Fresh Faces

The perfect nose. The perkiest breasts. For more and more teens, achieving the ideal look means scheduling time under the plastic surgeon’s knife.

That’s what many plastic surgeons say, too. But all too often, they say, teenagers brush off any long-term implications in favor of immediate results. This blasé attitude, coupled with widening acceptance, helps young people gloss over the potentially ugly details of surgical procedures. Nor do many Boston doctors outright refuse to perform most such surgery on teenagers, though some ask the kids to wait a few years.

"I want a 17-year-old to understand that if she’s going to have breast implants, she might need a new procedure at age 27," May says. "Then at age 47 she might have another revision. I would say the likelihood of her needing to have these other procedures is around 50 percent. It’s very important to send the message loud and clear that surgery early in life is heading the patient down the pathway of having more operations."

Some wonder if even teenagers who have smaller, noninvasive procedures such as laser hair removal or microdermabrasion might become mentally predisposed to surgery. While there is no solid research to support this theory, the notion that kids can become "addicted" to cosmetic alteration doesn’t come as a surprise to sociologist Hesse-Biber.

"We’re entering this cultlike status," she says. "Every time we have a little wrinkle, we want to run in for some Botox. We’re becoming addicted. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t look beautiful, but when surgery becomes the fix and you still don’t feel good about yourself, what then?"

Alarmed parents are asking similar questions in response to a perceived nationwide increase in teenage plastic surgeries. And the media is fueling the fire. Nearly every major American newspaper and magazine has run stories on teenage breast augmentations and liposuctions, or procedures gone horribly wrong.

The attention rose to such heights that in February the American Society of Plastic Surgeons released a statement attributing the teenage cosmetic surgery "epidemic" to overblown media hype. A recent study found that only 5 percent of college-aged women have had cosmetic surgery. But that same study revealed that more than 60 percent
of the same group surveyed could see themselves having at least one procedure in their lives.

Back in Boston, teenagers’ cravings for physical perfection appear not quite as high as those of teens in places like Miami and Los Angeles, where breast augmentations are reported to be popular high-school graduation gifts. Despite its liberal airs, Boston remains steeped in conservative tradition and shrouded by a hush-hush mentality about cosmetic surgery. Many people here still consider cosmetic procedures déclassé. But local doctors say they have many teenagers come in for rhinoplasties, hair removal, and Botox, though requests from teens for breast augmentation are rare. Even rarer are doctors who would perform the procedure the Food and Drug Administration does not approve for girls under 18.

"You’d have to look hard in Boston for someone who’s pushing breast implants on 16-year-old girls," Alsarraf says. "If you can’t vote or smoke, should you really be able to have a synthetic piece of plastic put into your chest? That doesn’t make much sense to me."