Alcohol, drugs, and gambling are often discussed and highly researched addictions. There is no shortage of multi-step programs and self-help literature to assist in curbing bad habits. But in the last decade, a new kind of addiction has emerged. It is altering the medical landscape for everyone from researchers to surgeons: Selfies.
That’s right: Taking and posting selfies on the Internet. In fact, new research on addiction and our brain’s reward system indicates that “likes” and approval from others on social media is at a fever pitch, being compared to addictions we more commonly think of such as opioids and alcohol. But the most troubling aspect of the selfie craze goes far beyond the taking of selfies and the reward system triggers of being “liked.” It is the newest trend in plastic surgery: Selfie surgery.
What Is Selfie Surgery?
Despite knowing how expert contouring, strategic angling, perfect lighting, and hundreds of filters alter the images we see, women are increasingly seeking doctors’ help in making those altered images a reality. According to a leading plastic surgeon in New York, “We’re having this ‘Alice In Wonderland’ moment in history where someone can use a Snapchat filter and immediately become some alternative version of themselves.”
He goes on to describe that just a decade ago women would bring in a copy of Playboy or other magazines to show what kinds of changes they were thinking about. But now, women enter plastic surgeons’ offices telling doctors exactly what they want and how they want it done, all while swiping through photos on their iPhones.
In some cases, they show celebrities or Instagram-famous women. But in most instances, they are now showing pictures of themselves—albeit filtered social media versions of themselves. Increasingly, women are asking to become the social depiction others have validated.
According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in 2014, “One in three facial plastic surgeons surveyed saw an increase in requests for procedures due to patients being more self-aware of looks in social media.” A follow-up study contends that a noticeable uptick in “self-awareness,” inspired by selfies in the under-30 age group, is contributing significantly to year over year increases in young women seeking facial plastic surgery.
New ‘Norms’ for Plastic Surgery
Social media is simultaneously changing the dynamics of patient-physician relationships and interactions, to the point that those going under the knife are not only demanding that they be made to look like a Photoshopped image, but also sharing their operating room experiences, in real time, with social media followers. Snapchatting procedures has become common, along with bartering medical services for giving doctors media attention.
This new foray into social media and selfie surgery has been complicated for those in the medical field. For example, plastic surgeons are having to figure out new ways to help women understand the differences between what a filter can do and what a scalpel can do.
Further, entirely new guidelines are having to be set for the industry. One surgeon with more than 30 years in plastics claims he has “worked far too hard and been too cautious about career decisions to be comfortable with the kinds of offers and demands coming from many patients.” Some doctors say their goal is to take care of patients, and they worry that other doctors have ulterior, selfish motives, which can be seen in advertising.
In the past, practitioners would never advertise, as medical peers considered this unethical. But not in 2018. Between social media posts, Top Ten lists, magazine covers, and personal branding, women and their plastic surgeons have entirely new kinds of relationships. These often result in millions of followers—and new patients.
But cosmetic surgeons (often the ones advertising on social media) are not actually board-certified plastic surgeons, and women need to know this before trusting them with a knife. The trend has become so prominent, a plastic surgeon who is thinking of retirement stated that he blames advertising and misleading women on the younger generation as a whole. “Young docs think when they finish school they should be on the cover of every magazine. It’s like the person who just graduated with their MBA and thinks their first job should be to run GE,” he says.
Is This a Short-Lived Trend?
While 40 percent of plastic surgeons from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery say that looking better in selfies for Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat was an incentive for their patients to seek surgery, the tide may turn for patients and physicians in the coming years. In 2017, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons issued a set of guidelines specifically for social media.
Additionally, many plastic surgeons are taking a harder stance on what is acceptable for clients, and turning to Twitter to write about what is possible based on altered photos. Major brands like CVS are even joining in the action by announcing bans on advertising that includes airbrushing and enhancing of models they depict in store ads.
Quite possibly, the greatest sign that a backlash to selfie surgery might be coming is the growing number of women who specifically tell their surgeons, “I do not want to look like a Kardashian.” One plastic surgeon said he hears that several times a day.
While it is more realistic to look like a different version of yourself than a Kardashian post-surgery, selfie surgery can never be as successful as women want. At the end of the day, a surgeon can alter your features, but the next selfie will reflect the new version of a real person. That real person will have real flaws. Another filter, the right light, and another perfect angle will still have to be found.
We’re only on the cusp of a future of using phones and social media to drive how we feel about ourselves and what we aspire to be. But for the moment, whether it’s making surgery demands based on that one perfect image you managed to capture or snapchatting your operating-room experiences, selfie surgery is certainly having its time in the spotlight. And in 2018, the addiction is strong.