The Good Life: Plastic Splurgery

Nothing says “I love you” like a Brazilian butt-lift

In Lumberton, New Jersey, this past May, Susan*, 43, was opening her Mother’s Day presents. Susan’s family had pooled their resources to give Mom the perfect gift this year. She opened the gold envelope carefully. It was the perfect gift. It was … liposuction.

“I was thrilled!” says Susan. Though she had no forewarning, she wasn’t offended that her family had essentially confessed they’d noticed a bit of fat on their dear mum and, further, believed she should have it sucked out. “I watch Extreme Makeover and The Swan,” she says. “I think you should enhance what you have. My family knew that.”

And so do the families and friends of many others: In a survey from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 49 percent of surgeons said they’d seen patients in 2006 who received cosmetic surgery as a gift, up from 31 percent in 2001. “Because of the highly competitive field of surgeons in the Philly area, some will do anything to bring in more patients — including offering gift certificates,” says Larry Jonas, chief of plastic surgery for Lankenau, Bryn Mawr and Paoli hospitals, who sees patients from hotbeds like Rittenhouse and the Main Line. With Americans spending over $12 billion on procedures annually, it’s no wonder affluent Philadelphians are celebrating with services that for ages have denoted a certain exclusivity. And an all-the-rage Brazilian butt-lift could be just the thing to have your loved one, well, sitting on top of the world.

“The giver is saying, ‘I’ve listened to your complaints, and I want to help you feel better,’” says Cherry Hill surgeon Steven Davis. But there’s danger in this “I’ve listened” theory: Everyone’s stood in the mirror bemoaning a badonkadonk or muffin-top to a spouse or friend, but would you welcome surgical sentiments in response? Or would you conclude that the giver had a death wish? (Davis cautions that such gifts shouldn’t come out of the blue.)

There’s another reason it’s trendy to celebrate a Main Line graduation with a boob job or a Marlton anniversary with his-and-her face-lifts: We’re comfortable with it. In a February survey by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 83 percent of women and 78 percent of men said they wouldn’t be embarrassed if people outside their family and close friends knew they were getting plastic surgery. And as the stigma of the knife is lifting, the gift-certificate phenomenon is the harbinger of a new dilemma: Are we too comfortable with it?

“These days, when cosmetic surgery is on reality TV, gift certificates further blur the line between surgery as medicine and surgery as a spa treatment,” says associate professor of psychology David Sarwer, of Penn’s Center for Human Appearance. Echoes Penn bioethicist Art Caplan, “This is not like a gift certificate to Tiffany’s. People can die. It bothers me more when it’s for young people who aren’t yet comfortable with their body image, for a bat mitzvah or graduation.”

Jonas doesn’t offer gift certificates at his Wynnewood office, for many reasons. But mainly this: “You’re not selling pottery. The patient may not be a good candidate, and they haven’t established a relationship with the surgeon. But they’re not coming to explore possibilities. They’ve got the ticket, and now they want the pony ride.”

And that’s got us asking: Whatever happened to “I love you just the way you are”? Or jewelry?

*Name has been changed