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Teen cosmetic surgery on the rise

Published: 
Monday, August 8, 2011

Society has always valued beauty. In literature, attractiveness often symbolises an admirable protagonist, while ugliness indicates the abominable antagonist. As children we are taught, without even realising it, to prize beauty. People of every race and culture have gone to extremes in the name of beauty – from foot-binding in China, to dangerously constricting corsets in Victorian times and nose jobs in 800 BC India. While plastic surgery has been around since ancient times, it has only recently become accepted by the masses. Television programmes that promote plastic surgery expose the public to a business once kept under wraps. Reality television embraces the topic due to its shock value, however, the public is becoming more and more accustomed to the idea of plastic surgery.

Not only have these programmes created a generation that isn’t fazed by images of blood, botox, or bandages; sometime during the process of beautifying average teenage girls, they have implanted something besides silicone. The belief that cosmetic surgery will improve lives. Now, not only do people accept plastic surgery, they embrace it as a solution to personal and professional problems. While appearance has always been important, mainstream acceptance of plastic surgery has created a society that values appearance over ability. Only a couple of decades ago it was considered taboo to admit having “work” done, and it was not unusual for patients to take extreme measures – sneaking into doctors’ offices through the back door, or using fake names – to hide the fact. As noted in the New York Times article ‘The Doctor Will See You, and Your Party, Now’ by Anna Bahney, more teenagers became interested in procedures after seeing them on TV and researching them online. Currently, plastic surgery is so commonplace that instead of scheduling secretive meetings, teenagers often bring consenting parents, siblings, or friends to consultations.

Our reality television shows are modern fairy tales. They all use a common formula: take an average, unhappy individual, alter her appearance, and after a surgical transformation she is magically a success. While the message is the same, there is one difference: these aren’t fictional characters, they’re real people. The confidence that comes from a new nose or liposuction is only temporary – physically (many procedures are not permanent and need to be repeated) as well as emotionally. Often, teenagers’ insecurities about their appearance are symptoms of underlying psychological issues, such as depression, and may be temporarily alleviated by surgery. But this temporary confidence is nothing in comparison to the confidence one can obtain by excelling in sports, academics, or a hobby. Marketing cosmetic surgery as a confidence-booster increases profits, but it also gives teenagers unrealistic expectations. They believe that their life will change and are disappointed when it doesn’t.
After undergoing plastic surgery, many teenage girls finally feel accepted. By transforming into an ideal beauty, they earn the approval of others and receive positive attention. Some teenage girls even have ‘coming-out parties.’ But while plastic surgery may appear to increase confidence, it’s often an illusion – even to the patients themselves, who might confuse real self-esteem with the joy of feeling as though others approve of their appearance.

People have always altered their bodies, mainly through diet or exercise, so it’s no surprise that many view themselves as changeable. But what causes someone to want to alter his or her body? We all seek approval – from parents, family and friends. Even if it’s a subconscious desire, everyone wants to be deemed acceptable. Plastic surgery can gain the approval of others, but why should you care about the opinion of people who don’t see you for who you are on the inside? Parents often pressure their children to do well academically, but with plastic surgery becoming so accepted, some parents are pressuring their children to have cosmetic work. Children as young as six are undergoing minor procedures, and 13-year-olds are having nose jobs. Doctors and parents who support these surgeries claim that the child understands. However, it’s more probable that she realises her parents want her to change, and is willing to comply. Many teenage girls desire to meet social expectations of beauty. Women are socialised to see themselves as objects to be looked at, and consequently view themselves from the perspective of others. Consequently, the more shame a teenage girl feels about not having met socially defined standards of beauty, the more likely it is for her to accept cosmetic surgery.

Plastic surgery constantly appears in pop culture. Many celebrities have had cosmetic surgery, and the American public is constantly exposed to images of these altered humans. This acceptance of plastic surgery, as well as the value of appearance over ability, affects youth. Children play with toys like Barbie dolls and burly action figures, with bodies that are physically impossible to achieve. Exposure to these ‘ideals’ is damaging to the self-esteem of teenagers. People have always wanted to look like society’s ideal. With so much importance placed on appearance, other attributes often come second. Teenagers are learning that they should aim to be beautiful instead of intelligent. It’s even a common practice for parents in the United States to reward high school graduates with nose jobs, breast implants, or liposuction. But is cosmetic surgery an appropriate reward for years of hard work and academic achievement? In American culture, the mould of an ‘attractive’ person is getting smaller and less forgiving of any differences.

Shanta Dookran
Senior Press Pass Correspondent
University of the West Indies,
St. Augustine