Mindful beauty: Nurturing mental health while pursuing cosmetic surgery
Beauty – a term that, throughout history, has been molded and shaped by changing trends, societal expectations and now the influence of social media.
In our fast-paced digital age, the constant bombardment of seemingly flawless images on social media platforms can shape perceptions of what is considered beautiful. It has become crucial, now more than ever, to understand and maintain mental wellbeing when considering or undergoing cosmetic procedures.
We spoke with board-certified plastic surgeons and ASPS Member Surgeons Sara Dickie, MD, and Katerina Gallus, MD, about the importance of maintaining a strong sense of mental wellbeing while considering or undergoing cosmetic procedures.
The whole-patient approach
Plastic surgery is more than just a physical transformation. It can also have an incredible impact on mental health, and every patient has their own desire to pursue any given procedure. As such, it's important to look beyond just the physical aspect of a cosmetic procedure.
"For plastic surgeons, it's much more about building a relationship and understanding people's goals in the motivations," said Dickie.
Undeniably, the plastic surgery journey starts long before stepping into the operating room – it begins with knowing one's motivations and setting realistic expectations.
"When you're treating a patient, no matter what the practice of medicine is, you need to take a look at the whole patient," said Gallus.
It means considering their medical history, physical condition and – importantly – motives for getting the surgery in the first place. By understanding a patient's goals, the surgeon can better align procedures to meet those expectations, ensuring the best possible outcome.
This holistic perspective emphasizes that the success of a cosmetic procedure is not merely determined by the technical excellence of the surgery but also by how aligned the outcomes are with the patient's emotional and psychological wellbeing. This alignment requires open communication between the patient and the surgeon.
Fostering a deeper understanding and trust forms the foundation of any successful cosmetic procedure. The physical transformation, thus, becomes a harmonious blend of both the patient's aspirations and the surgeon's expertise.
Managing expectations in the age of social media
Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok – the channels are plentiful, and so are the altered images.
"The amount of altered images on social media is almost so pervasive right now that I don't think you can assume that anything is a natural look," said Gallus. "Everything has a filter."
Such unrealistic standards, when mistaken for reality, can set patients up for disappointment. Dickie agreed with this sentiment, noting that the distorted reality of social media is creating a gap between genuine, achievable results and altered digital fantasies.
"I think in current times, it is a challenge because patients have a lot more access to medical terminology and techniques that plastic surgeons use, and there's a familiarity to it," said Dickie. "That's something like, 'My gosh, I could do this if I had $5,000. I could look like that.' But the truth is, most of the time, celebrities and influencers aren't completely truthful about what they've had done, except for some influencers that are very open."
Plus, the ever-evolving algorithms of these platforms further amplify this unrealistic portrayal, often prioritizing images that garner more attention – typically the ones that adhere to popular beauty standards. The cycle then continues, pushing users to compare themselves to enhanced versions of reality.
This has not only resulted in increased demand for cosmetic procedures but also a rise in cases of low self-esteem and body dysmorphia. Dickie asserted that it's essential for individuals to differentiate between the authentic and the augmented, and to seek procedures for personal fulfillment rather than societal validation. It becomes the responsibility of both practitioners and patients to ensure that the quest for external beauty does not overshadow the importance of internal wellbeing.
Navigating the decision: Mental health and timing
Even before a patient chooses what procedure they want to have done, there's a more profound element to consider – their why. If a patient seems fixated on a physical issue they believe is the source of all their distress, but the concern is not visible or understandable to the surgeon, the right step might be not to offer surgery at all.
"If a physical difference is making their life so miserable, then there is much more going on, and surgery is not going to fix their state of mind," said Dickie.
Life transitions, such as divorce or children moving out, can also be motivators for seeking cosmetic procedures. However, Dickie noted that these could also be the wrong times for elective surgery. The mental state during such transitions can compromise the overall experience and satisfaction from the procedure.
At these critical junctures in life, it's important to recognize the motivations behind seeking plastic surgery and to ensure that the choice comes from a place of self-love and not as an attempt to find external solutions to internal problems.
It's crucial to prioritize mental wellbeing over physical transformation. In some cases, it might be more appropriate to seek support from a therapist or counselor who can help navigate through these emotional transitions and provide a more grounded perspective on how to achieve authentic happiness and self-acceptance.
Pursuing surgery in an attempt to fix emotional or life problems can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment with the results. Plus, it can even lead to more mental distress down the road because, in some cases, the patient made a permanent change to their body.
The balance of external transformation and internal happiness
Cosmetic procedures can bring transformative results, boosting self-esteem and confidence. However, it's essential to approach them with an informed, balanced perspective. As Gallus pointed out, there are beauty standards and trends that might offer a momentarily popular look but can have long-term consequences.
"An ideal beauty standard like chiseled cheekbones, where buccal fat pad removal has become very trendy, that's a very narrow indication because how you age once that is removed is going to change you and make you look older sooner," said Gallus. "I think that kind of micro-trend of beauty standards are usually ones to avoid."
To truly embrace the benefits of cosmetic procedures, one needs to strike a balance between external transformations and internal happiness.
"I want my patients to understand that they start out naturally beautiful," said Dickie. "Taking care of yourself over a lifetime is the most natural way to protect that beauty."
Maintaining strong mental wellbeing while considering or undergoing cosmetic procedures is paramount. It's not just about achieving a desired physical look but ensuring that the journey aligns with genuine personal goals and a healthy state of mind.
By fostering open conversations, promoting self-care and focusing on the whole patient, both surgeons and patients can together break barriers and create a supportive environment for holistic beauty and wellness.
To find a qualified plastic surgeon for any cosmetic or reconstructive procedure, consult a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. All ASPS members are board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, have completed an accredited plastic surgery training program, practice in accredited facilities and follow strict standards of safety and ethics. Find an ASPS member in your area.