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Will Cosmetic Surgery Help?

November 28, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

A facelift is not the solution to the real problem at hand.

In 2010, Americans spent $10,677,415,674 on cosmetic surgery. That’s a lot of money. Apparently 84,685 of these were performed on patients 65 and older. I could probably stop writing here. These numbers seem to speak for themselves.

Let’s stipulate up front that there is a role, in fact, an important role, for cosmetic surgery. There are people who are born grossly disfigured. There are those who suffer trauma – accidents, burns – for whom cosmetic surgery is literally a life saver. When I was a teenager, my dog attacked me. It clamped onto my face and wouldn’t let go. I was cut in many places – down to the bone or the muscle. Fortunately for me, a plastic surgeon was in the emergency room and stitched me up. Because of his skill, he was able to keep the scarring minimal. So I am personally grateful to the profession.

26,635 were facelifts and 24,783 cosmetic eye lid operations were performed last year on patients 65 and up.

But we all know that there weren’t ten billion dollars worth of burn victims in 2010. And we all know that the over-65 crowd was not healing trauma wounds or dog bites. This isn’t speculation. Of the more than 84,000 procedures cited, 26,635 were facelifts and 24,783 were cosmetic eye lid operations (certainly not the result of being rushed out of a burning building).

So what do we do with this information (other than rethink our chosen professions)? I’ve heard (I have no statistical support for this) that in some circles, it is considered de rigueur for a girl to get a nose job for her 16th birthday. All those deviated septums…

I’m not going to bemoan our culture of youth. Been there, done that. And I find myself susceptible. I’m too afraid (and too broke) for any surgery (I think the Torah prohibits elective cosmetic surgery where the motivation is vanity rather than need – a complicated area requiring honesty and judgment; consult your local rabbi) but I’m not immune to the lures. I can be seduced by the promise of a really good anti-aging cream or that perfect eye serum.

I’m also not going to discuss what kind of message we are giving our adolescent daughters; that should be obvious.

I want to explore the root of this issue which I believe to be an underlying dissatisfaction with our lives coupled with the belief that this surgery, this new house, this piece of jewelry, this trip will change it. And we all know that it’s an illusion. When you wake up with your new nose, or lifted eyelids, you’re still you – with all your challenges and issues. Nothing has really changed – except for some black and blue spots and a dent in your bank balance.

In Ethics of Our Fathers, we are taught that the rich man is the one who is happy with his lot. The basic interpretation of this Mishnah is that we should be content with our level of material well-being and not constantly yearn for more. This is certainly a true point. But I think the advice of our sages is more far-reaching. We should be happy with every aspect of our lot – that we were born short and not tall, male rather than female, to this particular family with its unique set of challenges and opportunities and not to that idealized family down the street, with academic proficiency but with no musical inclinations or abilities, even with this nose.

And it continues – not just with out innate circumstances but with how our life evolves. We need to be happy with this spouse, this job, this home, this community – and these inevitable signs of aging.

The key to dissatisfaction to keep a constant list of "if only"s, or to harbor the mistaken belief that external circumstances are the key to happiness.

We need to stop staring in the mirror and start looking around us to see who needs our help.

The good news about these statistics (apparently compiled by the America Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery) is that at least one segment of the population continues to be fully employed! But the sad news is the level of dissatisfaction. It seems to reflect the level of illusion.

The reality is that only a life of purpose and meaning can lift us out of this focus on unfulfilled expectations or outright fantasy. We need to stop staring in the mirror, we need to stop behaving like adolescents who can’t see a mirror without fixing their hair, and start looking around us to see who needs our help. I don’t want to see any plastic surgeons lose their jobs but I certainly think that if we put our minds to it, we could probably find a better use for ten billion dollars. And I believe that after a day spent helping others, we will begin to find that elusive sense of satisfaction and even a taste of happiness.

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