I recently noticed several reports in the news media about teenagers who had gotten cosmetic plastic surgery. Many wanted these procedures to help them fit in with peers and to prevent them from being the target of bullying. Should parents support cosmetic plastic surgery for teens who are deeply unhappy about their appearance?
According to American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), 13 to 19 year olds make up the smallest percentage of all cosmetic procedures (only two percent of the total, or 236,000 procedures). But from 2011 to 2012, the figure for that age group increased by two percent, which is small but noticeable. Some of the most common procedures for teens included male breast reduction, ear pinning surgery and nose reshaping.
Does such surgery for teens help them socially and emotionally? I searched for research about the psychological benefits of plastic surgery, and there was little—and almost no studies that focused on adolescents.
I found one paper from the Netherlands that studied a group of 184 adolescents before and after the surgery, using interviews and questionnaires. The investigators reported that all the study subjects were relieved of many of their appearance-related emotional burdens after their plastic surgery. That sounded reassuring.
Another study from the Netherlands raised some concerns, however. The investigators interviewed 868 teenagers and their parents after the adolescents’ surgeries. They concluded that “adolescents accepted for plastic surgery have considerable appearance-related psychosocial problems."
For me, that raises a key question: Might teens benefit from counseling and therapy before seeking a cosmetic procedure? Unfortunately, we don't have data to answer that question yet.
All of the other studies I encountered were also interview-based, and captured the participants’ feelings at only one or two points of time (usually right before or after plastic surgery). Thus, there is very little to conclude about longer-term benefits (or negative effects) in young patients.
So, what should parents do? Right now, there's no simple answer. To help parents and doctors decide which young people might truly benefit from plastic surgery, we need more research that follows adolescents for a longer period of time.
Until then, we can only consider the extent of a teen's unhappiness with his or her appearance, whether therapy alone might offer sufficient benefits and—if surgery becomes a real option—whether the teen's goals for the surgery are realistic.