Before she underwent breast augmentation surgery last summer, Melissa Wohl said she felt self-conscious about her body — especially at the beach.
“I wasn’t as developed as some of my friends, who were filling out their bathing suits,” said Wohl, 19, of Wantagh, who now attends Binghamton University. “I guess I felt like I didn’t fit in.”
Wohl is among an increasing number of young women looking to plastic surgery for a boost in confidence as well as cup size.
Last week’s death of Stephanie Kuleba, 18, of South Florida, during breast augmentation surgery has drawn attention to what some describe as a growing trend. Kuleba, whose parents say she sought the surgery to correct an inverted nipple and asymmetrical breasts, died Saturday of what may have been a rare genetic reaction to general anesthesia.
According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of women 18 and younger who have had breast enlargements has risen nearly 500 percent over the past decade — a sharper climb than the 300 percent increase in breast augmentations among all age groups.
Dr. Stephen Greenberg, a plastic surgeon in Woodbury, estimated he has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent rise in cosmetic procedures among young people. Often, he said, a girl will come in with her parents, who are buying her a breast augmentation as a birthday or high school graduation gift.
“There are girls and women who are devastated by the fact that they don’t have breasts and their friends do,” Greenberg said. “They don’t play gymnastics and they don’t go on dates or they can’t wear certain clothing, and I hear these things every day.”
Greenberg attributed the trend in part to young women who see their parents undergoing cosmetic procedures, or relate closely to the celebrities who have them.
Not everyone agrees.
Dr. Alan Gold, a Great Neck plastic surgeon, noted that those 18 and under accounted for only 2 percent of the nearly 400,000 breast augmentation surgeries performed nationwide in 2007. He said that while many might choose to have such a surgery in a “transitional period” like summer vacation when they won’t see their friends every day, he has not seen a trend in graduation and birthday gift breast jobs among his patients.
Breast augmentation is the most popular plastic surgery, accounting for about 20 percent of all surgical procedures. It costs on average about $4,000, according to the plastic surgeons’ society.
Traci Levy, an assistant professor who teaches courses in feminism and gender studies at Adelphi University, said that the growing perception that it’s a common procedure, along with the bombardment of women with advertisements for plastic surgery, may be contributing to its popularity.
“To say that you need to have a very expensive surgical procedure with real health risks in order to be considered beautiful, I think, is a problematic image,” she said.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends against performing breast augmentations on girls younger than 18, and both Gold and Greenberg said that if younger teenagers request the surgery, they counsel them to wait. But Gold said he sees nothing necessarily wrong with performing the surgeries on women who are 18 or older.
“Eighteen is certainly an age where we’re putting men and women in uniform on a battlefield,” he said. “I think they can decide if they want larger breasts.”
What to do before surgery
Long Island doctors offer advice to parents whose teens are considering cosmetic surgery:
WAIT A YEAR. Teens should wait a year before going ahead with breast correction or rhinoplasty, said Dr. David Graham, chief deputy health commissioner for Suffolk County. Another year of maturity and thought might cause them to be more accepting of minor bodily flaws.
KNOW THE COMPLICATIONS. Parents should make the child aware of the possible complications, including the rare chance of death, Graham said. “You think you know everything when you’re 17 or 18, but you don’t. You don’t realize the downside of anesthesia.”
DO YOUR RESEARCH. Research not only the surgeon, but just as importantly, the anesthesiologist who will participate in the operation, said Dr. Mark Shikowitz, vice chairman of the ear, nose and throat department at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Shikowitz does three to five teenage nose jobs a week, he said. While cosmetic surgery has risks such as bleeding and infection, the most dangerous part can be the general anesthesia, he said.
CONSIDER A HOSPITAL. Consider doing the surgery in a hospital or a hospital-affiliated ambulatory care center instead of a doctor’s office, Shikowitz said. In a crisis, more specialists and fellow anesthesiologists are nearby to lend a hand and offer solutions.
– BETH WHITEHOUSE
Breast augmentation operations for those 18 and younger have risen since 1997.
Total cases 18 and younger
1997 101,176 1,326
2000 203,310 2,123
2007 394,440 7,882
Source: American Society or Aesthetic Plastic Surgery