When Plastic Surgery Becomes an Addiction


While the term ‘addiction’ usually conjures up images of substance abuse, the original meaning of the word as defined during Roman times had no such implications (Potenza, 2014). The DSM-5 has recently taken into account more abstract addictions, characterizing behaviors like excessive gaming as possible addictive disorders to be researched in the near future. This is a step in reflecting a newfound understanding of just how broad addiction is. Recognizing non-substance addictive disorders allows previously overlooked conditions, like addiction to plastic surgery, be brought to light and taken seriously.

In today’s society where an unrealistic standard of beauty is upheld and elective cosmetic surgery is becoming widely available around the world, the amount of people deciding to go under the knife is at an all-time high. The latest innovations in plastic surgery have been game-changing, helping countless individuals achieve an outward appearance that is more congruent with their self-perceptions. Although this can instill confidence in some patients, studies have indicated that it can also go the other way.  The fine line separating people who have plastic surgery and people who are addicted to it is rooted in their motivation and the extent to which it interferes with their lives.  

Preoccupation with cosmetic surgery is currently considered a behavioral disorder (Plastic Surgery, 2020). While it is not yet fully recognized in the DSM as a true addiction, it is related to other underlying disorders that impact mental health, one being Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD (The Recovery, 2020). This condition involves hyperfixation on what the individuals perceive to be imperfections in their appearances. The growing influence of social media coupled with the increasing popularity of programs like Photoshop have obscured our perceptions of reality, contributing to a rise in such disorders. It has been determined that scrolling through social media feeds for extended periods of time is associated with the decision to go under the knife in the future (Arab, K). Research also indicates that BDD is fifteen times more likely to be observed in plastic surgery patients, as they believe surgery will resolve their negative self-image. Sadly, many find that nothing is remedied in the long run, even after multiple procedures. While there is nothing inherently wrong with plastic surgery, individuals chasing unattainable standards of beauty are always bound to lose this battle because “no amount of cosmetic surgery will satisfy or equate to the picture of perfection that they have in their heads” (Plastic…Body Dysmorphic, 2020).

These individuals often sacrifice their physical health and mental wellbeing in the process of ‘correcting’ their appearances. Rather than endangering their health, they are urged to seek treatment for their underlying psychological disorders. This sometimes involves cognitive behavioral therapy, as it is common for people with BDD seeking cosmetic surgery to have comorbid Axis 1 disorders. These include OCD, depression, and social anxiety. Excessive plastic surgery is also linked to suicidal ideation and self-harm. Many studies have concluded that undergoing just a single breast augmentation surgery puts women at a consistently higher risk for suicide (Sansone, 2007). When these procedures become patterns fueled by the constant presence of an underlying mental health disorder, it is even easier to spiral down a dark path, especially without proper guidance or a strong support system. With frequent surgery also comes the frequent prescription of painkillers like opiates. As a result, addiction to cosmetic surgery is also associated with a higher risk of opioid addiction, which “can often make the symptoms of BDD worse and lead to poorer overall functioning” (Plastic Surgery, 2020).

Due to the gravity of these co-occurring conditions, there is an immense responsibility placed on plastic surgeons to make sure they look at their patient as a whole before picking up the scalpel. Patients’ motivations, physical states, and psychological needs are inextricably linked, but often doctors overlook mental health when they have been trained in surgery. As a result, it is imperative that they are mindful of the negative impacts of social media on mental health and how this may impact their patients’ decisions. Being able to identify their patients’ motivations and refer them to other specialists when needed ensures that all the procedures they perform result in happier, healthier outcomes.  

However, doctors are not the only ones that have an obligation to help people living with plastic surgery addictions. The average person must also take it upon themselves to spread positivity rather than words of hatred. Refraining from commenting on others’ bodies and from making derogatory comments about people who have gotten plastic surgery is important because it isn’t always obvious who is silently struggling with BDD or depression. Even models and influencers who are deemed beautiful by society may struggle to see themselves that way. For individuals with these conditions, one nasty comment can worsen their unfounded disappointment with themselves and their looks. If you know someone with these conditions, encouraging them and helping them to see the beauty within themselves can go a long way.

 

References

Arab, K., & Barasain, O. Influence of Social Media on the Decision to Undergo a Cosmetic Procedure. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31592374/. 

Plastic Surgery Addiction – Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Addiction Center. (2020, September 18). https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/plastic-surgery-addiction/. 

Plastic Surgery Addiction: An Unhealthy Obsession with Perfection. Addiction Center. (2020, November 20). https://www.addictioncenter.com/community/plastic-surgery-addiction/. 

Potenza, M. N. (2014, January). Non-substance addictive behaviors in the context of DSM-5. Addictive behaviors. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3858502/. 

The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. (2020, December 29). Plastic Surgery Addiction: Is There Such A Thing?: The Recovery Village. The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/body-dysmorphic-disorder/related/plastic-surgery-addiction/. 

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2007, December). Cosmetic surgery and psychological issues. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2861519/.

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