Cosmetic Surgery for Teenagers
One of the many advances in modern healthcare is the ability of surgeons to alter the human body (and facial features) for purely cosmetic purposes. Cosmetic surgery has grown steadily in popularity in the last several decades to the point that procedures that were once relatively rare and mainly sought by professional entertainers and by individuals with serious disfigurement from injuries or congenital defects are now so routine that thousands of high school-age students request them, often as graduation gifts. Today, it is not at all unusual for teenage girls to undergo liposuction and breast augmentation while they are still so young that their parents must sign consent forms in order for the procedures to be performed legally. That raises serious concerns, particularly on the part of well-meaning parents because of the inherent risks involved and even more so because of the questionable sources of motivation for these desires.
Conceptualizing the Respective Risks and Benefits of Cosmetic Surgery
As is the case with all surgeries, cosmetic surgical procedures are associated with significant potential risks (Zuckerman & Abraham, 2008). Some of those risks include severe hemorrhaging during or after the procedure, nerve damage from accidental disruption of severing of nerve tissues, and serious (even potentially life threatening) post-surgical infections (Zuckerman & Abraham, 2008). While the relative risk of those complications are small for each individual patient, in the aggregate, virtually all of those possible complications will materialize thousands of times annually among the entire patient population undergoing all types of surgery, including elective surgery such as cosmetic procedures (Pitts-Taylor, 2007).
Most of those actual instances of complications are never known to patients contemplating cosmetic surgery and they often fail to consider the true risks that could actually materialize because every patient believes that he or she will not be among the relatively small number of patients who are harmed or even killed every year by their choice to undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgery. In 2007, the issue made national headlines after the mother of Hip-Hop artist Kanye West’s mother died from serious complications following her liposuction surgery (Lite & Dillon, 2007; News Medical.Net, 2007). Naturally, the prudent approach to cosmetic surgery is to balance these potential risks with the supposed benefits of these procedures.
In considering the benefits of cosmetic surgery, it is conceptually difficult to distinguish procedures that are sufficiently beneficial to warrant the respective risks associate with them from those that are not. In principle, one workable approach would be to consider whether or not the cosmetic feature being considered for change is one that is legitimately interfering with the quality of life of the individual or one that is much more superficial. An example of the former might be a conspicuous deformity that is not necessarily a cause of physical dysfunction but that is an understandable source of social anxiety capable of being ameliorated by a cosmetic procedure, such as a prominent birth mark on the face or a so-called “hair lip.” Meanwhile, an example of the latter would be breast augmentation intended to increase a B-cup to a C. Or D-cup or liposuction on a patient who is not at all overweight but merely self-conscious about a small fat deposit in a specific area of the body. On one hand, neither of these types of procedures is medically “necessary”; on the other hand, there is a fundamental difference between correcting an understandable source of social anxiety from a cosmetic deformity and the pursuit of physical “perfection” through cosmetic surgery (Levine, 2008; Tong, 2007).
The Relationship between Self-Esteem Issues and External Cosmetic Fixes
Volumes of empirical research as well as anecdotal data have documented the causal relationship between low self-esteem and obsessive concern over superficial appearance (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008). In principle, individuals with low self-esteem suffer from the perpetual perception that they are not good enough or attractive enough, very often completely irrespective of their qualities or actual level of physical attractiveness. In fact, a paradox exists in that it is not uncommon for those who are particularly attractive naturally to worry the most over their appearance for reasons having to do with the long-term effects on self-esteem attributable to constant compliments on one’s appearance. That is not to say that individuals who are attractive do not enjoy many social advantages over those who are very unattractive. However, the individuals with the healthiest self-esteem are typically those who are neither extremely attractive nor extremely unattractive but closer to being average looking (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008). That is because both highly attractive and unattractive people are often judged prematurely by the way that they look: good looking people, in particular, may come to believe that their primary value is their looks (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008).
The connection between self-esteem and desire for physical enhancement through cosmetic surgery pertains to all ages but is especially significant for teenagers by virtue of the extreme importance of self-esteem issues that normally are part of adolescent development (Pitts-Taylor, 2007). Therefore, if distinguishing between psychologically healthy and psychologically unhealthy reasons for desiring cosmetic surgical procedures is important in the general prospective patient population, it is only that much more important an issue in connection with teenagers.
The Influence of Modern Media on Teen Perceptions and Values
Naturally, the modern media are strong influences on adolescent values and perceptions of reality. Today, teenagers are bombarded with images of physical perfection in the air-brushed pictures in advertisements and in the carefully managed appearance of their favorite musical and motion picture artists. Similarly, the advertisement of so many cosmetic surgery procedures and clinics on television and in other forms of media promote the perception that cosmetic surgery is necessary or that it is a normal solution to any aspect of non-contentment with one’s physical appearance. At a more fundamental level, the popularity and increasingly common resort to surgery to correct minor physical imperfections also promotes the belief that physical perfection is the baseline for everyone.
Appropriate Parental Positions on the Issues
Parents whose children express the desire for cosmetic surgery should first consider whether or not the procedure at issue is an understandable source of unnecessary anxiety. Certainly, a harmless mole or a conspicuously large or crooked nose is a superficial issue; on the other hand, in principle, it is not any different from correcting crooked teeth with braces for cosmetic reasons. Generally, those types of cosmetic procedures should be considered in a different manner than the types of enhancements that are genuinely superficial, such as breast augmentation for teenagers. Generally, parents of all teenagers should emphasize that looks are superficial but parents of teenagers who wish to ameliorate a conspicuous (albeit cosmetic) source of understandable social anxiety might be well advised to pursue a cosmetic fix. Conversely, parents of teenagers who desire to enhance their looks in the pursuit of perfection might be best advised to deny those requests. At the very least, they might condition any consideration of such desires upon consultation with psychological experts capable of evaluating and addressing potential underlying self-esteem and other psychological factors that might be issues responsible for the desire for truly superficial cosmetic enhancements.
Gerrig, R. And Zimbardo, P. (2008). Psychology and Life. New Jersey: Pearson.
Levine, C. (2008). Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Bioethical Issues. 12th Ed. Dubuque
Iowa: McGraw Hill.
Lite, J. And Dillon, N. (2007). “Kanye West’s mom dies after cosmetic surgery” The New
York Daily News, November 13, 2007. Retrieved June 26, 2011, from:
News Medical.Net. (2007). “Risks of cosmetic surgery under the spotlight again”
Retrieved June 26, 2011, from:
Pitts-Taylor, V. (2007). Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture.
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Tong, R. (2007). New Perspectives in Health Care Ethics: An Interdisciplinary and Cultural Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Zuckerman, D. And Abraham, A. “Teenagers and Cosmetic Surgery: Focus on Breast
Augmentation and Liposuction.” Journal of Adolescent Health (April 2, 2008).
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