When Tanya was 12 years old, she became very self-conscious of her nose. “I was really embarrassed about it,” she says. “Sometimes, when I had to speak in class, I covered my nose with my hand so that people couldn’t look at it.”
By the time she was 16, Tanya was avoiding having her photo taken. If her friends took a picture of her that she didn’t like, she would make them rip it up. Otherwise a self-assured and confident teen, Tanya struggled to accept her nose. It was then that she decided to speak to her mother about having rhinoplasty (cosmetic nose surgery).
Cosmetic surgery is the term used to describe elective procedures intended to enhance a person’s appearance toward a beauty ideal. It’s different from plastic surgery, which is intended to repair and reconstruct abnormal structures of the body. These abnormalities can be caused by a variety of things including birth defects, developmental disabilities, accidents and disease.
Plastic surgery is not intended to enhance looks toward a beauty ideal; it is meant to bring the aesthetics of the face or body in line with a healthy, appropriate norm. Despite the increasing prevalence of cosmetic surgery, in general (1.6 million cosmetic surgical procedures were performed last year in the United States), cosmetic surgery for teenagers remains somewhat controversial.
Dr. Tracy Penny Light is the director of Women’s Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research explores the history of the medical discourse on cosmetic surgery.
“There are many more people choosing to have cosmetic surgery, generally, so it is not a surprise that teens are participating in this practice,” she says. “My research suggests that there is increasing pressure on women and girls to live up to a set of norms and values surrounding the body that is unattainable for most people. We see women represented in the media who are thin, large-breasted and beautiful; for anyone who has a body part, or parts, that do not adhere to this prescription, there is pressure to conform.”
Last year, nearly 240,000 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 underwent a cosmetic surgical procedure in the United States. While the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons does not collect statistics, it has been suggested that teenagers on this side of the border are seeking cosmetic surgery at comparable rates.
Although only 8% of Faze readers who took our poll indicated that they have had a cosmetic surgery procedure, 30% of readers say that they would consider surgery to correct a feature that they do not like. The top three features that readers would alter surgically are their weight, nose, and breasts.
Despite the pressure to meet a societal beauty standard, cosmetic surgery is not an option for all teens. Emma, 17, struggled early on in her high school career to accept her unmanageable hair and a nose and jaw that she perceived to be too wide.
She might have daydreamed about finding a quick fix for her body image woes, but she felt cosmetic surgery was never really an option. Instead, Emma surrounded herself with supportive friends who reinforced her self-image with positive language and behaviour.
“You perceive yourself differently than other people do,” says Emma, “we are, unfortunately, our own worst critics.” Now, at the end of her high school career, Emma is happy with her decision to grow into her body. “It took a few years, but I grew into the features that I didn’t like, and I’m really happy with who I am.”
Dr. Penny Light suggests that the decision to pursue cosmetic surgery should not be taken lightly, and it may be a better option for women beyond their teen years. “While there has been research that suggests that some women feel empowered as the result of cosmetic procedures, it seems to me that this is risky when we are talking about teens,” she says. “Young adults are still in a stage of developing—both their bodies and their identities are in formation—so altering a body at that stage should be done cautiously.”
Tanya decided to wait until her body was finished growing before she made any changes. “Several doctors advised that there was no sense in altering a growing body, so I waited until I was 19 years old to seriously consider the surgery.”
At 20, Tanya decided, with the support of her parents, to have the surgery, and she couldn’t be happier with the results. “I love my nose now. I’m happy to be in photos, I feel more content, and I’m completely comfortable discussing the positive impact that cosmetic surgery has had on my life.”
When considering cosmetic surgery, your first step should be to talk to your parents or a trusted adult. It might be difficult to start the conversation, but legally, you will need their approval, and emotionally, it is important to have a strong support system.
Next, do your research. You should gather opinions from more than one physician and research the results and potential complications of the surgery. Cost may be another important consideration. While some procedures could be covered by health plans (i.e. breast reduction and ear surgery), most are not. Rhinoplasty, the most common procedure among Canadian teens and young adults, starts at around $7,500.
Most importantly, take some time to reflect upon why you want a cosmetic procedure. Altering your body cosmetically is a significant decision and should be undertaken only after careful consideration. Now is a time of
experimentation and change. Consider how your clothes, hairstyles and taste in music have shifted over the last five years. Chances are, in the next five years, you’re not going to have the same attitude and likes that you do now.
Being truly happy with your body image is a challenge for most people, no matter what stage of life. If you are struggling to accept some aspect of your physical appearance, Emma suggests sharing your feelings with close friends. “Your true friends love you and think you’re beautiful, no matter what,” she says.
They can help remind you of your value, your good qualities—inside and out. And, they can support you through a big decision like cosmetic surgery, regardless of your decision. “To be loved for who you are is reassuring when you are struggling with your body image.”