Cosmetic Surgery - vanity or something else?

Like the thousands of Americans that have gone before them, there appears to be an ever-increasing number of young Australian women and mothers happy to consider cosmetic surgery. Surgeons say one of the most popular procedures for those in this demographic is an eye lift, which aims to take away the appearance of tired eyes after too many late nights up with the children. Tummy tucks also top the list, with many young mums hoping to regain a bit of their pre-pregnancy form in order to feel confident when clad in a swimsuit.

Sonia Webb* says she didn't have breast implants so she could wear plunging v-neck tees. And she adds that the decision to have eye surgery had little to do with how others saw her and more about how she viewed herself.
The 34-year-old mother of four says she mostly keeps her enhanced breasts under wraps. She does, however, admit to feeling bolstered by how friends and family have reacted to her choice to have surgery.

"The decision to have plastic surgery was purely about me and my own vanity, " says Webb, who lives in Cronulla with her husband Mark and their four children: two boys, aged three and 4, and two girls, aged 11 and 12. (Webb and her husband act as guardians to the two girls, who are part of her extended family.)

"After breastfeeding both my children for two years in total, my breasts were droopy and I felt very self-conscious in swimwear and in fitted dresses due to the sagginess. Now? Well, I don't think ‘Ooh, look at my breasts' and parade around in skimpy clothes ... I just feel comfortable within myself," she says.

"As for the eye surgery I had done ...I guess I had always been unhappy with my eyes as they were quite deep-set, so I had implants to build up my eye sockets. A lot of people now comment that I look more refreshed and that my eyes stand out more than they did before," says Webb.

"I don't particularly hide the fact that I've had surgery. I don't deny it. If someone asks me, I discuss it and actually the reaction has been very positive and a lot of my girlfriends now want to go down that path themselves," she says.

Though it's traditionally been seen as the reserve of only the rich and/or wrinkly, the face of plastic surgery has now entered the suburbs, as more and more young mums such as Sonia Webb are willing to go under the knife.

Newspapers and glossies are literally bursting at the staples with images of celebs who have been nipped, tucked, lifted, peeled, sliced and Botox-ed.

Formal Australian figures are hard to come by, as there is no central registry or reporting requirements. But according to the Australian Society for Plastic Surgery, national trends tend to mirror those in the US, where cosmetic procedures (surgical or nonsurgical) performed by plastic surgeons increased by 23 per cent per cent between 1997 and 2002. There were 1.5 million reconstructive procedures performed in 2005, which is a 36 per cent increase since 1992.

The American Society for Plastic Surgeons also estimates that Americans spent around $12.4 billion ($16.3 billion) on plastic surgery in 2005.

And it's become big business in Australia, too. The top five procedures performed on females are breast augmentation ($4500 upwards), liposuction ($2500-$6000), nose reshaping $3000-$6000), eyelid surgery ($1500-$5000) and tummy tucks (from $3750).

In total, Webb spent $18,000 on plastic surgery procedures. When asked whether she believes the results have paid off, Webb says she loves her revamped look.

"My point of view is that I wasn't expecting the surgery to change my life. I'm happy with my home life, and am at a stage where I am comfortable with who I am," Webb says.

"At no time have I regretted the surgery. I feel a lot more confident in the clothes that I choose to wear as my breasts are back to looking how they did before breastfeeding. They sit up high and are much perkier," she says.

"I didn't need the surgery for acceptance from other people. It was more a personal choice that I wanted to feel good when I undressed in front of my husband or had a shower or had to take the children swimming," she says.

Webb admits that seeing images of celebrities, such as Lindsay Lohan and Victoria Beckham, made her more critical of the shape she was in.

"I do agree that I am influenced by the images that I see in magazines and in movies. Everything we watch and read is based around looks and looking skinny and beautiful. Have you got the right hairdo? Are your boobs big enough? Depending on each individual, there must be some degree in which you think about how to improve yourself," she says.

