstructive surgery used for health purposes can also be cosmetic — for example, liposuction and breast augmentation — and the lines can be blurred. A breast cancer victim may have a breast job to aid in psychological recovery after she’s had a mastectomy. A dangerously obese individual may have a liposuction done to remove diabetes-inducing abdominal fat, while the same technique will be had by someone else purely so that person can get rid of unsightly cellulite. But, as with all surgical procedures, there are risks involved related to use of anaesthesia, including pneumonia (and, in rare cases, death), in addition to infection, scarring and cardiovascular complications.
The question that comes to my mind is, when these procedures are being done not for medical reasons but for aesthetic ones, at what point do the risks outweigh the benefits? We are living in an age where cosmetic surgery is no longer just for the rich; people can get loans to do these procedures, much like they do to buy a car. Of course it is still at a prohibitive cost to some, but rather than do without, some folks take larger risks to get these nips and tucks done.
As we’ve seen in the PIP trial, not every company offering affordable procedures or products can be trusted in a global economy based on capitalism and greed. The risks increase when the tools being used are themselves faulty, or when the person performing the procedures isn’t properly qualified. Earlier this year, the Royal College of Surgeons in the UK put out a media notice encouraging people to ensure that they use only qualified surgeons and avoid hosting or attending events such as Botox parties. They also encouraged practitioners to work with clinical psychologists prior to operations in order to ensure that procedures were necessary and that people were not suffering from conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder — a condition in which people show excessive concern about and preoccupation with a perceived defect in their physical appearance. It’s worrying that such body dissatisfaction can be due not only to factors such as low self-esteem and self-confidence but also can be due to, or result in, real psychological problems.
Cosmetic surgery is a multibillion-dollar industry, and in the past decade there has been a significant rise globally in the number of women and men going under the knife. Comparing 1997 and 2011 in the U.S. alone, there was a 164% increase in surgical procedures among women (breast augmentation and reduction, liposuction, eyelid surgery and abdominoplasty being the top five procedures), with an 88% increase for men in the same period (mostly for rhinoplasty, liposuction, breast reduction and eyelid surgery). Recently, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS) conducted a poll showing that there was a 31% increase in requests for surgery because of photo sharing on social media.
Not only is the modern epidemic linked to our self-perception and that of others, but it can have an impact on our economic lives as well. A recent study showed that in Italy, a male-centric society, women who are considered more attractive are more likely to get jobs over those considered less attractive, and another in Argentina showed a similar trend for men. It’s still a superficial world out there, where the eyes have it. Considering that most people naturally do not look like the fantasy models perpetuated by popular media, it seems to me that we are artificially creating this “need this look” culture, and the problems associated with it — both physical and psychological — may not end anytime soon.