Updated June 12, 2023
Self-esteem: People try to raise it; some experiences lower it; books are written about it; and therapists spend hours discussing it. It pervades many parts of life and connects to self-perception. Increasingly, people turn to plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures to build their self-esteem. The opposite can happen, though. The negative effects of plastic surgery on society stem from how individuals misuse it.
Concern with looks is nothing new. Ancient cultures were as preoccupied with beauty, as today’s society is. Modern culture, though, is unique because of widespread media influence. People are bombarded with images of standards that may be nearly impossible to reach. Poor body image, preoccupation with physical features and the need to “fix” perceived deviations from what Hollywood says is the right look can lead some to consider cosmetic surgery. But that doesn’t improve self-perception in the long run. In some cases, the physical and psychological effects of plastic surgery can worsen self-image.
Plastic Surgery, Self-Esteem and Mental Wellness
Self-esteem can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic self-esteem is self-determined rather than controlled by society. People with high intrinsic self-esteem are aware of societal standards of beauty or success, but they don’t base their self-perception on whether they meet those standards. Their self-worth is more consistent, not dependent on ever-changing social standards.
The opposite is extrinsic self-esteem. Those whose esteem is extrinsic tie their sense of self-worth to societal standards. If thin is in and they’re not thin, they may get liposuction. Exercise video images of six-pack abs may encourage them to get a tummy tuck. They keep feeding a monster that’s never satisfied. External factors change, so when esteem is tied to them, there’s a loss of autonomy.
Those with extrinsic self-esteem often turn to aesthetic surgery to fulfill society’s physical ideals. Such surgeries often aren’t one and done, though. This is especially true for those with psychological disorders. Even worse, studies show that mental health issues can worsen after some plastic surgery procedures. Cosmetic surgery is not the remedy for low self-esteem.
Plastic Surgery and Mental Health
Not everyone who undergoes plastic surgery does so to meet an arbitrary societal standard of beauty. In some cases, surgery corrects a physical defect recognized by both the surgeon and the patient. This might be the case for someone with a physical deformity, for example.
Sometimes, though, a patient identifies a physical feature as flawed while the doctor (and others) consider it normal. This type of cosmetic surgery can lead to problems, especially for those who already face mental health issues, such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Research links mental illness with this type of plastic surgery as both cause and effect. In fact, this research shows that anxiety and depression are predictors of future cosmetic surgery. Unfortunately, surgery doesn’t resolve these mental disorders and may even exacerbate them.
Understanding the Link Between Suicide and Cosmetic Surgery
A series of studies beginning in the early 2000s found that women who underwent cosmetic breast augmentation surgery were more likely to attempt suicide. After comparing numbers, researchers found that the risk was just over twice that of the general population. As with many aspects of mental health, there are a lot of factors that could contribute to this increase.
Other studies have found that women with breast implants are far more likely to have mental health issues like depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders—all of which carry a higher risk of suicide. It’s also possible that botched procedures played a role in this increase.
Beyond those studies, it’s important to consider and further address the issue of body dysmorphia. While only about one percent of the general population has body dysmorphia, the rate of people with body dysmorphia who seek cosmetic surgery could be as high as 15 percent. Because body dysmorphia is a disorder that involves an intense preoccupation with a perceived flaw, some people would attempt to “fix” the area of their body they dislike.
However, body dysmorphia is not that simple. People with body dysmorphia are more likely to have a range of other issues, including low self-esteem, higher levels of anger, a history of childhood abuse, and frequent thoughts of suicide. Some commonly comorbid conditions include depression, substance use disorders, eating disorders, social phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition. As such, it requires treatment from a mental health professional. While cosmetic surgery can sometimes help a person in the short term, it is not a cure for the mental health maladies that drove them to seek the procedures in the first place. Many people with body dysmorphia simply find a new issue with their bodies because that’s what body dysmorphic disorder does. Alternatively, a botched procedure may actually worsen their mental health and the way they feel about that area of their body, leading to repeated surgeries on the same location.
With the additional knowledge that the risk of suicide is higher in women who have received breast augmentation surgery—rather than lower—it’s clear that not only is cosmetic surgery not a cure for these issues, it could make them worse.
Can You Be Addicted to Cosmetic Surgery?
In 2021, surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures rose by approximately 40 percent. More people are getting cosmetic surgeries, but how much is too much?
Just as behaviors like gambling can be addictive, so can cosmetic surgery. The high comes from the hope the surgery represents. An addicted gambler is sure the next card in the deck or next press of the slot machine button will lead to a jackpot. A similar dynamic is at play when the addictive relationship is to cosmetic surgery. In this case, though, the belief is that the next cosmetic procedure will finally fix those perceived flaws and reveal the beauty within.
Those with mental health conditions, such as body dysmorphia, are particularly at risk. People who suffer from body dysmorphia perceive their body as flawed. Their distorted reflection in the mirror differs from what others see. They may turn to cosmetic surgery to ease how dissatisfied they are with their appearance. When surgery doesn’t resolve their self-image issues, they keep seeking more. This can lead to an addiction to plastic surgery.
The Emotional and Physical Toll of Botched Cosmetic Surgery
Even those without body dysmorphia may face psychological pain following a failed cosmetic surgery. Most cosmetic surgeries are safe. Safety isn’t the only measure of success, though.
Suppose the surgery goes awry? Suppose that instead of improving what the patient considered a flawed feature, the surgery worsens it or creates a physical defect?
This nightmare scenario can lead to mental health issues, such as depression. Former supermodel Linda Evangelista infamously discovered this the hard way. After undergoing CoolSculpting in 2015-2016, she had a reaction that left her body disfigured and led to an extended period of depression and lowered self-worth. This can happen to anyone.
The Negative Effects of Plastic Surgery on Society
An old Twilight Zone episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like Me,” is a parable for a society that obsesses with fulfilling cookie-cutter standards of beauty. The episode depicts a futuristic society in which teens entering adulthood must choose a look for themselves from among limited types. The types aren’t unique, so adults look identical to others who selected the same look. One teenage girl initially resists because she wants to continue looking like herself. She eventually capitulates after pressure from family, friends and authorities. This is an allegory of how people in our society often use plastic surgery — as a way to conform to a type.
Relying on plastic surgery to achieve some arbitrary standard of perfection is damaging. The popularity of cosmetic surgery shows that many people believe their look is inferior to another and that they should risk mental and physical health to achieve that preferred appearance.
Reach Out for Help
Has your mental health suffered because of a compulsion with cosmetic surgery or a botched procedure? Restore’s team of caring, licensed mental health professionals is available 24/7 to help you learn how to manage the psychological causes and effects of cosmetic surgery.