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Making The Cut

Libby Galvin investigates the increasing popularity of plastic surgery amongst British students, asking why we’re so desperate to change the shape of the student body – has Nottingham’s reputation for a campus full of beautiful people come at too high a price?

Often I get something of an unwelcome shock when I look in the mirror. In my mind’s eye, I certainly look better than my reflection tells me. Taking stock of the image in front of me, I accept that the basics are fine – but with a little bit of work, I could have the face and body I think I have when I’m feeling great and don’t have access to any reflective surfaces. But if I could, would I change my looks to match my personal ideal? Increasingly, women and men my age are making permanent changes to their physiques, and using surgery to make their idealised selves a reality. This isn’t unheard of – everyone knows about plastic surgery: you can hardly miss it for the coverage on television and in magazines – but it’s on the rise, and extremely so. In 2008, a total of 34,187 surgical procedures were carried out by members of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), an increase of more than 5% on the previous year. Statistics including a breakdown of the age range of patients are not easily available, but a brief survey of Nottingham University students alone showed over three quarters knew someone in their peer group who had had plastic surgery, or was considering it seriously enough to have had a surgical consultation.

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I spoke to Lucy, a fourth year Nottingham student considering rhinoplasty, and her best friend Charlie, who had a breast enlargement two years ago. A student at Roehampton, Charlie had her surgery aged 20 after considering it since the age of fifteen. Her surgeon was Mr Brent Tanner, who has also dealt with such high profile clients as Katie Price. Charlie described the feeling after having her surgery as “like having bricks on my chest” but is extremely pleased with her new shape, having gone from an uneven B/C cup to a 32F. Although Charlie is incredibly happy with “her pals” as she calls them, Lucy expressed concern that her friend now looks in the mirror some days and still considers them too small. When she went for surgery, Charlie was seeing a man whose previous girlfriend had a breast enlargement paid for by him, and who is now seeing another woman who he has also bought new breasts. Did his encouragement prove to be an important factor in her decision to undergo augmentation? “No, but his support certainly helped.” Now they are no longer together, Charlie’s figure attracts romantic attention from footballers and other high profile men when she goes out in London, and she frequently gets photographed at clubs by paparazzi mistaking her for a glamour model or WAG. For £6000, it seems you can buy not only a new chest but a passport to a certain lifestyle. Underneath her glossy exterior, though, Charlie plans to become a primary school teacher and is currently taking her PGCE – in the course of her placements, she has had children ask “are you a real life Barbie doll?” Self aware enough to be entertained by this, Charlie is adamant that her surgery has improved her confidence and she loves the look she has constructed, brushing off the idea that she may be attracting attention from people who are only interested in her looks with the assertion that “they might start talking to me because of my appearance, but then I’ll dazzle them with my personality!”

Drastic overhauls like hers do not make up the majority of examples of students having plastic surgery, however. Whilst breast augmentation is the most common procedure across age ranges with 8,439 performed in 2008 (up 30% from 2007), the other procedures in the national top 5 – eyelid surgery, face lifts, tummy tucks and breast reduction – are less popular amongst students for obvious, age related reasons. Instead, rhinoplasty, or nose jobs, seemed to be the most commonly desired or undertaken surgery by men and women alike. I spoke to several boys who had had reconstructive surgery on their noses, although this was usually a consequence of multiple breakages playing sports, and to yet more girls who had looked into the possibility. In my North London sixth form alone, I knew of 4 girls in just one year who had nose jobs during the summer holidays, and there are many more at Nottingham University who have gone away at the end of one term and come back the next looking somewhat more facially streamlined. Few, however, are willing to talk about it, perhaps understandably; for many girls, facial alteration is a particularly sensitive subject and incredibly closely related to self confidence and one’s own perception of beauty. Whilst breasts, or the lack thereof, can be hidden or enhanced by careful dressing, the face is constantly on show. Lucy, 22, went to the same surgeon as her friend Charlie for a consultation about removing the small bump from the bridge of her nose. Initially keen to have it done, she changed her mind after first realizing she couldn’t afford the £4000 fee, and then seeing another friend have a rhinoplasty “which made no difference at all!” Between the reluctance to spend so much money and the worrying possibility that she wouldn’t like the outcome if it did make a drastic difference, Lucy has opted to put her plans for surgery on hold indefinitely.

