Does cosmetic surgery actually work?
March 21, 2011 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Does cosmetic surgery actually make people happier?

Another round of adverts for cosmetic surgery have gone up around my city, implying that we'll all be happier if we get our breasts, noses, pecs or tummies worked on. So: is this true?

When searching, I've come across a couple of papers reporting improvements to patients' happiness and to their opinion of their own appearance. However, these were quite short-term follow-ups (6-12 months in the papers I read) and, crucially, were only in patients who'd undergone "restorative" plastic surgery, e.g. repairing scarring suffered by burn victims or replacing breasts removed from mastectomy patients.

What I'm particularly interested in is follow-up of people who've had, for want of a better term, purely aesthetic plastic surgery. For example, people without obvious scarring or other physical defects who choose to have breast enlargement, liposuction, face lifts, etc. How happy are they with their appearance n years after surgery, relative to the rest of the (unmodified) population? Did they get a lasting improvement to their self-esteem, confidence, overall happiness?

Googling just finds me lots of brochures and churnalism. Can you point toward good peer-reviewed research on the subject (survey data, patient follow-ups, etc) or write-ups of this data from a reputable source?

To forestall the obvious well-intentioned question: I am not considering undergoing cosmetic surgery, so your answers are not at risk of pushing me into a major life decision. I'm just a nerd whose first reaction to irritating adverts is demanding to see the data backing their claim.
posted by metaBugs to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: try this list
posted by edgeways at 8:14 AM on March 21, 2011

Best answer: A Review of Psychosocial Outcomes for Patients Seeking Cosmetic Surgery (the full article is available for free via that link).
posted by jedicus at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2011

This is total anecdata, but I know 3 women who have had breast reductions and they've all been ridiculously happier afterwards. Not sure how that factors into your thesis, though.
posted by KathrynT at 9:49 AM on March 21, 2011

I think you could look at pretty much every breast reduction thread on Ask and find that 95% of the women who have had one and responded to the question are deliriously happy (I know I am!) but I think that's more reconstructive surgery, rather than purely cosmetic.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:00 AM on March 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Cosmetic dentistry has done wonders for my self-image and self-confidence.
posted by Ted Maul at 10:18 AM on March 21, 2011

Anecdata: I had my ears pinned back at age 9. I wasn't Horribly teased about the fact that they stuck out, but I'm perennially grateful for it, and for not going through my teens with that relatively minor problem. There was a previous thread where any number of us spoke highly of procedures to address such a "flaw", but I can't find it now.

True -- I've sometimes caught myself scoffing at the "benefits" of cosmetic surgery... until I remember that I've had it Myself.
posted by ldthomps at 10:19 AM on March 21, 2011

If you're looking for personal experiences (it seems like no, but here it is anyway): Cosmetic surgery on my lower jaw, chin, and teeth, has made me significantly happier and more confident.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 10:53 AM on March 21, 2011

Only personal anecdotes I'm afraid: My 70+ year old Mom had cosmetic facial surgery (essentially a face-lift) and it literally changed her life. She was basically clinically depressed about aging etc and in spite of my brother and I really stressing that it was unnecessary, she did it anyway and has been much much happier since. Hard to argue with that.

My cousin had breast reduction surgery when she was 19-20 and has never regretted it. Early pix of her with the zeppelins that used to dock at her 5 foot frame only support that decision.
posted by elendil71 at 11:06 AM on March 21, 2011

Best answer: I used to counsel patients contemplating plastic surgery, and I saw a lot of them.

People who sought surgery to correct something that had never been right were almost always happy afterwards. Once they lost their tragically oversized noses, tiny chins, protruding ears, or asymmetric breasts, they tended to be overjoyed even if the results were only mediocre.

People who sought surgery to repair something that was no longer right were sometimes happy afterwards. A facelift won't erase actual years, and scar revisions and dermabrasion won't make someone look like they never went through that windshield. Whether or not these patients were happy after surgery depended on the reasonableness of their expectations and the quality of their surgical results.

People who sought surgery to repair flaws unnoticeable to others were almost never happy afterwards.
posted by timeo danaos at 11:53 AM on March 21, 2011 [17 favorites]

Response by poster: That's very interesting, thank you all :). I'll admit that I'm pleasantly surprised how positive the effect seems to be for at least a subset of patients.
posted by metaBugs at 8:14 AM on March 23, 2011

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