Plastic surgery has not just become popular, but it is evolving as a concept more vivaciously than ever. It’s a 21st century commodity that’s easily accessible to the wider population, with many procedures no longer a rare luxury. Moreover, certain procedures represent a worthwhile investment to younger people and are no longer reserved for celebrities looking to reverse the effects of ageing. All said, plastic surgery and various cosmetic procedures have become matter-of-fact and you might even find yourself thinking ‘Would I ever go for a face-lift in the future?’
But even amid its wide popularisation, the moral debate on plastic surgery is not ceasing. In fact, the more widespread various procedures become, the more debate there is. The topic of whether it is ‘all right to play with nature in such a way’ has long been surpassed – that is seen as a personal matter, where each individual is free to provide their own answer. Many would even argue that the concept of altering your look surgically is no different from altering your look with makeup, which, as we have seen on plenty of examples, can really go a long way in changing someone’s appearance. They are two different things, but the principle remains the same. But the underlying question is – Will plastic surgery make you feel better about yourself and better overall? What do people truly expect from it and can their expectations be met? It’s not a simple question because its answer, if there were to be an exact one, calls for a more studious approach.
The quest for beauty
The popularity of plastic surgery is widely attributed to our obsession with physical appearance that, namely, stems from societal standards of beauty. These standards change with time, hence the growing popularity of buttock lifts and implants that’s not coincidental in this post-MTV day and age. Trends aside, the societal standards of beauty are longstanding, and although different cultures have differing approaches to beauty, one thing is common to all: youth. Physical attractiveness is seen as synonymous with youth, health, and energy – something that can be reflected in ample, sturdy breasts, full lips, and tight skin. Then there’s also the subconscious infatuation with symmetry, the uncomplicated, clear facial features that are seen as attractive possibly because of their simplicity.
Consequently, our hardwired positive response to physical attractiveness is explained as the halo effect – a form of cognitive bias in which the brain allows specific positive traits to positively influence the overall evaluation of the person, idea, or object in the ‘halo’. It refers to the well-known phenomenon of people who are seen as attractive by general standards being treated differently, as a result of subconsciously being attributed positive traits such as competence, intelligence, trustworthiness, etc.
Why people opt for plastic surgery
It is only natural to conclude from the aforementioned that someone would choose to enhance their looks surgically in order to reap the benefits of the halo effect, to be better liked by strangers and colleagues, thus unleashing a string of benefits that stem from that. But we can note the fallacy of this assumption at first sight, for although a celebrity may get a face-lift to stay relevant in the business, a wide number of people (and plastic surgery patients) understand how to separate their emotional well-being from others’ perception of their physical attractiveness. In fact, one study done in 1995 has shown that there is no link between a person’s happiness and how other people rate their attractiveness. Simply put, being perceived as attractive is irrelevant to happiness and self-esteem; but perceiving yourself as attractive does greatly contribute to self-esteem and well-being, unsurprisingly.
An extremely valuable example lies in the phenomenon of breast reduction, which opposes the general belief that plastic surgery is all about meeting societal standards of what’s beautiful and sexy. Various celebrities, including Drew Barrymore and much later, Ariel Winter, have underwent it for personal reasons, sometimes very practical ones such as avoiding back pain, sometimes to avoid being hypersexualised, but generally they’ve all reported feeling happy and unburdened after it.
That said, we can understand how a person would opt for plastic surgery not to be better liked by others, but for their own personal reasons, to be better liked by themselves, to meet their own personal standards of beauty. Essentially, it is not about beauty; it’s about confidence and self-perception. An individual may seek to feel more attractive with the help of surgical procedures, thus expecting other positive feelings to arise. This brings us to the main question.
The role of expectations
A review study that examined the connection between cosmetic surgery patients and emotional well-being gives us valuable insight to the role that expectations play in a patient’s satisfaction with the outcome, and consequently, their well-being. It has demonstrated how pre-surgery expectations are key, with those who had unrealistically high expectations of how the procedure would turn their life around being less happy afterwards. But those who turned to surgery with a specific mindset of only altering a part of their body for their own pleasure and self-esteem proved to have positive results regarding their emotional status. It only goes to underline that a patient’s attitude toward the procedure, namely, a healthy approach, can bring them great emotional benefit.
Procedures such as breast augmentations proved to have the most positive emotional outcomes, with greater self-esteem and social confidence. Procedures such as rhinoplasty and face-lifts had less uniformed results – not coincidentally, as we can see how someone might expect too much from altering their face and how these expectations cannot be easily met. Another review study published in 2013 showed a number of positive outcomes from plastic surgery across various fields, such as anxiety, social phobia, goal attainment, self-esteem, self-efficacy, general satisfaction, etc.
Just like with the most things in life, the answer to whether plastic surgery improves emotional well-being is not black-and-white. It is the responsibility of professionals to educate their patients and evaluate their psychological state accordingly, because unhealthy motives behind surgery, such as relationship pressures or simply body dysmorphic disorder, cannot result in a positive outcome psychologically, no matter how successfully the procedure went. But studies do show that it can definitely contribute to emotional well-being, as long as there is a healthy attitude towards it. In the end, it’s all about confidence and cases vary from person to person; but if plastic surgery can contribute to an individual’s self-esteem, it is by all means a valid tool.
Dennis Relojo is the Founder of Psychreg and is also the Editor-in-Chief of Psychreg Journal of Psychology. Aside from PJP, he sits on the editorial boards of peer-reviewed journals, and is a Commissioning Editor for the International Society of Critical Health Psychology. A Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society, Dennis holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Hertfordshire. His research interest lies in the intersection of psychology and blogging. You can connect with him through Twitter @DennisRelojo and his website.
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