Intrigued to see exactly what it took and how easy it is to change your appearance, I decided to book myself a consultation at a local plastic surgery clinic. The Harley Medical Group are a nationwide company offering ‘a range of surgical and nonsurgical solutions.’ I visited their Nottingham clinic on Castle Boulevard, ready to see what they could offer me to remedy my “unfeminine” nose (their words not mine!). The waiting and consultation rooms were innocuous and comfortable, more reminiscent of an upmarket beauty salon than a medical facility, and my Nurse Counselor was charming and confidence inspiring. The surroundings and her treatment of me made me feel it was the most normal and reasonable thing in the world to consider spending upwards of £4000 on filing down a nose that had served me perfectly well for the past twenty years – I went in there purely for research purposes, and came out quite seriously interested in how ‘just a touch’ of the surgeons scalpel and chisel could fashion my heretofore ungainly proboscis into something altogether more elegant. It wasn’t until I got home and saw my housemate’s puzzled reactions when I expressed my newfound desire for a neater nose that I remembered I didn’t really want one at all. Some people do have real issues with their noses, and easily alterable ones at that – I saw fantastic ‘after’ shots at the clinic of straightened noses that would previously have given Pinocchio a run for his money, but it seems there is little differentiation made between those who have a genuine issue and those who are simply spending too much time in front of the mirror. Looking back on my appointment, I did feel I’d been privy to a sales pitch more than a medical assessment – there was the inherent assumption that I’d already made a definite decision to go ahead with the surgery, and I was seconds away from booking a further £500 consultation with my assigned surgeon in London. More worryingly, on further investigation it became clear that my assigned surgeon was not BAAPS accredited, but a Czech doctor with no British qualifications. Although there is nothing illegal or necessarily inherently dangerous in this, companies like the Harley Medical Group (who incidentally are one of the heaviest advertisers in women’s magazines) are trading off the trusted reputation of Harley Street when in fact the surgeons they employ are not necessarily at the top of their game. Students and other clients who have not fully researched their surgery but gone on price or the attractiveness of an advert may, without realising, be choosing to be treated by surgeons who are not held to the rigorous standards of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. Payment plans of “only £99 a month” make this type of surgery readily accessible to anyone, explaining how even students can afford to augment their features on a budget.

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That having been said, the majority of students who’ve had surgery have had it with the full support, both moral and financial, of their parents; and often well before they’ve reached university age. More regularly now surgery is undertaken to remedy acutely embarrassing problems that can manifest themselves in adolescence, particularly regarding one specifically male problem – gynaecomastia. Gynaecomastia is the medical term for the commonly known and unaffectionately termed problem of ‘man boobs’, and surgery to resolve this condition has increased by an astounding 44% this year, with an increase of over 1000% in uptake of this procedure since 2003. Joel, now 22 and a third year humanities student at the University, had gynaecomastia surgery in 2003 when he was 15 years old, and was one of only 22 men to have the surgery in Britain that year. “The problem first became obvious to me after a school swimming lesson. I’d thought it was just a result of getting a bit tubby, but after the ribbing at the poolside I went to my GP and found out it was a real condition and could be solved. My parents were supportive and I had the surgery done privately; you could get it on the NHS but it would have taken too long. It only took six weeks between my initial appointment and the completion of the surgery – they removed two clementines worth of fat from my chest and improved my confidence almost immeasurably.”

Girls, too, are increasingly seeking a more ‘intimate’ kind of alteration. Currently, 91% of all plastic surgery is undergone by women, and in recent years the type of surgery available has considerably broadened. One girl, who preferred not to be named, underwent surgery on her vulva aged 14 to reduce the size of her labia. Media attention on this type of surgery usually suggests it is a result of the sexualisation of society and the saturation of pornographic images available to men and women of all ages, provoking people to aspire to a false set of norms. However, now 18 and attending University in the South West, this girl stated that “I didn’t have the surgery because of any preconceived norms or because of any supposedly ‘perfect’ images I’d seen, but simply because I felt uncomfortable – wearing trousers and walking could chafe, and although I know many girls and women have labia which are more ‘out’ than ‘in’ I found it a handicap for me on a daily basis. Since having the surgery I feel far more comfortable and don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

These stories are testament to the belief of consultant plastic surgeon and past President of BAAPS Douglas McGeorge that “When performed under the right circumstances, cosmetic surgery can have a positive psychological impact and improve quality of life.” Undoubtedly, he is right, and for every story of nose jobs being bought as 21st birthday presents and young girls begging to be allowed to cut themselves open and insert breast implants in order to compete with friends who are simply developing ahead of them, there are stories of students whose lives have been vastly improved by having embarrassing physical concerns removed and their confidence restored. Despite the sometimes brilliant results, plastic surgery can also have horrific results: you only need to look at celebrities like Tara Reid, the elasticity of her skin ruined by liposuction and her breasts permanently and obviously scarred, to think twice before trying to ‘improve’ what you already have. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the younger generation are so enthusiastic in their acceptance of surgical quick fixes and permanent aesthetic improvements – after all, we’ve been brought up with it. British teens spend 1 hour and 8 minutes a week researching plastic surgery online, and according to one study in 2007, those in the 18 to 24 age bracket are the most likely to approve of plastic surgery. Nonetheless, for all the successes we see, it is all too easily and too often forgotten that surgery both risks your life, and in cases such as breast enlargement, commits you to a lifetime of upkeep.

Libby Galvin

Image by Bruno Albutt

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