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New York Times Piece About Plastic Surgery Gets People Talking

Monday’s New York Times tweeted a headline – “Never Too Old for Plastic Surgery” – about this story.

While I’m very happy for the 83-year old woman in the piece for her happiness over her “new” $8,000 breasts, the piece was framed like an expensive billboard for plastic surgeons – only it didn’t cost them anything. The Times gave away the advertising space.

The story states:

“There are as many reasons for getting plastic surgery as there are older patients, experts say”…and…”some are simply sick of slackened jowls, jiggly underarms and saggy eyelids.”

There are a few other perspectives in the middle of the piece:

“Some critics question whether the benefits are worth the risks, which may be underestimated.”

But it is often how you END a piece that determines readers’ takeaway messages – and it is often also a sign of the message the journalist really wanted to convey. And this one concludes with a Harvard prof’s comment:

“If an older woman wants to regain eyelids or wants a breast that she doesn’t have to tuck into a waistband, then why not?”

Better than Well.jpg
Minnesota bioethicist Carl Elliott wrote a book, “Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.” In it, he wrote:

“We need to understand the complex relationship between enhancement technologies, the way we live now, and the kinds of people we have become.”

I asked for his comment on the NY Times story, and he wrote:

“Everyone agrees that one root of the problem is toxic social pressures. The problem is that giving in to these pressures just reinforces them. The more cosmetic surgery older people get, the more social pressure that other older people feel to get the surgery themselves. (And articles like this just make the problem worse.)

Also, does anyone really think that cosmetic surgery actually makes these people look younger? What it really does is make them look as if they’ve had work done. And having work done is not so much a marker of youth as it is of money.”

Online readers of the NY Times piece had their own comments, which included these:

“It is fascinating to read how in the midst of a ghastly economic crisis, people are happily spending $8K for plastic surgery.”

“Said in the article: I find that you have to keep up your appearance physically, even if you just want a companion or someone to ask you to dinner. My reply: How incredibly sad. And apparently ‘keeping up your appearance isn’t simply good grooming, but now includes going under the knife?!”

Said in the article: Mary Graham, a 77-year-old restaurant owner in Thomasville, Ga., got a face-lift and breast implants earlier this year. “The only time I go to the doctor is for plastic surgery,” she said. My reply: Is this something she should be bragging about?

Said in the article: Her plastic surgeon, Dr. Daniel Man of Boca Raton, Fla., who said he is seeing increasing numbers of patients over age 70, said, “These people are healthy and want to be an active part of society.” My reply: ….and we all know you can’t be an active part of society if you have sagging jowels!”

The Times piece got people talking. But it could have done a better job of broadening its scope to inform that discussion in a richer, deeper way.

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

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One Response to “New York Times Piece About Plastic Surgery Gets People Talking”

  1. Ben says:

    I once agreed with most of those commentators, but over the years I’ve begun to think differently about cosmetic surgery generally. A big part of this shift in my thinking came from comparing aesthetic plastic surgery to some more ubiquitous elective surgeries that our elderly have been undergoing in droves: orthopedic surgeries. In the majority of cases, orthopedic surgeries (knee/tendon surgery, hip replacements, etc) are not necessary in any absolute or existential sense of the word… they are simply a mechanism by which patients can improve or maintain their quality of life – they can keep jogging, skiing, playing tennis, etc etc. Cosmetic surgery for the elderly is similarly about enabling patients to conduct their lives in a manner that they enjoy (go on dates, be treated with respect, remain desirable). Say what you want, but from a quality of life perspective I’m guessing most people would prefer to be attractive and have trouble running than be an ugly sprinter.

    I’m not trying to poo poo orthopedic entirely here, or make it appear that all orthopedic surgeries are to remedy minor inconveniences… I just don’t understand why – of all the quality-of-life-improving procedures – it’s cosmetic surgeries that sends everyone into fits of rage. In addition to being arguably as good or better at improving patients’ quality of life, it is far less pernicious on the cost-side of the analysis that it’s orthopedic cousin: Plastic surgeries generally have vastly lower price tags ($8000 is nothing when compared to the 40-90K you’d be looking at for a hip replacement), AND -more importantly- it tends to be paid out-of-pocket by the consumer and thus has no negative financial impact on society at large. Knee surgeries and hip replacements, on the other hand, are almost universally paid for by either a government entity or private insurer, which means that I pay higher premiums and higher taxes in order to improve the lifestyles of other people. People may argue that orthopedic surgery is MORE necessary, but the fact is that when people have to pay for these surgeries out of pocket they simply don’t (even when they have the means to)… which suggests that the patients themselves understand that it is just another one of the many quality-of-life cost-benefit decisions that we make during our lifetimes.

    Again, I don’t necessarily begrudge those who undergo these elective surgeries on my dime, I just have a hard time seeing why people seem to be enraged by people getting a low-cost face-lift that they’re paying for with their own money, while at the same time not blinking an eye at someone who is spending $90,000 of other peoples’ money so that they can ski or run for a few more years. I’m sorry for all the redundancy, but If we’re happy paying to improve the quality of life of our elderly population, it seems to me we should celebrate when they pay for it themselves.

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