Teenage Plastic Surgery Won’t End Bullying

A nonprofit group sends the wrong message to kids.

Earlier this week, CNN host Dr. Sanjay Gupta featured Nadia Ilse, a 14-year-old girl who received plastic surgery to stop bullying. Through the Little Baby Face Foundation, Ilse received $40,000 worth of cosmetic enhancements: pinning her ears back, a nose job and a chin restructuring.

In the disturbing video below, Gupta points out that Ilse originally just wanted the ear pinning, a fairly standard procedure, because kids called her “Dumbo” and “Elephant Ears.” However, Ilse’s doctor insisted that despite never mentioning problems with her nose or chin, she needed to correct those issues, because “she just didn’t recognize it” as a problem.

Ilse loves her look post-surgery and will receive counseling now that her face has been reconstructed. “I hope that can be the final step in recovery,” her mother notes. Why, I wonder, wasn’t it the first step?

My heart goes out to Ilse, who must have been in a world of pain to even approach her mother about plastic surgery, but I am troubled that instead of beginning with the non-invasive coping mechanism, Ilse was, instead, given the quick fix. (Gupta dramatically notes that her surgery was “seven years in the making” because she was bullied in first grade. In reality: It’s a four-hour operation and a few days of recovery.)

It is one thing for children with birth defects or facial deformities to have reconstructive procedures; it is another thing entirely for a young girl to change her face because she’s unhappy with her appearance before she’s even finished growing. Ilse’s mother and the Little Baby Face Foundation have done this teenager no great service. Instead of supporting her emotionally and teaching her coping skills that will remain with her for the rest of her life, the lesson Ilse—one of more than 90,000 teens who has gotten plastic surgery to stop bullying—has learned is that it’s all right to pay huge amounts of money and undergo painful procedures to conform to the standards of 14-year-olds.

Growing up, I excelled academically. I effortlessly got straight A’s, did extra credit for fun, scored off the charts in standardized tests, and spent all my free time devouring Baby-Sitters Club books. My mom taught first grade at my elementary school, which made me a bit of a celebrity in our small Northeast Philly community. Every time I got an A or received a writing award or was picked to represent my class at an assembly, rumors of preferential treatment would swirl. In seventh grade, I won first place in the science fair and a group of angry boys told their parents my father had been a judge and had rigged the results. Parents wrote notes; I cried in the coatroom. The taunting didn’t go away once I advanced to high school. For my entire sophomore year, I received prank calls from girls who would cackle into the phone and call me Gonzo—a very unoriginal dig at my prominent nose.

All of this is to say that I understand the desire to desperately want to change something about yourself so that you can fit in. If someone had offered me the opportunity to transfer elementary schools or to get a nose job, I would have traded every single one of my Baby-Sitters Club books for the chance to be what I thought was normal.

But I am 110 percent sure that my parents would never have allowed it. Because that’s the thing about mean kids: They’re always going to find something. If it wasn’t my grades, it would’ve been my braces and my bifocals. If it wasn’t my big nose, it would’ve been my giant forehead or my stringy hair.

I’m sure the Ilses will argue that my bullying wasn’t on the same level as Nadia’s—and it’s likely they’re right since I can’t recall begging for a nose job. I won’t belittle her pain by pointing out that all of my childhood bullying made me a stronger, more confident adult—though, to some extent, that’s true—but at some point, it all boils down to coping with hurt feelings.

In her post-surgery interview with Dr. Gupta, Ilse says she feels beautiful. She hopes when the kids at school see her new face that they’ll realize what they’ve done and stop bullying her. That would be a great lesson and I hope it works out. But in my heart of hearts, I bet those mean kids will just find something else to mock. I just hope there’s not a foundation out there to fund the surgical removal of the next thing that’s “wrong” with Nadia Ilse, because she’s already a beautiful, articulate, smart young woman.