August 31, 2005
Plastic Surgery Not Just for Wealthy Anymore
Patients now reflect the mainstream, survey finds
Forget the stereotype of the cosmetic surgery patient as a wealthy, older woman who lunches and shops, then slips into her surgeon's office for "a little work."
Patients undergoing cosmetic surgery increasingly come from all income levels and age ranges, concluded Dr. Walter Erhardt, chairman of the American Society of Plastic Surgery's Public Education Committee.
"Financing has made surgeries more affordable," Erhardt said. "And I think people are making some decisions." For instance, they might keep a car a few more years to work the cost of plastic surgery into their budgets, he said.
The survey polled 644 people, all considering plastic surgery within the next two years. It found that nearly 30 percent reported household incomes of less than $30,000, while another 41 percent had incomes ranging between $31,000 and $60,000. Sixteen percent reported annual household incomes of $61,000 to $90,000. Just 13 percent had average household incomes of more than $90,000 a year.
The survey was conducted over the Internet, with surveyors focusing on those who said they planned to undergo surgery within the next two years.
Ages varied widely, with 26 percent of respondents between the ages 18 and 29, 38 percent between ages 30 and 49, and 36 percent age 50 or older. Eighty-five percent of respondents were women, and 85 percent were white.
Besides this general survey, the society then conducted 60 in-depth interviews with people actively considering surgery. More than 40 percent had been contemplating it for a while, often more than a year. Experts say most patients don't have cosmetic surgery performed on a whim, but only after extensive thought.
As to why they wanted it, most said they felt they could achieve emotional, psychological and social improvement; most claimed they weren't motivated by vanity but rather by a wish to improve a specific feature that dissatisfied them.
As to motivation, about 75 percent said they wanted to gain physical benefits such as improved appearance. Forty-five percent -- more often men than women -- expected some social benefit such as being considered more attractive.
Another expert, Joan Chrisler, a professor of psychology at Connecticut College in New London, sees another force behind the growing acceptance of cosmetic surgery: television. Specifically, she pointed to shows like Extreme Makeover that feature transformations in which patients are surgically altered from head to toe in a matter of weeks, then "presented" to their family and friends at a kind of coming-out party.
The afternoon talk shows often feature the topic, as well, Chrisler said. "The shows have been damaging in terms of suggesting anyone can have plastic surgery," she said. And, she added, they often give the impression that it is "worth it to go into debt to look more attractive."
Getting cosmetic surgery these days, Chrisler said, is "sort of like buying a new outfit used to be."
Chrisler disagreed with one survey finding that the respondents were not motivated by vanity, but rather with improving a bothersome physical feature. "It's the same thing," she said.
And, she added, people who expect they are going to be happier in general after cosmetic surgery are probably going to be disappointed. While they may be happier about the way their nose looks after a nose job or the way their eyes look after an eyelid lift, their overall happiness level may be unchanged, she said, "unless they work on the inside."
Erhardt encouraged those planning or undergoing surgery to be realistic. In that regard, he said, the television makeover shows have been a bit of a double-edged sword.
"The TV shows have created unrealistic expectations in the number of procedures that can be done in a short time," he said. On the shows, a contestant may drop out of their regular routine for six to eight weeks, he said, and have multiple procedures. They might have private-duty nursing, as well, he said. All of this may not be feasible for most people.
On the other hand, the shows have "demonstrated the difference that plastic surgery can make in regular folks' lives," he said.
To learn more about cosmetic surgery, visit the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (www.plasticsurgery.org ).