Realistic Expectations for Plastic Surgery Results

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Beth Longware Duff, Medical Editor

Beth Longware Duff is an experienced writer and reporter whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines. Her health and medical writing credits include nationally distributed videos for the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, and she is the recipient of numerous awards including an American Cancer Society Media Award and a New England Press Association Award for Health Reporting. She holds a degree in Communications from Ithaca College.


December 09 2008

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Plastic Surgery Expectations: Realistic vs. Unrealistic

Recently in Great Britain, the cosmetic surgery industry was chastised by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) for using misleading sales techniques on the public. The not-for-profit organization objected to a trend in advertising that includes "digitally-enhanced images of models which give an unrealistic idea of what surgery can achieve", according to its press release.

BAAPS specifically cited a 2007 poster campaign showing "an unhappy, flat-chested young woman in one panel, followed by the image of her smiling radiantly, with enhanced breasts, in another." Under the pictures ran the caption "Meet Amy before her breast enlargement. Meet Amy after . . . "

BAAPS launched its own ad campaign to counter the industry's message. "Surgery is a serious undertaking which requires realistic expectations and should only proceed after proper consultation with a reputable and properly-qualified clinician in an appropriate clinical setting," said BAAPS President and plastic surgeon Douglas McGeorge. "Our ad is designed to get patients to stop and actually thoroughly consider what's involved, to ensure safe and happy outcomes."

Do a little research into plastic surgery and you'll run across the fact that one of the most common reasons for patient dissatisfaction is unrealistic expectations; that is, the patient went into surgery thinking that the procedure would provide a benefit that, in reality, it could not. Some of those expectations may be promulgated by advertisers, but many are homegrown. How does that happen?

Unlike with other surgeries, an individual's decision to undergo cosmetic enhancement is deeply personal and strictly voluntary, often driven by a combination of social and emotional factors. These include a desire to look younger for professional or personal reasons, a decision to change a feature they've long disliked, or a wish to improve life in general.

With a choice as subjective as plastic surgery, it's easy to blur the line between realistic and unrealistic expectations. Sometimes people make the choice for the wrong reasons. The first line of defense usually comes during the initial cosmetic surgery consultation, when surgeon and prospective patient meet to discuss the procedure and all it entails.

For example, some of the comments that plastic surgeons hear that are generally accepted as "good" reasons for having plastic surgery include: "I'm doing this for myself", "I don't look as young as I feel", "My friends tell me I look tired or angry all the time, but I'm not", and "I'm not happy with the way I look and I'm ready for some improvement."

On the other hand, red flags should go up when a plastic surgeon hears "bad" reasons like: "My friends are all having their breasts done", "My husband/wife/significant other is leaving me, and I'm hoping this will make them stay", "A face lift will make all the difference in my life", and "If only my nose was a millimeter shorter, I'd be perfect!"

It's unrealistic to believe that cosmetic surgery will change your life (although it may contribute to a greater sense of self-confidence), or that it will solve all your personal problems. It's also unrealistic to expect surgery to provide perfect symmetry (which is virtually unheard of in the human body), or result in better treatment by others. Other unrealistic expectations are that there are no risks to the surgery or that recovery will not involve discomfort.

Some things in our lives are outside our control and, to a certain extent, cosmetic surgery is one of them. Yes, you can have an abdominoplasty, but it's not realistic to expect to wake up with the taut tummy of a teenager. A face lift may take 10 years off your looks, but cannot make you look like you are 20. Liposuction can melt inches off your thighs, but if you don't maintain the results with a healthy diet and exercise the results will be temporary.

Being realistic means understanding that cosmetic surgery can improve, not perfect, your looks. Good candidates for surgery have accepted that concept and are likely to be happy with their results.

Before investing your time, money, health, and looks in plastic surgery, honestly assess your reasons for doing it. What do you want to correct, and why? Is this procedure something you want for yourself, or are you doing it to make someone else happy? Do you think you'll be able to adjust to your new look? What are your expectations, and are they realistic given your current situation? If, after consulting with a plastic surgeon, your expectations for cosmetic surgery are validated, you're on your way to an optimal experience.