Is social media really the cause?
The conversation surrounding social media’s impact on beauty standards is well worn, but recently it has taken a new turn - social media’s notable effect on plastic surgery, particularly that of the face. A recent study conducted by London-based cosmetic surgeon Dr Julian De Silva found that over the last two years there has been a two year drop in the average age of those seeking facial surgery. The average age is now 37-years-old for women and 43-years-old for men. And according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 66,347 cosmetic surgical procedures were performed on people between the ages of 13 and 19 in 2016, a nearly 3% increase from 2015.
The decline in average plastic surgery age and the rise of teen surgery has been attributed to the impact of social media on millennials. “I think social media has made me more aware of beauty standards and made me question myself”, says Alex, a 20-year-old who has never had plastic surgery, but is open to trying it. “It’s easy to feel that someone out there looks better than you, and you kind of get sucked into this dark hole whereby you compare yourself to others on Instagram.”
For New York-based surgeon Dr Norman Rowe, those under 25 currently make up 15% of his practice (which is up 10% from five years ago), and the youngest patient he has operated on was 15, who wanted rhinoplasty. He says the most popular surgeries for young people are breast augmentations, liposuction and rhinoplasties, and it is mostly girls that make up his patients, 4:1. Rowe believes social media has played a substantial part in the rise of young people wanting plastic surgery. “The popularity of celebrities, social media, and the number of times we take pictures of and see ourselves on our phones and on media has led to our desire to change things. (Young patients) are always showing me Instagram pages of people or celebs they want to look like.”
“It’s hard for people to tell what’s realistic and what isn’t,” says Nora Nugent, a BAAPS Council member. “Social media gradually shifts the perception of what normal is, because normal becomes glossy and photoshopped and wonderful. But when you meet people in reality, life isn’t quite like that and appearances aren’t quite like that.”
“The doctor had asked me what I wanted my nose to look like, and I brought in a Snapchat version of myself with one of the pre-set filters" Marla
To date, Instagram has more than 384 million #selfie posts, and this figure continues to increase daily. With 18-34-year-olds accounting for 61% of Instagram’s users and 18-24 year-olds making up 77% Snapchat users in the UK, it is no surprise that young people are most susceptible to the damaging effects selfie culture has on self-perception. A report by Nuffield Council on Bioethics suggested more frequent users of social media sites may indicate an increase in a person’s investment in their appearance, and this may influence their desire to undergo cosmetic surgery.The report also claimed young girls are most targeted when it comes to the influence social media can have on their appearance, as unhappiness or dissatisfaction with appearance is more likely to be identified in young girls than boys. However, as girls move through adolescence into adulthood, they become more satisfied with their bodies. Meaning, although girls are more likely to be affected by ‘appearance anxieties’ at a young age, those anxieties will later subside. Nugent tells me most of her patients are girls, although there is a steady increase in men wanting aesthetic surgery.
The damaging effects of selfie culture is only heightened by the use of filtered images, which have been noted for their damaging effects on self-perceptions. The term ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ gained traction last year when a 2017 report, published by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), stated 55% of facial plastic surgeons claimed patients have requested cosmetic procedures to look better on social media – an increase of 13% from the year before - thanks to the plethora of filters available on Snapchat. A report in the US medical journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery suggested that filtered images blur “the line of reality and fantasy” leading people to chase the fantasy they see in their phones through plastic surgery. The Instagram search #plasticsurgery has 2.1 million posts.
Marla, a 30-year-old from New York, who has had her breasts done as well as having fillers in her lips and nose, began getting surgery two years ago after a relationship fell apart. “Your self-esteem is at an all-time low and you’re desperately searching for a way to reinvent yourself, and you know hair dye just wasn’t cutting it,” she says. Although social media wasn't the direct cause of her decision to get plastic surgery, it still played a role. “The doctor had asked me what I wanted my nose to look like, and I brought in a Snapchat version of myself with one of the pre-set filters. It had slimmed the bridge of my nose, lifted the tip. It had made everything just a bit smaller… I wanted to look like that all the time,” she explains.
Despite Marla being an ‘open book’ when it comes to plastic surgery, believing there should be no shame in it, she still spoke of the damaging effects it can have on young people. “If you are young do not get it,” she says. “When I was younger I had really large eyes, my eyes had not grown into my face yet, I got called bug eyes. But now, as my face is changing and I’m older, I’ve come to love that feature. You know if I had gotten fillers in middle school and high school it would have been a big mistake,” she explains.
“These are mostly irreversible cosmetic procedures, you have to have a very good reason for doing them on a child"
Although there is no ‘right’ age for plastic surgery, it is commonly agreed that people should wait until their mid-20s. Dr Rowe said potential patients should wait until “they are emotionally mature enough to understand what they are asking for and why they are asking for it.” He explained the importance of waiting for your face to fully develop before getting surgery - he said this happens at around the age 15/16 for a girl and 18 for a boy.
“These are mostly irreversible cosmetic procedures,” adds Nugent. “You have to have a very good reason for doing them on someone who is technically considered a child, or a minor. They are not benign procedures, they carry risk and complications … Parts of the body are still developing up until the age of 18, and even into the early 20s. If you start altering things surgically too young, potentially you can cause more damage.”
In the UK you generally can not get cosmetic procedures if you are under 18. In the US, there are no specific laws preventing teenagers from getting cosmetic surgery; however, parental consent is required for patients under the age of 18.
As social media’s role in society continues to increase, so does our willingness to change our real lives to benefit our virtual ones. The rise in young people’s desire to undergo cosmetic surgery can be attributed to the mounting pressure to look good on sites such as Instagram and Snapchat. But our desire for approval through a system of likes and retweets is having a potentially damaging effect on these sites youngest users.
Although social media can be used to share body positivity, it can also give room for insecurities to flourish. It is the duty of social media platforms to take responsibility for their users, notably their most vulnerable ones. Although plastic surgery is a choice, and one which can have many positive outcomes, young people should carefully consider their decision to undergo cosmetic surgery, by taking the time to understand exactly why it is they want it, and plastic surgeons should also reflect on this before accepting young patients. People should feel free to do what they want to their own bodies, however, there are steps that should be considered before going under the knife, such as therapy which can help young people deal with their insecurities at hand. Of course, there are legitimate reasons that may influence a young person's decision to undergo cosmetic surgery, however when the root of the desire is to look as good as the people we see online, we allow fantasy to seep into the realms of reality in irreversible and harmful ways.