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SUMMARY: There’s much more to plastic surgery than just changing the way we physically look. The best way for us to learn about plastic surgery is to hear the stories from the patients themselves.

When you think about plastic surgery, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If you said a woman with Baywatch-esque breasts or someone with an overly “windblown” face, you’re not alone. Plastic surgery has gained a certain notoriety in our society, labeling people who have gone under the knife as shallow or vain. Even the word “plastic” carries a certain connotation, and some people immediately think “fake.” The truth is, most patients don’t want results that attract attention.

A major population of plastic surgery patients opts for procedures to look more “normal,” rather than to stand out. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a feature that does attract unwanted attention. Some people want plastic surgery to feel comfortable in their own skin or to change something about themselves that they have long disliked. Consider a 20-something who was teased all through high school for a crooked nose saving up to straighten it out with rhinoplasty.

Such a procedure can renew a person’s confidence and feelings of empowerment, even if it’s just to make an unappealing feature less noticeable. Studies show that plastic surgery can boost an individual’s self-esteem and happiness, as long as the patient’s expectations are reasonable.

Given this knowledge about the power of cosmetic enhancement to foster one’s well-being, why are we judging those who are fulfilling their emotional needs through a safe and effective method?

The rhinoplasty example above is a story a lot of people can get behind, but more judgment seems to come when breast and body contouring procedures are at issue. No matter what the procedure, though, many of the same motivations are often at play — confidence, insecurity, empowerment.

Let’s consider the case of someone interested in breast augmentation, which regularly takes the top spot for most popular cosmetic procedure in the country and which also seems to face the most criticism. Most women who pursue this procedure have spent years waiting for their breasts to develop as adolescents and then comparing themselves to better-endowed friends as adults. For instance, Marisa, a real patient of Dr. Michael Tantillo, opted for plastic surgery in the Boston area after years of knowing “her small size had a negative impact on her confidence and self-esteem.”

For Marisa, and hundreds of thousands of other women in the U.S. each year, the decision to get breast augmentation wasn’t about attracting attention — it was about feeling feminine and fulfilled. It was about being the best and most confident version of herself that she could.

At its roots, “plastic” surgery doesn’t have anything to do with being “fake” for a huge majority of patients. In fact, it helps many feel more like themselves than they ever have. It’s called “plastic” surgery because of Greek and Latin origins meaning to mold or shape, and that’s a better way to look it. Most patients want to shape their bodies and their lives to a form that they feel more comfortable with.

Looking at real stories, like Marisa’s, shows how much more complicated these issues are than they seem. Maybe hearing them can help us to better understand the motivations of millions of cosmetic enhancement patients around the world.

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