Plastic surgery due to bullying highlights societal problems, instructor says


Bullying due to societal expectations concerning women’s bodies is creating a disturbing trend — teenage girls turning to plastic surgery.

These societal expectations, according to Gabriela Diaz de Sabates, a Harvard University graduate with a master’s degree in education and an instructor in the Women’s Studies department, place a burden women who do not obey them.

“Anybody who does not conform to the norm is ostracized,” Sabates said. “That is part of the pressure of being not the model of beauty.”

In August, ABC Nightline reported the case of Nadia Ilse, a 14-year-old girl from Georgia, who has endured years of abuse from peers because of her physical appearance.

Hemifacial microsomia, a condition that causes one side of the face to be underdeveloped, has haunted Ilse since she was old enough to attend school. Keeping all of the frustration to herself, Ilse said she became isolated, even faking illness to avoid bullying.

“I kind of got into this shell and I actually skipped school a lot,” Ilse said in an interview with ABC Nightline. “I made excuses. I would say my stomach hurt; say that I was sick even though I wasn’t.”

Ilse said that plastic surgery seemed like the only option to make the torment stop. Because the Isle family could not afford the $40,000 operation, assistance from the Little Baby Face Foundation covered the expenses.

“The story was very compelling,” said Dr. Thomas Romo, founder of the Little Baby Face Foundation in an interview with ABC Nightline. “If this helps her from getting bullied, thank you, God. No one is going to get accepted through the foundation because they don’t like the way they look.”

Regardless of the physical deformity or issue, teenage plastic surgery as a result of peer bullying is not common, according to Dr. Kenneth Fischer, certified plastic surgeon at The Plastic Surgery Center in Manhattan. 

Part of the training plastic surgeons go through, Fischer said, is learning how to perform a psychiatric analysis of patients.

“It’s my job to ask the right questions and understand why the patient is requesting plastic surgery,” Fischer said. “If the problem can be fixed by seeing a psychiatrist, then that’s what I recommend to the patient.”

While anyone with parental consent can receive plastic surgery, in the end it is the doctor’s decision to operate. Fischer said he does not think bullying justifies a surgical operation.

“I don’t even see it as a last resort,” Fischer said. “But I do believe if more teenagers had the financial means to get plastic surgery they would. Most of the patients I see are older, out of college; they’ve had time to think about the operation and aren’t acting on impulse.”

Unlike Fischer, Judith Rich Harris, author of “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do,” believes that parents should consider plastic surgery for their children if they have a physical feature that aggravates bullying.

According to Harris, judgment from peers is what really matters in a child’s life.

“Parents matter zilch,” Harris writes in her book.

Sabates sees society, not bullying, as the principal issue behind young women turning to plastic surgery.

“If a girl thinks she needs plastic surgery in order not to kill herself, that’s one thing, but I don’t know if even that is justifiable,” Sabates said. “There is sickness going on in our society. People are bullied just because they look different when in reality that’s what makes a society and a person beautiful — diversity among all of us.”

The ideal image of beauty in America, Sabates said, is tall, blond, extremely thin and flawless. With the media so heavily communicating this message, it is almost impossible to avoid.

Donating to plastic surgery for young girls is a decision Amelia Gordon, freshman in secondary education, thinks sends a negative message to teenage girls.

“If young girls begin to believe they have to fix their appearance in order to not get bullied, society is going to be in real trouble,” Gordon said. “What about the rest of the girls getting bullied who are not donated plastic surgery? Are they supposed to believe their problems can’t be fixed unless they resort to surgery?”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimates 160,000 students in America skip school every day to avoid bullying. Ilse’s solution to her bullying problem is not realistic for all struggling students.

Bullying, Sabates said, is only a symptom of the real issue facing Americans — stereotyping.

“Our society has the mentality that if someone is different, they should be bullied; eventually we all will be, that’s the factor of life,” Sabates said. “It’s OK to be tall, short, skinny, fat or anything else. What’s not okay is that there is only one model, and the understanding that everyone should follow it.”