Since 2008, the number of cosmetic surgery procedures has increased year on year in the UK, with 43,172 procedures being performed in 2012. With so many procedures taking place and cosmetic surgery being a regular feature in the media, the taboos associated with this type of surgery have well and truly diminished. Cosmetic surgery isn't just for celebrities anymore, reality TV shows such as The Only Way Is Essex and TV makeover shows such as Extreme Makeover and Ten Years Younger demonstrate that cosmetic procedures are now the norm for a diverse range of people.
As cosmetic surgery becomes more common, we are in danger of becoming so over exposed to procedures that the ethics of how cosmetic surgery is covered by the media and marketed no longer matter. For example, online voucher sites now offer cut-price deals on cosmetic surgery, promoting surgery in the same way as a discounted meal and completely trivialising the procedures.
This new mind-set is exacerbated by stories of cosmetic surgeons making questionable choices such as the surgeon offering free procedures in exchange for dates with women. Stories like this might seem laughable but the ethics of this surgeon certainly need questioning. As do those of surgeons who allow celebrities to film their procedures to gain media exposure or surgeons who operate on clearly troubled individuals such as actress Amanda Bynes, whose parents expressed their concern that the future surgeries she plans to have "...are dangerous and detrimental to her health".
This flippant approach is doing the cosmetic surgery industry no favours and belittles this major decision which has all the risks associated with any surgical procedure. I see evidence on a regular basis of the genuinely positive impact surgery can have when other treatment options aren't available or simply won't provide the same kind of benefit. This side of cosmetic surgery is often lost in the furore of media coverage of 'which celebrity has had what work done' and how to find the cheapest way to pay for a procedure.
What the industry is doing
Earlier this year, the government announced recommendations to regulate cosmetic healthcare more rigorously. The proposals outlined in Sir Bruce Keogh's review aren't new ideas to most surgeons and have been the concern of BAAPS (The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons) for some time now. Putting in place common sense restrictions as to who can practice cosmetic surgery and protecting how we allow cosmetic surgery to be characterised in culture, is pivotal to ensuring those who could genuinely benefit from cosmetic surgery aren't put off by a warped perception of what surgery is.
A positive life changing experience
Recently, I had the pleasure of dealing with a patient called Jack* who was experiencing a reasonably common condition in men called gynaecomastia, where male breast tissue swells and becomes larger than normal. Although a confident and successful individual, this one issue affected almost every context which involved interaction with other people.
Jack had tried to solve the problem with exercise but found that more weight actually masked the problem, so exercise became counterproductive. After researching the procedure, Jack chose to have surgery. Post-surgery Jack is free from the constant worry caused by his condition, but this doesn't mean that his life has radically changed. When I asked Jack what he thought the best thing about having surgery was he said he doesn't have anything that's "always at the back of his mind" anymore and can simply focus on living his life.
This is an example of exactly what cosmetic surgery is there for on a day-to-day basis - it isn't about reaching some sort of idealised body shape, it's about letting someone get on with their life free from an anxiety about a physical problem or appearance which can be treated or improved by surgery.
The true essence of cosmetic surgery
Cosmetic surgery isn't about achieving some mythical idea of the perfect appearance; it can do some wonderful things, change aspects of a person's appearance which may create more positivity and confidence for that individual. It may even be able to remove some of the anxiety about loss of youth. It's designed to alter physical characteristics which may cause patients discomfort, self-consciousness or emotional distress.
Of course, this isn't to dismiss the important questions that have to be asked about body image within our culture and how the cosmetic surgery industry can exacerbate unhealthy ideas. To make helpful judgements about our industry though we need to consider the actual experience of most patients: why they do it, what effect it has and what these answers indicate about the actual nature of cosmetic surgery when carried out professionally.
*Name changed to protect identity