Teens and Plastic Surgery

There was an article yesterday in the New York Times on teenagers having plastic surgery which cited some frightening statistics:

The latest figures from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery show that the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youths 18 or younger more than tripled over a 10-year period, to 205,119 in 2007 from 59,890 in 1997. This includes even more controversial procedures: liposuctions rose to 9,295 from 2,504, and breast augmentations increased nearly sixfold, to 7,882 from 1,326.

This piece seems particularly interested in reports that this trend has not slowed with the current economic downturn, inferring from this that adults are powerfully enough invested in these procedures to pay the bills even this becomes difficult.  But what of the children and young people clamouring for rhinoplasties, otoplasties (ear re-shaping) and liposuction?  The article offers the usual range of explanations.

The first person quoted is 18 year-old Kristen, who recently had breast augmentation surgery.  She had begun to develop at 15, though three years later she felt those changes were incomplete.  Her mother and older sister had both recently had the surgery and she wanted it, too.

“I just wanted to look normal, and now I do,” said Kristen, whose family members asked that their last name not be used.

External pressures are blamed, as unrealistic and Photoshopped images surround us on magazine covers, T.V. shows and billboards.  Teenagers’ bodies are changing rapidly and often unevenly.  Young people endlessly compare themselves to these ideals and to their peers as they struggle to find their places in society and the vast majority, according to every survey I’ve ever read, do not feel comfortable in their own skin.

I suppose what really interests me here is not actually the rates of plastic surgery among adolescents, or how the decisions are made to alter a child’s appearance so they feel they look more like everybody else.  What I’m afraid of is that this is simply the most visible tip of an iceberg, of a massive trend that pervades seeming-barriers of socio-economic class, geography, gender and ethnicity in which young people feel themselves to be physically inadequate, hopelessly flawed and hideously ugly.

What’s more, children are falling victim to this way of thinking at ever-younger ages. Perhaps they’re simply not getting the chance to develop other, healthier, strategies for feeling at home in their own skins.

This is where I think free play comes in.

Play is unique in a child’s life, offering experiences and opportunities that are not found at school, in the library or structured after-school programming.  In free play, a child can determine her activities according to her own needs, pleasures and interests. When playing, a child engages directly with his own world, both his physical surroundings and the creative magic that imagination awakens.  Play cannot be graded, it is neither right nor wrong, yet within it a thousand tiny lessons become possible.

Through play, the child learns how to be alone, how to be with others, how to run and tumble, climb and sit very quietly, how to be a tiger, a pop star, an astronaut or a helicopter.  In time spent outdoors, the child learns the sensation of wind on one’s face, the colour of light seen through a leaf, how to seek things out by their sounds.  The child learns that by digging, a stream can be redirected.  He or she learns how parts of the world move, and how to move them.   At some point in all of this, children learn how to be themselves.

I believe that this process encourages the development of a sense of individual agency, of confidence in one’s own capacities.  It fosters an internal resiliency that helps people manage the inevitable cruelties and disappointments that come along in life – and how to enjoy the pleasures.

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