When Does Plastic Surgery Become Masochistic, Self-Torture?

People need to think long and hard about the psychological cost of surgery.

Posted Dec 23, 2014

Sure, I live in Los Angeles, which means that I may see more plastic surgery-prone individuals than the average person across the United States. At the same time, I also watch TV and read magazines, and see the direction we’re headed in as a culture: We want beauty – and more of it immediately.

My own experience with plastic surgery has confirmed what I probably already knew to be true, based on my life experience and my training and work as a clinical psychologist. In short, my surgery experience caused me to see how truly self-mutilating plastic surgery is, regardless of the ultimate benefits associated with appearance or self-perception.

The surgery I experienced was rhinoplasty, correcting a nose that I'd never liked or felt truly fit my face. Accordingly, I took the plunge not long ago and had the procedure. The cold truth is that you never know how plastic surgery will turn out. Similarly, you can never predict with any real accuracy whether the decision to embark on a one-time surgery could actually unleash a Michael Jackson-like addiction that has no end point. I took the risk, ultimately trusting my instincts, and found post-surgery that my physician created the nose that I feel fits my face well. What has been most significant, however, following the surgery is the emotional and physical experience I had recovering. Simply put, it was awful and I almost regret the decision.

I'll share some details to shed light on what the recovery process is actually like. Recovery from a significant nose job requires sleeping in a particularly uncomfortable position for weeks on end, taking more medications than seems healthy, and managing the physical discomfort of feeling like your nose is simultaneously constantly throbbing and numb. The closest approximation I can make is to say that it feels as if my nose was torn apart, ravaged or raped. Yet I wasn’t raped at all, because the circumstances I experienced were invited entirely by me. I, like every other plastic surgery seeker, did this to myself.

Is plastic surgery worth the toll for anyone? Is it, by definition, psychologically unhealthy to choose to have a surgeon cut up a part of you for cosmetic purposes? As a psychologist and therapist, I have always worked hard to avoid judging others. I now wonder, however, if plastic surgery is psychologically so unhealthy that we should judge it. I've come to believe that having a major plastic surgery – breast augmentations, facelifts, rhinoplasty or whatever – is a form of self-torture, regardless of the benefits. I never would have said that before, but going through my own surgery and recovery ordeal shone light on just how violent cosmetic surgery is at root. 

As a therapist, I'll use my personal experience to access more empathy for my clients and to be a more outspoken endorser of the plastic-surgery-is-bad mentality. I will focus on the self-mutilating aspect of these surgeries rather than the long-term cosmetic or self-esteem benefits. Excluding cases of disfigurements or bullying-inducing physical abnormalities, my goal will be to the spread the word that plastic surgeries are a form of self-torture, plain and simple. With future clients, I will encourage them to consider how plastic surgery is ultimately a masochistic endeavor. I will tell my clients to ask themselves, 'Am I in denial if I can justify having a voluntary procedure where a surgeon tears apart a part of me?' For many years, I preached "Do it if it makes you feel better" whenever a client asked for my advice about pursuing plastic surgery. Now, I may know better.