How Good Does Plastic Surgery Really Make You Look


Over the years, cosmetic surgery has grown to become a multi- billion-dollar industry in America. Our culture's fondness of youth leads us to seek ways to stay looking youthful and vibrant for as long as possible. Countless plastic surgeons boast state of the art techniques that will yield natural looking results, take years off of your appearance, and even have you feeling like a brand new model of yourself. But is it really all that it's cracked up to be? Considering the average breast augmentation surgery starts at $3,800 in costs and face-lifts cost upwards of $7,000, are the results really worth the money? How much younger does the average plastic surgery procedure really make you look? And are we easily fooled into believing that people are more attractive than they really are because we're lead to believe that plastic surgery will vastly improve upon your attractiveness?

In a 2013 study about perceived age and attractiveness in cosmetic surgery patients, researchers found that contrary to the claims of most cosmetic surgeons, the visible differences in patients pre and post operation are rather minimal. The study included 50 individuals who were randomly assigned either pre-operation or post operation photos of 49 different patients who had undergone various cosmetic procedures with Dr. Peter Adamson, a Toronto surgeon. At a six- month follow up, patients who had had other procedures such as Botox or nose jobs were excluded from the study, so as to keep the focus of the study on just the initial operation performed by Dr. Adamson.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most attractive, about 60% of raters scored patients between a 4 and a 6, showing very little variation in overall attractiveness as reported by Dr. Joshua A. Zimm, lead author of the study. In terms of age, raters estimated patients' ages at only 2.1 years younger before surgery and 5.2 years younger after surgery, for an overall difference of a mere 3.1 years.

I found these results to be particularly astounding because the common belief is that undergoing plastic surgery is effective enough to do better than only 3 years off of your appearance.

We are lead to believe that typical results look more drastic like this:

plastic surgery.jpg

Other similar studies have yielded relatively similar results. According to a New York Times article on cosmetic surgery, one such study was done in 2012 of Dr. Adamson's patients. On the up side, participants did perceive patients to be about 7-years younger than they actually were. However, these results would have been far more impressive had it not been for the fact that the criteria used in the study was much less rigorous than that of the 2013 study in that participants were only responsible for estimating patients' ages as opposed to estimating both their ages and levels of attractiveness.

Though it may have been an improvement upon the 2012 study, the 2013 study was greatly flawed in that the researchers made it a point to exclude people who had had other treatments and/ or procedures from the time of their operation to the time of the follow up and study. For example, certain treatments like, fat injections or Botox after a face- lift, help to give patients' faces a fuller look and attack wrinkles. In addition, they greatly contribute to the youthful aspects of a person's appearance. However, the unavailability of these post surgery improvements at the time of evaluation show raters an incomplete look at the patients and can give them the wrong impression about what the results of their surgery truly are. Dr. Nancy Etoff, psychologist at Harvard Medical School says, "They're looking at a face that looks older in some ways, and younger in some ways... It's difficult for the raters, and confusing."

In my opinion, one way to improve upon this study would be to conduct it in the same way for the most part. However, instead of excluding patients who undergo other procedures after their initial operations, include them! This way raters are dealing with the "whole package" when they score the patients' overall attractiveness and youthfulness. This would, in turn, lead to a more accurate estimate of patients' ages in their post-operation photos. Aside from these small changes, are there other ways to improve upon the study? Also, what about the placebo effect? How integral of a role do you feel it could be playing in the participants' evaluations of age and attractiveness and thus, the results of the study?

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