Should Plastic Surgery Make People Happy?


From television shows like Extreme Makeover to tabloids featuring Heidi Montag, cosmetic plastic surgery has reached a new level of proliferation within North American society. Meanwhile, our European counterparts are taking a stand by banning excessively airbrushed advertising because it misleads consumers and can even lead to serious mental illness. In recent years, rates of plastic surgery procedures in the United States alone increased dramatically, with 14.8 million procedures being performed in 2004 and 16.2 million in 2006.

But we, as a society, should be weary of plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons, as it trivializes medicine. 

Historically, the tragedies of war provided a catalyst for developments in reconstructive plastic surgery. Plastic surgeons gradually realized their skills for beauty enhancement as well. This transition in thought resulted in the development of breast augmentation, liposuction, and anti-aging face lift procedures coupled with injectables, just to name a few. However, today the cosmetic plastic surgery industry has devolved from a medical practice into an insufficiently regulated business, and poses significant threat to progressive society and to the integrity of medicine.

Advertisements in newspapers, magazines, and on the internet intend to generate a sense of need and personal dissatisfaction, which desensitizes consumers to the reality that these procedures are not intended for any actual medical condition. Additionally, in this consumer-directed marketing there is a complete disregard for complications such as “pain, bruising, swelling, discoloration, infections, formation of scar tissue, nerve damage ... etc.” These ads deceitfully liken shopping for a new nose to shopping for a new pair of shoes. In this respect, consumers should demand that advertising for beautification products be supplemented by labeling standards similar to those associated with organic foods.

Additionally, plastic surgery plays a key role in inhibiting societal change by moving us towards an increasingly standardized, appearance-based society. A woman who wants breast augmentation or a child wanting to have his ears pinned back are just two examples of the way the values of North American society can dictate the desirability of a certain feature. 

In contrast, female genital mutilation and breast ironing in Africa are indicative of other social norms that focus on different forms of body modification for a specific aesthetic goal. In this case, cosmetic surgery emphasizes the importance of homogeneity within members of a society that prescribe to and internalize dominant social norms. As part of their practice, cosmetic plastic surgeons should deliver an American Medical Association-approved psychological assessment to all patients prior to delivering treatment in order to assuage concerns of mental illness.

Cosmetic plastic surgery, as a subgroup of medical consumerism, has serious ramifications for the trajectory of society. It epitomizes control over the human body and idolization of the individual consumer above society. This new contractual model of cosmetic surgery reflects a relationship between a physician and the consumer, where the customer alone determines a procedure's value without regard to health effects or potential risks. 

A main assumption in this individualization of the consumer is that the goal of medicine has been diverted from making people healthy to making them happy. In this sense, cosmetic surgery goes beyond the premise of the Hippocratic Oath, the medical tenet focused on healing, health promotion, and saving lives. 

Broadly speaking, the commodification of health trivializes the importance of medicine and transforms it into a profit-driven enterprise between the provider and consumer of the service. Although we live in democracies built upon values of liberty and freedom, it is important to ensure that a system of checks and balances is in place to safeguard vulnerable members of society.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons