Vain or Virtuous?
April 18th, 2011

Where, along the plastic surgery continuum, do we leave vanity territory and enter the realm of good parenting?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about for the past few days.  Last week ABC’s segment on a 7-year-old who had her ears pinned back made the rounds of several other media outlets, getting coverage on both The Huffington Post and NYT’s Motherlode blog, and begging questions about the morality of plastic surgery – particularly in children.

When we think of plastic surgery we tend to think of vanity run amok.  We think of people who are too shallow to find value in traits other than the physical.  We think of women who prefer to turn back the clock, rather than to age gracefully.  But we don’t necessarily think about self-esteem.  I suppose it would be an easier issue to tackle if all plastic surgery candidates fit neatly into the stereotypical categories, but they don’t.  There are times – in my view, at least – when plastic surgery is the responsible parenting decision.  Some procedures provide breast implants.  But other procedures correct cleft palates.  How do we determine the difference?

The story of the little girl in ABC’s profile ties back to bullying.  For her, the surgery was a preventive measure against kids’ general meanness, especially as she approaches the adolescent years when children become less tolerant of others’ differences.  In her situation I can hardly blame her mother for wanting to spare her years of teen angst, the scarring from which can last a lifetime.  But hers is  a relatively clean-cut case (at least in my mind).  What about kids (or adults for that matter) for whom the reasons for plastic surgery are less universally accepted?

I struggle to draw this line because every case is different.  Even cases of breast augmentation differ.  I’ve known women who got breast implants merely to look more voluptuous or perky.  But I’ve also known women who got breast implants because they were naturally small busted and just didn’t feel very womanly in their boyish frames.  Their implants were modest and their self-esteem improved greatly after the surgery.  Similarly, I knew a girl growing up who had a prominent hooked nose and a somewhat sour disposition.  Eventually she had plastic surgery on her nose and with her updated visage came a much happier and more pleasant young woman.  Is this really all that different from orthodontics, contact lenses, or a standing appointment with a dermatologist?  (Obviously, major surgery is certainly different from a prescription for acne medication.  But the logic behind each situation is hails from the same family of thought.)

I suppose by this logic you could justify any procedure.  ”Will I feel better about myself if I look better?” is not a particularly tough requirement to fulfill.  And when do we teach our children the lessons about accepting both our good and bad qualities?  How do we teach them to accept the physical shortcomings of others if they don’t have any of their own to contend with?  And what about plastic surgery’s implicit message that you aren’t good enough as you are?

We have created a long continuum for this issue.  And we aren’t necessarily all that consistent in how we apply it.  If I find this topic to be a minefield as an adult I can only imagine how confusing it must be to kids.  I know that there are some cases of plastic surgery that I find unnecessary and fueled by vanity.  And I know that I there are other cases that I see as earnest attempts to spare someone a great deal of emotional pain.

I suppose it’s a good thing that blanket judgments can’t really be made here.  In most cases of plastic surgery we will never know the full story.  And without the full story our opinions are probably best left undeveloped.

8 Responses to “Vain or Virtuous?”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is such difficult territory to navigate. That fine line between culturally-induced self-criticism (and thinking plastic surgery will make life suddenly so much better), and genuine need – or adult and reasoned decisions to make a change.

    But it’s surgery. It carries risks. It doesn’t necessarily address deep-seated self-esteem issues.

    Like you, I am hesitant to judge, all the while remaining alarmed by the frequency with which we hear about and see (on television) the altered faces and bodies on increasingly young women.

  2. Ana Says:

    I agree that this does not fall into a neat black-or-white, wrong-or-right category. And I don’t think the information we are usually given (if any) about why an individual chose to have plastic surgery is going to be so insufficient to really make informed opinions. (I feel that way about this little girl’s story. Yes the family went on TV to “tell-all”, but I’m positive there is so much more behind the mother’s and even the daughter’s motives here). I don’t get the argument that this was medically necessary—what was the medical issue, exactly? And comparison (not yours, but what I saw in other articles defending this) to cleft lip & palate is not relevant–those issues really can cause problems with feeding, speech, and tooth development in children.

    So like you, I have no developed opinions about this case or really any other. (except the one I read about the mother with a 6-year old girl—who she enters in beauty pageants—had the girl’s bikini area waxed to prevent hair growth & gave her botox to prevent wrinkles & lines…I will freely say that is just plain wrong)

    I also think that your question “Will I feel better about myself if I look better” is actually an incredibly difficult one to answer. Especially if the motive lies in low self-esteem—if the surgery going to cure that, or are their deeper issues that need to be dealt with? I suspect that some people who end up going under the knife find that they don’t, after all, feel much better about themselves. Answering that question honestly and truthfully involves some serious soul-searching, and I’d argue that no 7-year-old child is capable of that degree of self-reflection and forethought. (hell, many adults aren’t either!). In those situations, the parent really needs to look hard at themselves, and why they are choosing this route for their child.

