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A group of strangers gathers at a private plastic surgery practice in Toronto. They aren’t there to see a doctor, but instead to take part in an ambitious new study on the effects of plastic surgery. The researchers’ goal: quantify attractiveness after a facelift, brow lift, or eyelid surgery. The participants are shown preoperative and postoperative photographs of nearly 50 people who underwent those procedures. They are then asked to estimate the subjects’ ages and rate their attractiveness. Months later, what they helped conclude has sparked a new debate about whether science really can quantify something many surgeons consider an art.

The study, published online by JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, found patients looked an average of just 3 years younger after surgery. It’s a finding that has receivedwidespread attention from major publications, including The New York Times. In their report, researchers assume the primary reason patients pursue aesthetic facial surgery is to look younger and more attractive. What they don’t take into account is something that only the patient can truly measure: confidence.

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Read through any reputable plastic surgeon’s website and you’ll be sure to find countless stories from actual patients on their plastic surgery experiences. Dr. Evan S. Sorokin, who specializes in breast augmentation, liposuction, and tummy tuck surgery at his New Jersey plastic surgery practice, is one of those surgeons who has chosen to give his patients a voice on his website. There’s Tina, who recalls always being uncomfortable with her shape and who underwent breast augmentation surgery as a gift to herself after a particularly rough period in her life that included a divorce.

“My new curves have given me more self-confidence,” Tina says. “If you know breast augmentation can do that for you, then go for it.” But, she cautions, you need to do it for yourself. “I’m like your ordinary Jane, minus the plain!” she exclaims. “I’m a mom and a regular career person. I didn’t do this for my job, or for a man. I did it for me.”

The longing for confidence and empowerment, as in Tina’s case, appears far more commonly in patient stories than a patient expecting to turn back the clock by a specific number of years. Plastic surgeons say above all else the JAMA study reinforces the importance of setting expectations. Dr. Sorokin has this advice for those considering a cosmetic procedure:
• Be realistic. Ask yourself what you hope to gain from this journey. Are you making this decision for reasons that matter to you?
• Be honest. Discuss those specific goals with a board-certified plastic surgeon. The consultation is your opportunity to share exactly what you hope to gain from surgery.
• Be prepared. Do your homework to fully understand your chosen procedure and its potential outcome, including risks that may be involved.

Whether the JAMA study will have any lasting implications on the cosmetic surgery field has yet to be seen. Plastic surgeons, who have long understood and championed the confidence connection, are doubtful the study will have much effect. Meantime, another set of researchers tasked with tracking the number of cosmetic procedures performed in this country report a finding of their own: a steady increase in both popularity and acceptance among consumers.

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