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  • Writer's pictureSoohong Jeon

Reality of Plastic Surgery in Our World Today

Photo credits: NewBeauty

Everyone has felt insecure about their bodies at some point in their lives. Many have considered plastic surgery as a way to cope with their social anxieties and low self-esteem that stem from their physical insecurities. Plastic surgery is a surgical specialty that can be divided into two main categories: cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery. Reconstructive surgery is performed to restore “general appearance” and function to body parts malformed by deformities induced by birth defects, medical conditions, or trauma. Common examples include scar revision, cleft palate repair, and breast reconstruction. Unlike reconstructive surgery, cosmetic surgery is not considered medically necessary and is performed to aesthetically enhance a person’s appearance such as through breast augmentation surgery, facelift, and liposuction (removal of excess fat). As the two types of procedures share many of the same underlying surgical principles — such as maximizing the cosmetic result during a reconstructive surgery — the line between cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery is often blurred. For instance, rhinoplasty (nose job) is commonly performed to enhance facial harmony and the proportions of the nose. However, the procedure can also be carried out for reconstructive purposes; as both breathing and the nose’s shape are interrelated, rhinoplasty may be required to restore normal nasal breathing and appearance after a nasal fracture.

In 1997, a total of roughly 1.7 million cosmetic procedures, both surgical and nonsurgical, were performed in the United States. By 2014, the total number of cosmetic procedures had grown by 274%, surpassing the 10 million mark. Women accounted for roughly 9.6 million cosmetic procedures, rising over 429% from 1997, while men accounted for roughly 1 million cosmetic procedures, increasing over 273% from 1997. Such statistics illustrate that plastic surgery has progressively become a more socially accepted phenomenon. It has become more saturated in society through magazines, television programs, and celebrities who promote the idea of “perfect beauty.” Especially during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when vaccines were not yet available, stay-at-home orders left society no choice but to rely on technology, inducing the rapid growth of web-based mass media and social networking services. Accordingly, due to increased video calling through Zoom or Facetime and the rising societal interest in social media platforms, these digital mirrors have prompted more and more people to recognize the “imperfect” aspects of their bodies that can simply be fixed by procedures accompanied by advanced medical technology. Due to the safety and pain reduction offered by modern technology, many people have been increasingly considering plastic surgery.

A perfect example of the correlative relation between social standards and the steady rise in the demand for cosmetic purposes is South Korean culture. Despite its relatively small national population of 51.78 million, South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita and the fifth-highest number of plastic surgeons in the world on a per capita basis. Such popularity of the plastic surgery industry in South Korea reflects the country’s obsession with physical appearance, especially given South Korea’s vast entertainment industry. Plastic surgery ads, greatly influenced by the ideal beauty standard established by K-pop stars, target women and men even as young as teenagers. Through common cosmetic surgeries such as double eyelid and jaw reduction surgery, having society’s deemed good features provide women an advantage in both marriage prospects and the job market, particularly given that South Korea’s hypercompetitive society greatly values physical beauty.

As with any surgery, plastic surgery may carry consequences and risks. Although cosmetic procedures rarely result in death — a low fatality rate of 0.25-0.50 per 100,000 procedures – certain risks are common to all surgical procedures. Risks vary from one procedure to another, but a few include blood clots, tissue death, nerve damage, anesthesia risks, and internal organ damage. Unlike most medically necessary surgeries,​​ the potential benefits and effectiveness of plastic surgery in enhancing one’s physical appearance are typically subjective. While many plastic surgery patients believe that their only regret is that they didn’t consider it sooner, others wish that they had never done it all. Unsatisfactory aesthetic results, such as unfavorable scarring or contour irregularities, often necessitate further procedures and at worst, patients can be left with persistent pain or permanent damage to vital tissues. Hematoma, the most common plastic surgery complication, occurs when a pocket of blood accumulates and pools under the skin, resembling a large bruise. In cases of large or rapidly growing collections of blood, supplemental surgical operations are necessary to drain the excess blood. If left untreated, severe hematoma can damage the tissue and lead to further infections. The contusion occurs in approximately 2% ~ 4% of both breast augmentation procedures and facelifts, affecting thousands of patients only in the United States.

The environmental concerns of plastic surgery must also be taken into account. Quite ironically, a leading source of pollution comes from the health sector itself, accounting for a significant share of the national carbon footprint. In particular, although operating rooms for cosmetic surgical procedures occupy a relatively small portion of a hospital, it contributes roughly 20%-30% of the average hospital’s waste. These operating rooms are approximately 3-6 times more energy-intensive than the remaining sections of the hospital due to not only their ventilation, heating, and air conditioning demands, but also the high-energy processing required for waste before it is safe for disposal. Furthermore, many of the anesthetic gases required in cosmetic surgical procedures contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer since only 5%-20% of the anesthetic gasses are metabolized by patients. With the increasing awareness of the environmental consequences of plastic surgery and the healthcare industry as a whole, healthcare facilities are working towards waste minimization by reducing, reusing, and recycling resources, especially those that are not required to guarantee the staff or patient’s safety.

Despite its health and environmental risks, plastic surgery has become an extremely popular choice for boosting one’s self-esteem by overcoming social anxiety due to the presence of physical deformities and insecurities. Often, the widespread publicity of such procedures by celebrities or traditional culture has misled many to think that “physical perfection” can be instantly achieved on demand. It is essential for people to thoroughly understand the implications and risks associated with plastic surgery before choosing to undergo these life-altering procedures.



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