It's been a year of triumph and despair for rapper, Kanye West. Hot on the heels of his single, Stronger, topping the charts and besting rival artist 50 Cent's musical offerings in a much-storied battle of the stars, his beloved mother died at the age of only 58, reportedly from complications following plastic surgery. A media maelstrom surrounds the circumstances of Dr. Donda West's untimely death, her surgeon's competence, whether her death was related to anesthesia rather than the surgery itself and whether she was rushed into surgery without pre-operative medical clearance.
Amid the outpouring of sympathy for West's family, some rather less than sympathetic statements provide ample evidence of our love-hate relationship with cosmetic surgery. Take this comment, posted on the online gossip and entertainment magazine, Bossip, in response to an article regarding West's death: "No offense but if she really did die during a tummy tuck and breast augmentation, hey... she made her bed and laid in it. RIP lady, but if this is the cause of death, then I don't feel bad for you." Or the pithier but equally unsympathetic, "Death by vanity", offered by a visitor to the news website, The Huffington Post.
A few years ago, I wrote a book in which I discussed our society's conflicted attitudes towards the pursuit of beauty - especially when it's women in midlife who are doing the pursuing. We're simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by synthetic beautification - witness the burgeoning popularity of reality shows that turn too often into freak shows, and of web sites that exist solely for the purpose of outing celebrities who've had "work" done. Tabloid exposés of those who've gone under the knife fuel our voyeurism and sell far more magazines than do world hunger and other issues of importance.
Tragedies like the death of Kanye's mother, and that of best-selling author, Olivia Goldsmith, in 2004 due to anesthesia complications during a chin-lift, belie the fact that even invasive plastic surgery is undeniably safe when performed by an appropriately qualified surgeon in the appropriate setting.
The same year that Goldsmith died, a study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the official journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), found that the chance of dying from plastic surgery in an accredited surgical center was less than 1 in 50,000. These findings were confirmed by a more recent study that was presented this fall at the ASPS annual conference. For an American woman, that's less than one-tenth your risk of dying when giving birth.Yet how often do the perils of childbirth make headline news, provoke criticism of those who choose to become mothers - or turn up in movie scripts?
It's a different story where plastic surgery is concerned. Think of Goldie Hawn's lips being pumped up like demented balloons in the movie, First Wives' Club; or the heroine of the teen movie, Clueless, whose mother has died from "routine liposuction." Then there's the outrageous Samantha from HBO's Sex in The City, who lives to regret her "impulse purchase" of a chemical peel when she's forced to attend a fancy party looking like a burn victim. Amid the myriad tales of disaster amongst the vanity that populate our newsstands and movie theatres, can you recall even one positive portrayal of plastic surgery?
In my twelve or so years as a practicing cosmetic surgeon, I've seen time and time again how inspiring and uplifting cosmetic surgery can be when it's performed for the right reason - to balance how you look with how you feel. For many women, the most frustrating aspect of aging, in the words of one of my patients, is that "I started losing it on the outside just as I began to feel good about myself inside."
Although I take issue with plastic surgery advertisements extolling the virtues of a "new you" - the implication being that the old you is not good enough and must be replaced with something of your surgeon's creation - I have no doubt that it is empowering to reclaim the real you. Touching up your exterior won't win you friends or influence people, but fixing a problem that impairs your quality of life can certainly boost a flagging, but still healthy, self-esteem. Whether you love or hate Joy Behar, she's probably the last woman you'd cite for poor self-esteem - even though she recently outed herself on ABC TV's The View as a BOTOX® and Restylane® user.
As tragic as the death of Dr. West was, I hope it will encourage us not to lay shame, guilt and fear on women who are considering cosmetic surgery, but to liberate them instead to do their due diligence and to avoid making hasty decisions. I also hope that it will cast a spotlight on new, less invasive procedures that do not require anesthesia and, as such, are virtually risk-free.
 Face Value: The Truth About Beauty - and a Guilt-Free Guide To Finding It [Rodale]
 The View 9/21/07 [ABC TV]
Published On: December 10, 2007