  3. Lori Says:

    As a middle school teacher, I saw bullying, of many degrees, first hand. Unfortunately it exists and has always existed. I will be the first to say that we should do as much as possible to create the best atmosphere for any kid. They not only need to feel safe and included and important, they deserve that opportunity. I dealt with about every personality of kid in my years of teaching and pride myself on always trying, not always successful, but always trying to do just that for each of the hundreds of kids I met every school year. I believe a huge part of my job as a teacher was to help guide my students to overcome or “learn to live with” what made them unique/different/special/weird/stupid (a common middle school description), including when others brought those things to light.

    The cold hard fact is that physical appearances are the first and easiest target for bullying, whether you are 7 years old on a playground or 27 (even 47) years old on the red carpet. I tend to think that a good number of plastic surgery procedures stem from a lack of confidence of some degree (whether it is the adult, the child, or the parents). I would never say that all procedures are a bad idea, but I would just pose the question of “What else can you and/or will you do to promote confidence and self esteem in yourself or the patient?”

    I had horrible acne as a teenager and the scars now to prove it. My parents did everything they knew to to help me. I don’t recall any major bullying as a result, but I’m sure that some comments were made. I know that I was self conscious about it for all those years and almost more self conscious about my appearance while undergoing the very harsh (and now recalled? Accutane) medication. Am I a weaker person today as a result? I don’t believe so in the slightest. I had great parents and teachers who helped instill in me the value I brought to the world for the kind of person I was and have grown to be.

    Absolutely there are situations that do warrant procedures, but how many of the rest of them are more of a “quick fix?” Society pressures us to look “normal” and society is the culprit for pointing out what’s NOT normal. Society fuels the “bullying” that our entertainment news covers for every movie, red carpet, trip to the gas station, etc. So by watching and talking about it, have we essentially brought this bullying and need to avoid those situations on ourselves?

  4. ayala Says:

    This is a complicated situation. Not cut and dry. I think the parents had a difficult problem and they chose the answer that made sense to them and their child.

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Lori, I do think Accutane has been recalled; they found a link b/t the drug and Crohn’s disease and colitis. Acne runs in my husband’s family and I am insistent that if our girls are afflicted, we immediately treat it. I just think teenage life is hard enough.

    I also sort of feel the same way about protruding ears–they can really be noticeable and kids are teased mercilessly. We had a kid in 4th grade who was constantly greeted with, “Hey, Dumbo! Can you fly yet?” It was painful.

    Sure, there are plenty of people who abuse it, but in some cases, it’s a godsend.

  6. Ana Says:

    Lori & TKW: Actually, Accutane is still around, but the company stopped making the brand name when the patent ran out in 2009, so its available as a generic. There have been several law suits re: the possible link with Crohn’s.

  7. Amy W Says:

    I had this same surgery (ears pinned back) either right before or right after I turned 14. Although it may have happened, I do not recall being teased by other kids about my ears. What I do remember is that when my mother did my hair she always tried to cover my ears. And when she’s pull it into a ponytail she would stand behind me, holding my ears back and say “if only your ears didn’t stick out so much . . .” At the time I had the surgery I could have cared less about my ears – I cared more about losing pool time because of the bandage I had to wear around my head for 2 weeks and having to wearing it at school. I am glad now that I had the procedure done because my MOTHER cared about it alot. I don’t really know if she was concerned I would be teased or she just couldn’t stand the physical imperfection but either way I could have hardly escaped feeling self-conscious of it as I got older mainly because of her attention to it. Frankly, for this to be done to a 7 year old, I question the bullying motive.

  8. Gale Says:

    Amy – Thanks for weighing in here. Your experience certainly casts a different light on the ABC profile. And I’m sure you’re not the only person whose own parent has been the primary source of criticism of a physical imperfection. In your case I wonder if your mother’s lack of acceptance of your ears as they were was more hurtful than any playground teasing you might have encountered. You sound, though, like you have emerged from the whole experience in good shape. And for that I am happy for you.

    This actually raises another issue entirely – that of parents seeking perfection from their kids. I have never really understood it, but I suspect it comes from the parent seeing the child as a reflection of him/herself? Either way, it’s a miserable position to put the child in.