Breast Implants as Therapy? Not So Much

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, National Center for Health Research, Fem2.0: April 11, 2013

Cross-posted from Fem2.0 with permission.

More than 300,000 teens and women in the U.S. decide to get breast implants every year.  To hear them talk about it, you’d think they were getting therapy instead of surgery.  They almost never say “I want larger breasts” (or even “I want better boobs.”)

What they say is “I don’t like my body and I want to feel better about myself.”  And plastic surgeons will tell their patients “this will really improve your self-esteem.” But their advertisements seemed designed to make us feel insecure about our bodies, not better about ourselves.

Unfortunately, breast implants don’t deliver on that promise of feeling more self-confident. 

On the contrary, the breast implant companies’ own studies prove it.  There are 2 major breast implant companies in the U.S., Allergan and Mentor.  Both tried to prove to the FDA that breast implants helped women’s self-esteem and both failed miserably.  Allergan used 12 different quality of life measures to compare augmentation patients before surgery and 2 years later.  Nine of the 12 (75%) were worse after the women got their breast implants, including self-esteem. 

The results were similar for women getting Mentor breast implants.  The women got worse in their self-reported physical health and mental health, with most showing no difference in their self-concept or how they felt about their body.

Why do they feel worse?  For some women, it is the disappointment that even after plastic surgery they are still not beautiful enough.  And for some women, the complications from breast augmentation — numb nipples, hard or painful breasts, and for some women chronic fatigue or other problems – make them feel physically messed up and guilty because they “made a stupid decision and now I’m paying for it.”

Choosing breast implants

Myth and Reality

Where does the myth of breast augmentation as therapy come from?   Wouldn’t you think that any cosmetic surgery would make women feel better about themselves?

If you ask women (or men) who had plastic surgery how it influenced them, many will say that they feel better about themselves.  But, memory can play tricks on us.  For example, some of us have mostly wonderful memories of our childhood and others have mostly sad memories, but those memories aren’t always accurate.  The best way to find out what the impact of breast augmentation – or any cosmetic surgery – is to interview the people before the surgery and again after they have completely recovered from surgery and gotten used to the “new me.”

Study after study shows that men and women who get plastic surgery usually feel better about the body part that was “fixed” but they don’t feel better about themselves and they don’t feel better about their relationships or their lives.  How we feel about ourselves is a central part of who we are.  It doesn’t change easily. For example, a “good hair day” or a great outfit can help us feel more attractive, at least for a while, and can help us have a good day, but it doesn’t make us feel more worthwhile as people or happier in our lives in general.

Psychologists explain that this is the difference between a “state of mind” (feeling good because I’m having a good hair day) and a personality trait (how I feel about myself because of my high or low self-esteem).

Plastic surgeons like to believe that they make magic by making people feel better about themselves.  And the “beauty industry” helps convince us that if we just buy the right product (whether it is a cosmetic, an outfit, or a surgery) will make all the difference.  For example, “makeovers” – whether in magazines or on TV – work by making the women feel awful about themselves at first and then “curing” their shortcomings.

Teenagers are the most vulnerable

Teenagers are especially likely to feel bad about how they look.  But every year throughout the teen years, boys and girls tend to feel better about how they look.  By the time they are 18, they feel much better than they did at 13 or 14, for instance.  If they get plastic surgery as teens, they think that’s the reason they feel better, but the truth is that even teens who don’t get plastic surgery and don’t necessarily look better than they used to, still feel more comfortable with how they look as they get a few years older.

One more thing to keep in mind: women who get plastic surgery once tend to want more plastic surgeries.  In other words, after fixing one perceived flaw, they find other flaws that bother them and that they want to fix.  That’s another sign that breast augmentation and plastic surgery are not the way to improve self-esteem.

Therapy vs. Plastic Surgery

Why are so many women so unhappy with how they look, and especially with their bodies?  The standards seem to be getting more unattainable.  Let’s face it: thin bodies with very large breasts don’t happen in nature very often.

I’ve talked to actresses about this and I call it the trickle down insecurity effect.  Beautiful women are more likely to become actresses or models than plain Janes, but as they struggle to make it in Hollywood or the beauty industry, they are told they are not quite beautiful enough.  They try extreme diets, personal trainers, professional make-up artists, the best hairdressers, and the most gorgeous outfits.  When even that isn’t enough, they get plastic surgery.  Then regular girls and women see them and feel inadequate as they think “Why can’t I look like that?”

Of course, even movie stars don’t always look as good as they do in magazines or movies.  In real life, there is no photoshopping, airbrushing, or flattering lighting to fix the imperfections.

But the bottom line is: if you want very large breasts, breast implants can help.  If you want to feel better about yourself, breast augmentation isn’t the answer.  Therapy might be.  And, it can also help to stop comparing yourself to women whose images aren’t real, but have instead been manufactured into unattainable ideals of beauty.