Symbol of Excess: Is Any Publicity Good Publicity In Medicine?

By Patricia Walling

Once upon a time, cosmetic surgery was talked about in hushed tones.

Hollywood starlets were whisked through back doors into surgical suites, swathed in scarves and sunglasses to protect even the whisper of an identity. Then celebrities began talking, and soon Americans were seemingly obsessed with the transformative promises of cosmetic surgery. From requests for Nicole Kidman’s nose to Angelina Jolie’s lips, cosmetic surgeons were soon being asked to transform patients into lesser versions of their favorite stars. Larger breasts, higher cheekbones and a smaller chin soon became normal requests. Yet some may wonder, has this quest for perfection taken a toll on the American psyche? When is cosmetic surgery a beneficial procedure, and when is it simply one more symbol of excess and vanity in an increasingly image-oriented society? There are no easy answers.

When reality TV starlet Heidi Montag announced in January of 2010 that she had undergone a marathon of cosmetic surgery, racking up 10 procedures in a single day, many wondered if her dreams of the perfect body and face hadn’t become an obsession. However others in the medical community, such as those in medical transcription, saw in the 10 surgical procedures something more terrifying, addiction.

By all accounts, Montag was beautiful, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman with a natural smile, but when discussing the plastic surgery procedures with People Magazine, she referred to herself as “an ugly duckling.” From a mini brow-lift to Botox to liposuction to breast and buttock augmentations, the procedures nearly killed Montag, but she stood firm behind her decision, saying Hollywood’s visions of beauty had pressured her into it. However, apparently 10 surgeries were still not enough. When the hoopla died down around the reality star’s new look, her husband announced later that year that she wanted to augment her breasts again. The surgery was to be filmed for a new reality show they were shopping. Was her subsequent admission to a plastic surgery addiction just another reality show ploy or did the superficial nature of Hollywood push her to a true addiction?

These days, it seems that more and more women feel the need to get some type of plastic surgery to order to achieve the Hollywood beauty ideal. According to an article in Medical News Today cosmetic surgery procedures increased an astonishing 700 percent between 1995 and 2005. Similarly, in an in an article discussing the psychological ramifications of Montag’s procedures, Fox News noted that 91 percent of all patients opting to have elective cosmetic surgery were women. While the average age of a patient wanting plastic surgery has not skewed younger, it has become far more socially acceptable for individuals, generally women, in their teens and 20s to have plastic surgery procedures.

A teenager going under the knife is hardly news anymore, but even children are getting in on the act. One mother recently made headlines when her seven-year old daughter had her ears pinned back and a fold on one ear corrected. An article in the New York Daily News details the mother’s decision, which she said was made to prevent bullying. She recounts adults making comments about her daughter’s ears, in front of her daughter. Oftentimes other children would refer to the girl’s ears as “gross” and wonder what had caused them to look strange. The plastic surgeon that performed the procedure, Dr. Steven Pearlman, agreed that children born with seemingly minor differences can face major harm in terms of the “development of their self-identity” if such deformities are not corrected. All of this raises the specter of a major ethical conundrum. At what point is it appropriate to refuse a patient’s cosmetic surgery procedure? What problems can be fixed through therapy or friendships rather than rhinoplasty and brow lifts? There is no easy answer.

A list of guidelines published by Mayo Clinic notes a number of things that individuals considering cosmetic surgery should keep in mind. Beyond considerations about expense and risk, individuals should think about what they expect the procedure will accomplish. If a woman believes that having Angelina Jolie’s lips will make her look like Angelina Jolie, she will be disappointed with the results. Likewise, if she believes that the procedure will make her happier, she is likely to be equally as disappointed.

While it is possible that a patient with reasonable expectations will experience a boost in self-esteem, cosmetic surgery is not the panacea of the average and aging as portrayed by popular culture. A patient’s depression won’t improve just because her chin no longer juts out. Plastic surgery won’t turn a patient into the epitome of female beauty, nor will it save a marriage or improve a social life. It short, no amount of plastic surgery can buy happiness.

A Fox News article discussed the specific implications of Heidi Montag’s surgery shortly she revealed her totally remodeled body. Among those who weighed in on the pros and cons of plastic surgery was Debbie Then, a psychologist who specializes in women and appearance. She fears that many people who go under the knife, especially at a young age, want to change who they are as individuals, something that is simply not possible to do through cosmetic procedures. A new nose might give an individual confidence, but it will not suddenly transform her from a wallflower into a social butterfly. Yet, that’s just what popular culture seems to teach.

From teasing about big ears to beliefs that women lose something of themselves as they age, the reasons individuals opt for cosmetic surgery are numerous. Yes, there is an element of vanity to their decisions, and certainly plastic surgery is more common in cultures with significant disposable incomes, but the heart of the matter is in the values that are placed on beauty above personal substance. If a woman wants to fix her nose or plump her lips, she should not be reviled for doing so, no more than a man should be reviled for getting hair plugs. Improving one’s appearance in an effort to feel better about oneself is perfectly acceptable. However when that need to better oneself physically surpasses any belief in the intrinsic values of each individual’s personality, it is time to question the role cosmetic surgery has assumed in the popular conscience.

About: Patricia Walling is a contributor for several healthcare related blogs, including She self-identifies as a perpetual student of health care, and is based in Washington state.