Price of beauty: Plastic surgery TV shows put viewers under the knife

Christy Smallman

You are sitting at a restaurant enjoying a night out on the town for dinner with family or perhaps just a few friends. You look toward the bar in search of a television to check the score of the baseball game that you assume would be showing but you are shocked to find an image of a tube being prodded into someone’s stomach while they receive liposuction. You avert your eyes immediately, attempting not to lose your appetite. Why would a restaurant, of all places, be showing such grotesque and graphic images while people are trying to eat? The answer is that with the growing trend in plastic surgery television shows it has become increasingly harder to avoid these images.

The latest trend in television is the journey toward outer self-improvement. It seems that every season there is another television show added to the list of programs that focus on plastic surgery as the answer to people’s problems. Shows such as “Nip/Tuck,” “Dr. 90210,” “The Swan,” “Extreme Makeover,” and “I Want a Famous Face” are some of the offenders. All of these shows focus on changing a person’s outer appearance in order to improve their self-confidence.

“Thanks to the incredible scientific advances we can have bigger or smaller everything,” says William McLaughlin, a Quinnipiac professor of media ethics. “Great noses, super lips, slim bodies, 20-15 eyesight, etc.” McLaughlin blames this trend in part on “the message we get from films, music and television is that if you are not youthful looking and beautiful you are marginal in our society.”

The problem seems to present itself as a vicious circle. Is plastic surgery a growing trend in reality, causing the surge in television shows? Or are the television shows causing a rise in plastic surgery? Lauren Bradley, a senior pre-law major at Quinnipiac, believes that the television shows mirror society very well.

“Americans tend to be very self conscious about their appearance to others,” Bradley says. “Not only physically but also financially and emotionally. It’s only expected for Americans to feed into the trend of these shows.”

There is one line which separates the content of some of these shows. “I Want a Famous Face” on MTV and “Dr. 90210” on the E! network are reality series which focus mostly on optional plastic surgery such as breast augmentation, nose jobs, and liposuction. “Nip/Tuck,” on FX, is a drama which focuses more on trauma surgeries such as reconstructive plastic surgery for people who have been deformed in a traumatic accident. Bradley is a living example of the positive side of plastic surgery. At the age of 5 she was attacked by a dog that bit her face and left her with scars she would potentially have forever. However, plastic surgeons were able to save her nose and right eye and make the scarring minimal with the use of over 100 stitches.

“‘Dr. 90210″ markets plastic surgery as a light subject and as a simple process,” says Kimberly Boutwell, a senior marketing major at Quinnipiac University. She believes that because this show presents these surgeries as simple processes, it does in fact cause more young people to consider getting surgery. Young people may be inclined to believe that getting plastic surgery is an easy way to improve their self worth. Dr. Robert Rey, one of the doctors on “Dr. 90210” says on the show’s Web site, “I’m a psychiatrist with a knife.”

McLaughlin agrees that “it is almost self-evident that increasing numbers of young people will take the risk of getting unnecessary plastic surgery.” According to the morning show “Today” on NBC, more than 78,000 people under the age of 18 had plastic surgery last year, and those numbers are 14 percent higher than the previous year.

Boutwell highlights the fact that these shows put a spotlight on the issue of inner versus outer beauty.

“Shows like the ‘The Swan’ take women who are supposedly ugly, many of whom are in a serious relationship or married, and drastically change their appearance to make them more beautiful,” Boutwell says. “In a few cases the women have left their husbands or boyfriends afterwards because they became too good looking for them.”

Bradley points out that “The Swan” sends “the complete(ly) wrong message to younger people about what a relationship is and what love is.”

According to WebMD, teens account for four percent of the entire plastic surgery market. Julia Corcoran, a plastic surgeon at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told WebMD, “some teens have unrealistic expectations of surgery, expectations that may be fueled by television shows like ‘The Swan’ and ‘Extreme Makeover’.”

“We’re simply stupid to swallow a shallow, dumb message,” McLaughlin says.