In 2017, more than 229,000 cosmetic procedures were performed on patients between 13 and 19, including nearly 65,000 surgical procedures such as nose reshaping, breast lifts, breast augmentation, liposuction, and tummy tucks.
Very few studies have been conducted to examine the risks for teens of these increasingly common surgeries. Research is especially needed for the more controversial procedures such as breast implants, liposuction, and genital plastic surgery.
There is no question that reconstructive surgeries can benefit children and youth. Surgical procedures to correct cleft lips and palates, for example, are not controversial. Plastic surgery to correct unattractive facial features that can attract ridicule, such as prominent noses and ears, are generally accepted in the United States.
However, cultural phenomena such as surgical makeovers on numerous television programs and unrelenting pressures on teens to conform to beauty standards make it increasingly difficult to agree on what constitutes a “normal” appearance and when the desire to improve one’s appearance is questionable or even crosses the line to psychopathology. In this commentary, I will focus on elective, cosmetic procedures on an otherwise healthy adolescent with no illness or impairment.
Plastic Surgery in a Developing Teen
One of the concerns about plastic surgery on adolescents is that their bodies are still maturing. In addition to development that may occur in the late teens, growth charts indicate that the average young woman gains weight between the ages of 18 and 21, and that is likely to change her desire or need for breast augmentation and liposuction.
There are no epidemiological studies or clinical trials on the safety and long-term risks of these procedures for adolescents. Although the FDA approved saline breast implants for women ages 18 and older, it is legal for physicians to perform breast augmentation for anyone under 18 as an “off-label” use. In 2015 alone, 7,840 girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 19 underwent breast augmentation surgery, with an additional 1,797 teens receiving breast lifts.
Silicone gel breast implants were approved by the FDA in 2006, but only for women ages 22 and older. This restriction reflects the greater concerns that the FDA has about the risks of silicone gel breast implants, and teens’ ability to fully comprehend those risks.
Understanding the Risks
Will adolescents who want to improve their appearance rationally consider the risks? Most women who get breast implants have at least one serious complication within the first three years, including infection, hematomas and seromas, capsular contracture (a sometimes painful hardening of the breasts), loss of nipple sensation, and hypertrophic scarring. Since breast implants typically last 10 years, an adolescent will require repeated surgeries throughout her lifetime. Breast implants also interfere with mammography and increase the likelihood of that a woman won’t produce enough milk when trying to breastfeed.
Women who seek breast implants are more likely to have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance that leads to significant impairment in functioning.” Since the goal of cosmetic surgery is to improve and transform appearance, it may be difficult to distinguish between this desire and a pathological preoccupation. (For more information, see Facts about Breast Implants.)
In addition to physical and psychological risks, the economic costs of breast implant surgery are substantial, since corrective surgery is rarely covered by health insurance. Many plastic surgeons offer breast implants on an installment plan, and women who need to have a broken or painful implant removed are sometimes unable to afford corrective surgery because they are still paying for the initial augmentation surgery and unable to afford corrective surgery.
Liposuction also carries potentially serious risks, including infection, damage to skin, nerves, or vital organs, fat or blood clots (that can migrate to the lungs, leading to death), and excessive fluid loss that can, rarely, lead to shock or death. Liposuction is also associated with eating disorders and distorted body image.
Cosmetic genital surgeries, designed to make genitals look “better” or to improve sexual satisfaction, are increasingly popular. The surgeries include labiaplasty, which reduces the size of the labia and vaginoplasty, which tightens the vagina. Little is known about whether or how effective these surgeries are on young women. Potential complications include infection, altered sensation, painful penetration, adhesions, and scarring.
Despite the documented risks, the general public has an inflated sense of the benefits and a minimized sense of the risks of plastic surgery. Teenagers are often oblivious to the well-documented long-term health consequences of smoking, tanning, and other risky behaviors, and are likely to pay even less attention to the risks of cosmetic surgery, making informed consent difficult.
In addition to the influence of persuasive and pervasive advertising and television makeover programs that stimulate demand, it is difficult for a physician to neutrally present both the risks and benefits of an elective procedure that he or she is simultaneously selling. Requiring parental consent for patients under 18 does not ensure informed consent, since research is lacking on long-term risks for many cosmetic procedures.
One way to help ensure that teenagers are mature enough to make decisions about plastic surgery is to screen potential patients using psychological testing. In media interviews, plastic surgeons often describe careful interviews aimed at determining why the teen wants plastic surgery. Unrealistic expectations or having the surgery to please a boyfriend is considered inappropriate, but having surgery so that “I will feel better about myself” or “clothes will fit better” are considered reasonable responses.
By the same token, teenagers who use drugs, drive while inebriated, and have unprotected sex may also make those decisions to please themselves, and not others, so that response alone is not sufficient evidence of a mature decision. Currently, there is no evidence that effective screening is widespread.
Teen Self-Consciousness and Plastic Surgery
Teens expect that plastic surgery will improve their self-confidence, but does it? There are no empirical studies examining the long-term benefits among adolescents. One study found that body-image satisfaction improved after cosmetic surgery, but so did satisfaction among girls and boys not undergoing cosmetic surgery. That is because as teens mature, their body image tends to improve regardless of whether they undergo plastic surgery.
In fact, a longitudinal study that followed Norwegian male and female individuals between 13 and 30 years of age found a significant growth in self-satisfaction and positive body image as the participants progressed through the teenage years. This growth was followed by a general stabilization of body image satisfaction in adulthood. This indicates that many adolescents who are very dissatisfied with their appearance will feel more satisfied a few years later, whether or not they undergo surgery.
The same study also found that the physical features with which participants were most dissatisfied reflected culturally determined stereotypes of idealized attributes emphasized in books, mass media, and advertisements.
Will most plastic surgeons make an accurate and objective judgment about whether a teenage girl is an appropriate candidate for plastic surgery? If plastic surgeons are performing surgeries that many physicians and psychologists would question, should medical societies and ethicists provide more guidance than is currently being provided by plastic surgery associations?
In the ideal world, informed consent would enable teens and their parents to decide carefully what is best for them. However, in the absence of longitudinal research, it is impossible for physicians to warn patients, or their parents, about the risks of performing cosmetic surgery on bodies that have not reached maturation, the operative complications and long-term physical effects of these surgeries and the psychological implications of surgery on developing body image, or the extent to which distorted body image common among adolescence may result in the pursuit of plastic surgery.