Despite being aware of society's pressure for women to conform to a certain look, Webb says she is not worried about what kind of message she is sending to the two young girls who share her home.

"How have they reacted? Well, they joke and laugh about it and say, ‘I can't wait till I'm old enough to get bigger boobs'. One's 12, the other's 11 ... but I tell them they have plenty of time to worry about those things," Webb says.

"I won't become one of these plastic surgery junkies. I'm quite happy with myself now. Both procedures were done because of the fact my body underwent changes that I was unhappy with after having babies ... but I would never regret breastfeeding. Just like I don't regret the surgery. I feel fantastic now and I shouldn't have to feel guilty about that," she says.

So why are more and more young women investing in surgically enhanced body parts? And is it right to believe this synthetic aesthetic is an improvement on ageing gracefully?

Naturally not all women share the same attitudes towards ageing.

In the case for soft and supple versus silicone, feminist and author Sheila Jeffreys argues that the very idea of buying a new pair of breasts is "really terrible stuff".

In her book, Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West, Jeffriesis highly critical of the cosmetic surgery industry. She argues that the messages that girls magazines, the fashion industry, the sex industry and cosmetic surgery industry are sending is that girls need to remake themselves with great pain and effort to serve men's sexual interests.

"[Cosmetic surgery] is a harmful cultural practice that, in United Nations' understandings, need to be educated against. For example it harms the health of women and girls, is for the benefit of men, and comes from the subordination of women," Jeffries says. "In place of the desire for personal achievement in areas that require skills and talents and not just young female bodies, [women] are being encouraged to believe their futures and fortunes lie in looking like porn
stars or their songstress equivalents," she says.

The President of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), Dr Bryan Mendelson, rejects the concept that this current consumer trend is "vanity gone mad". "Vanity is conceit. These are not conceited people. Most of the people who have tummy tucks, for instance, are everyday women who are straight-out disappointed at what nature has done," Dr Mendelson says.

"I have dealt with these people and their lives are severely impacted because of the damage that pregnancy has done to their figures. The surgery is a significant cost for them, but it's that important for them that they are prepared to pay for it and in a lot of cases, have to make considerable sacrifices to do so," he says.

Dr Mendelson, who is also a spokesperson for the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons (the peak body for Australia's specialist plastic surgeons), has, for the past 21 years, run his own practice in Melbourne, with a particular interest in facial cosmetic surgery. He says his stereotypical clients are not all A-list celebrities. Far from it. They are, instead, most often "suburban housewives who are looking to achieve an overall improvement in their life".

"Typically, they have children and husbands and often a happy home life, but there is still something missing in their life and cosmetic surgery often helps them find that," he says.

Dr Mendelson agrees some plastic surgery can be "overboard and trivial", but insists the majority of his clients simply wish to "make a few minor adjustments" in order to feel better about themselves.

"Everything in life is based on our self-esteem and how we feel about ourselves. It's the basis in which we work in relationship to the world. I'm seeing women that, prior to surgery, described their bodies as ugly and disgusting and their boobs as being deflated. Those are pretty strong words and pretty strong feelings.

"These women are not seeking perfection. But they have been dealt an unkind blow by nature and these make up the real motives behind why most of these women, in the demographic you are describing, are seeking to improve themselves with surgery," he says.

* We have changed the name of the person we interviewed to protect her identity.

Approximate prices for plastic surgery in Australia in 2007.

Abdominoplasty (tummy tuck)

From $3,750

Breast Augmentation

$4,500 upwards



- chin


- tummy & hips


- tummy


- thighs & buttocks


Rhinoplasty (nose surgery)




Please do not rely on these figures. For accurate prices consult the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons or individual Plastic Surgeons in your area.

* Figures provided by the Australian Society for Plastic Surgeons in 2007
* These prices are approximate surgical fees only; anaesthetist & hospital fees are additional
* There are no regulations governing surgical fees - prices vary between surgeons.