Americans are opting for cosmetic surgery in record numbers. But do they know the risks?
When Phyllis Bradshaw's twin sons went off to college, she decided it was time to better herself. She started exercising, ate better, and began writing a novel. Then the Lewisville, Texas, ex-airline reservation agent went in for surgery to remove excess skin from her upper eyelids. She liked the results so much that she decided to have her neck and stomach done, too. "I'm not trying to look gorgeous, 20, Barbie," Bradshaw, 49, says. "I'm just trying to get rid of the things that are hanging." Her husband hated the idea, so she went to the bank and borrowed the $20,000 herself.
Last December, Bradshaw spent two days in the hospital. For the next few weeks she was too stiff to drive a car or turn her head to the side. "I could not believe how painful it was--like sharp lines up and down my stomach." But, she says, the results are "very natural, which is what I like." Her husband is happy, too. "I never thought much about plastic surgery before," Bradshaw says. "But it is amazing how many people are doing it now."
Amazing indeed. Americans are rushing to get tucked, suctioned, tightened, and tweaked like never before. More than 8.7 million people underwent cosmetic surgery in 2003, up 33 percent from the year before, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. No longer a privilege of society wives and aging starlets, cosmetic surgery has gone mainstream, available to almost anyone with a credit card and some vacation time.
Prime-time television enlightens viewers on the mechanics of liposuction and nose jobs, from MTV's I Want a Famous Face --with its pimply-faced lads who have themselves reshaped like Brad Pitt in order to get girls--to Fox's The Swan . In this 21st-century version of the 1950s sob show Queen for a Day, women compete not for a washing machine but for makeovers that include massive amounts of surgery, as well as for the chance to compete in a May 24 beauty pageant. "I wanted to look more like a woman," says Kristy Garza, 22, a contestant from Fort Irwin, Calif., who endured 9.5 hours of surgery that included a nose job, brow-lift, mid-face-lift, breast augmentation, and liposuction. "Now I turn heads. It feels so good."
Ugly ducklings? But for all the joy that plastic surgeons must be feeling about the popularity of their long-maligned craft, many also fear that shows like The Swan may be making people unrealistic, both about what surgery can accomplish and about the very real dangers of going under the knife. "The public is being lulled into the sense that there are no real risks or complications," says Rod Rohrich, a Dallas surgeon and president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "We're already seeing the impact. I have patients saying they want all these things done in one operation, and you can't safely do it. It's not like buying groceries or shoes. You can take those back. You can't take your face back."