Here's one possible upside to the economic downturn: Fewer teenage girls are getting breast implants.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 4,108 girls ages 18 and under had the procedure in 2008, compared with 7,882 the year before. Given the current economic outlook, 2009 may see further declines.
But as a doctor who has breast implants myself, I find it shocking that so many girls whose bodies are still developing are undergoing major surgery they do not need and may not fully understand. And I'm even more stunned that parents who should know better are indulging their daughters.
The physical risks of the procedure are well documented. Studies by implant manufacturers show that many breast implant recipients have at least one serious complication within the first three years, including infections, bruises, fluid collections, capsular contracture (painful hardening of the breasts), disfiguring scars, loss of nipple sensation, substantial stretch marks, irreversible thinning of the skin and migration of the implant.
Breast implants can interfere with self-examinations and mammograms, making early cancer detection far tougher. Implants also can make breast-feeding difficult or impossible.
Painful choice to advance career
When I was 25, an aspiring model, it became clear that my B-cup breasts weren't going to get me where I wanted to go in my career. So I opted for a conservative augmentation, to a C-cup.
I was expecting some discomfort after the surgery. No one prepared me for the feeling of constant sledgehammers crushing my breasts.
I had chosen to have my implants placed under the muscle, meaning my pectoral muscle was cut to place the implant in the proper position, to give my breasts a more natural look and feel.
It actually felt like my chest had been placed in a vise and squeezed. I had to be in a cloud of narcotic medications just to make it through the day.
My breasts were so swollen, I looked like I was wearing a personal flotation device for an emergency plane landing. I could not pick up a 3-pound weight, drive to get groceries or even put on lipstick for more than two weeks.
Once the pain ebbed, I was pleased with my new C-size breasts. They were ideal for my frame. But I allowed myself to be convinced by other swimsuit and fitness models that I should go bigger — all the way to double Ds. I was not discouraged by my plastic surgeon, but I don't know that I could have been talked out of it anyway.
I had the second surgery less than a year later. The pain was worse the second time around. Despite that, I was happy with the results, because I thought it was what I needed to be a model.
Projecting the wrong image
Now I am a doctor, and my swimsuit-model figure doesn't project the image I want to have.
Here's just one of many stories I could tell: As a resident physician, I was speaking with a terminally ill patient about his treatment options. When I looked up at my attending physician, he was staring at my double Ds, which I had tried to conceal beneath two compressing sports bras and baggy surgical scrubs. The patient asked him if he agreed with my comments, and he could only blush. He had no idea what I had said.
The decision to go bigger was for the short-term goal of advancing my modeling career. I did not anticipate the long-term effects it would have on my professional life. No matter where I go, or what I say, people still look at me like I am a porn star, not a doctor.
And, like all breast implant recipients, I am facing surgery to have them replaced one day, because implants do not come with a lifetime guarantee. But I won't change sizes, as once an implant is placed it is difficult to change sizes.
It's parents' job to say no
From the time they can turn on the television, our children are bombarded with images of kids growing up too fast, images like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and My Super Sweet Sixteen. It's hardly surprising if girls feel like they are waging an internal war over beauty and self-esteem. And if they decide a quick little operation can help, and their parents won't say no, who will stop them?
Most surgeons won't perform augmentations on girls. In fact, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons doesn't even track statistics on implants for girls under 18, since the group has taken a position against the practice. But clearly, not everyone is following suit.
These are our daughters, and the future professional women of our country. They are not specimens to be cut with a scalpel and modified simply to help them gain social acceptance or, even worse, self-acceptance.
If economic reality is helping more parents say no to young girls who want bigger breasts, that's a good thing. But the economy will turn around eventually. Will parental responsibility turn with it?
Dr. Gabrielle Young recently completed her residency at the University of Louisville and is an osteopath. She plans to practice in the Tampa Bay area. For more information, visit her Web site, www.drgabrielleyoung.com.