From nose jobs to liposuction to breast implants for high school graduation, there is a growing trend toward cosmetic surgery in teens and young adults. When a young girl wants her body surgically altered it’s time to ask what she feels is missing on the inside that she thinks can be fixed by operating on her outside.
Adolescence is certainly an emotionally turbulent time; one filled with questions of “Who am I?” and “Am I good enough?” and “How do I measure up to others?”. It is not an easy time in development and sometimes the anxiety and frustration that being a teen can bring can feel downright overwhelming. A girl may look for somewhere to cast the blame for her unhappiness and insecurity. She may think, “If only my nose was smaller, my breasts bigger, my waist tinier then I would feel happy”.
Of course if the problem is in fact internal conflict, depression and anxiety, then all the plastic surgery in the world isn’t going to fix it. Sometimes a well-meaning parent in an effort to help relieve her daughter’s misery will collude with her in the idea that surgery will “make her feel better”. Daughters read their mothers’ thoughts so well that it may further bolster her daughter’s wish for the surgical fix. Peer pressure also plays a big role. Girls may reinforce amongst each other outer beauty over inner, style over substance and a specific teen view of what constitutes beauty. Some girls are already on the path to body dysmorphic disorder (a psychiatric problem where a body part or area is seen in a distorted way) and of course surgery does not fix this either. A request for liposuction may be a symptom for an eating disorder.
Of course there are unusual circumstances where by there may be a truly difficult, albeit cosmetic, issue (for instance when one of a girl’s breasts do not grow). In certain specific instances, plastic surgery may truly benefit a girl. However, I think it is important for parents to know that a teen’s brain is not fully developed until around age 20 or 22. A teen’s frontal lobe which houses judgment and consequence (“How will I feel about this surgery next year?”) is what lags behind. Parents need to help their children make decisions based not on physical attributes, but rather on understanding why their self esteem is suffering in the first place. If your child asks for surgery, I recommend you ask them why, what are they really trying to fix, where did they get the message that this is their key to happiness? Explore their value of themselves, what makes them proud, what makes them feel shame? If behind the request your teen is depressed, anxious, suffers low self esteem or has a truly distorted body image, consider an evaluation with a professional to sort out what is really driving their need for surgery.