Community Commentary: Plastic surgery may hide the pain inside

At what price is beauty?

One of science fiction's most enduring themes involves a future world where everyone looks perfect but no one is happy.

One old "Twilight Zone" episode involves a young woman refusing to select the "model" body in which she'll spend the rest of her life. Another takes place in a hospital ward where doctors struggle to transform the criminally homely.

It turns out that these poor creatures are quite glamorous by our standards and the "normal" folks rather repulsive, but the point's the same.

Striving for physical beauty via surgery and other medical procedures can land you in deep crackers.

Sadly, this dilemma has left the realm of universal fantasy and entered reality. In the Oct. 19, 2006, issue of New Scientist, Rachel Nowak reports on a growing trend in America: Women and men who have had cosmetic plastic surgery and other procedures are, as a group, more likely to commit suicide than the average American. Her article is a calm-yet-damning indictment of too-eager surgeons and too-eager patients.

According to the Nowak article: "In 2005, Americans had at least 10.2 million cosmetic surgery procedures, ranging from breast implants (291,000) to liposuction (324,000), other implants, and restructuring and Botox injections. None of these procedures is risk-free and most surgeons make the physical perils clear before proceeding.

"Far less clear are the psychological aspects. Indeed, the link between suicide and cosmetic plastic surgery is only now beginning to be investigated. And what we're learning is, well, ugly."

Clearly, people who seek cosmetic surgery are unhappy with some aspect of themselves. But the unhappiness may go far deeper than body image.

According to one study, 18% of a sample of patients having these procedures were also taking drugs for psychiatric conditions such as depression, while only 5% of patients having non-cosmetic surgery were taking such medication.

According to another study, women having breast implants were two to three times more likely to commit suicide.

There is also evidence that these women are more likely than their non-enhanced counterparts to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse. Most chilling of all: One expert estimates that people suffering from "body dysmorphic disorder" may be up to 45 times more likely to kill themselves.

Perhaps this is because the psychological benefits of these procedures are transient. After you've fixed whatever you thought was wrong with you — and you find out you're still unhappy — what next?

Clearly, cosmetic plastic surgeons and other health professionals who deliver everything from breasts to Botox need to pay far more attention to the psychological states of their patients, and recommend against or refuse procedures they feel are emotionally inappropriate. But we as a society also need to consider why this situation is blossoming now.

To say that this culture values youth and the physical attractiveness associated with it would be a magnificent understatement. But this nation's population is also aging and it must be asked whether the mass pursuit of such imagery is good for a civilization in such an unstable mental state.

At the moment, the baby boomer generation is the chief consumer of these procedures. It may turn out to be one more of that generation's excesses and a passing fad.

What people do with their bodies and their money is their own concern. But a society that confuses maturity with ugliness, as a norm, is everybody's concern.

The heroes of those "Twilight Zone" episodes chose individual ugliness and plainness over mass-produced "beauty" because they were human beings who valued their humanity as well as their uniqueness. Perhaps, once again, science fiction has something to tell us. Those considering cosmetic procedures should always keep in mind Zeus' warning to Narcissus: "Watch yourself."

Finally, we should ask ourselves: What would happen if we invested the same amount of time, energy and money in improving our internal features such as character, compassion and consideration for others?

MICHAEL ARNOLD GLUECK, a Newport Beach resident, has written extensively on medical, legal and allied social issues.

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