The fact that medicine, at its core, is and must be a selfless profession has become abundantly clear in the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors are well-respected professionals in society and are commonly recognized as benefitting from sizeable salaries. But these are merely added bonuses to a job that stems from the central tenet of alleviating human suffering.
Plastic surgery (excluding reconstructive surgery), however, just doesn’t seem to align with these essential values of medicine. Cosmetic plastic surgeons dedicate four years of medical school education towards learning the most intricate, nuanced details of our physiology and another six years towards grueling residency training. But they ultimately utilize this medical knowledge that can and should be used to better the human condition, to instead capitalize on insecurity and unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women.
I spent the last four years living in West L.A. where I went to school. Being a college student in L.A. gave me the unique opportunity to indulge in authentic L.A. culture while simultaneously being able to retreat to the haven of my college town if I ever felt the need. Initially, I dove into the fantastical, mythical realm of Los Angeles with zeal. But after a toxic process of cultural osmosis, I fled back to the safety of my college community, laden with new insecurity in my ethnicity and skin color, dysmorphic thought patterns about my body, disordered eating habits, and hypercritical X-ray vision of every line and feature of my face and figure.
I managed to stay afloat and overcome this flood of self-hatred and criticism, however, by diving deep into my academic passion: biology. Spending time investing in classic premed activities—talking to patients, shadowing doctors, performing research, and, of course, spending hours studying the body’s functions—gave me a renewed appreciation for life itself, and unyielding admiration for the people who devote themselves to it so tirelessly.
In this recovery process, however, I never could reconcile the motives of plastic surgeons. With the exception of reconstructive surgery (procedures like traumatic scar revision, skin grafts, breast reductions, cleft lip repair, etc.), plastic surgery serves no treatment- or prevention-based purpose. In fact, the vast majority of cosmetic procedures are not covered by insurance for the precise reason that they do not have a medical basis or need. It felt almost like a personal blow when I realized that people who were as giddy about biology as I was could ultimately choose to take advantage of the noxious, detrimental insecurities that I, and so many others, battled.
To be clear, I don’t believe plastic surgeons are the root cause of unrealistic or patriarchal beauty standards, nor are the people who choose to undergo cosmetic procedures the cause of this issue. Rather, I’m shocked that there exists an entire field full of people who endured years of education to learn how to service mankind, and used that information to take advantage of the unjust disparities and standards that exist in our society.
So where does all of this reflection ultimately leave me? As an avid supporter of autonomy in making decisions for your own body, I don’t advocate dismantling the field of plastic surgery. Everyone has a story, a reason, for the decisions they make about their own bodies, and we should always continue to respect that. However, cosmetic plastic surgery is not a contribution towards healing the ailments of humankind. Perhaps its definition as such should be reconsidered.