Parenting while plastic

A debate about how parents should disclose their cosmetic surgery to their children

December 12, 2011

A study in the November issue of Journal of Adolescent Health found that adolescents who worship celebrities are more likely to get cosmetic surgery. Celebrities aren’t the only role models getting nipped and tucked, however. A parent’s cosmetic surgery can also influence their children’s body image. So, should parents discuss these surgeries with their kids?

Even parents who are secure with their decisions to undergo cosmetic surgery should be cautious when talking about it with their children. Some experts warn that when a parent discloses their surgeries to their child, it could put the youth at risk for body image problems. Others believe, however, that keeping surgery a secret could jeopardize the parent-child relationship.

“I think people should just be honest about it,” says Joe Niamtu, a Virginia-based plastic surgeon, adding that he believes much of the stigma about cosmetic surgery is gone.

Research supports Niamtu’s claim. According to a 2011 survey by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) — the world’s leading authority on cosmetic surgery education and research — more than half of Americans approved of cosmetic surgery. This is up 3 percent from 2008.

The general population may be less judgmental about cosmetic surgery, but whether to breach the issue with children is still a sensitive question. In family life, both full disclosure and strict secrecy have their advantages and disadvantages.

When parents decide whether or not to discuss their cosmetic procedures with their children, they are also deciding what role honesty should play in that relationship, some experts say. “Lies don’t work well in family life,” says child psychologist Elizabeth Berger, author of “Raising Kids with Character.”Hiding a “mommy makeover” is not exactly the same as lying, but both acts can violate trust, Berger adds.

Berger and Niamtu agree that children can often sense when their parents are hiding something from them. Even if they don’t, children could discover his parent’s guilty secret in old photos or from casual family conversation. In that situation, they might think their parents don’t trust them, says Berger. Phyllis Bisch, a Dallas-based licensed professional counselor notes, however, that it is oftentimes the parent’s own attitude that creates a problem. If their decision not to tell makes the parent feel like they’re hiding a dirty secret, children can pick up on those gut feelings.

Additionally, cosmetic surgery can leave visible bruises and scars and, if a child isn’t informed about the procedure, they can become “concerned that the parent is sick or even dying” says Berger. Niamtu, who has witnessed this in his own practice, urges parents to explain their surgeries to their children. Still, this may not completely quell the youngsters’ fears. “Young mothers are always worried they’re going to scare their kids, and they probably will,” he said. In order to address this issue, Bisch suggests telling the child just enough to reassure them, only going into the reasons for the procedure at the child’s request.

But talking more in-depth to a child about cosmetic surgery can also make them more self-conscious about their own appearance. Says Bisch, “If a woman keeps going in to have more and more done, it sends a message to our young girls that we have to go under the knife to be fixed.”

Kelly Brooks, a psychologist at Roger Williams University, agrees that parents can significantly influence their children’s body image. Her research found that women with fathers who focused on physical appearance – such as the importance of dressing well or dieting – had more desire to get plastic surgery. Brooks thinks that this may be due to the parents’ implied support of societal standards of beauty or through their position as physical role models. Although her own research doesn’t focus on parents who have been operated on, she suggests that if parents’ disclosure of their surgery reinforces the importance of societal beauty standards, it could negatively affect their children’s body image.

However, Brooks also sees danger in not disclosing. “Children may be comparing themselves to their parents, and if they are unaware of procedures their parents have had, they may compare themselves unfavorably,” she says.

Niamtu champions careful disclosure. He suggests that parents explain to their children why they didn’t like their own appearance while emphasizing that there is no reason for their children to change theirs if it doesn’t bother them. And Brooks suggests discussing the health benefits rather than the physical benefits, as a possible solution to avoiding overemphasis on outward appearance.

To be clear, no expert is suggesting strict honesty. The age and gender of the child need to be considered, the experts say. They think the discussion should be different if a child is three than if she’s 13. “You don’t necessarily want to give information that’s over the child’s head,” Berger says. Likewise, Niamtu sees no reason to tell a son about a previous breast enlargement. Boys don’t have to worry about bust size and the surgery happened before he was around, so the conversation is simply unnecessary.

Putting limitations on honesty is especially advisable for parents who have unhealthy body images. Both Niamtu and Bisch warn that parents who have excessive cosmetic surgery are likely to send a negative message to children, regardless of their disclosure methods. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 7 to 12 percent of plastic surgery patients have some form of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a psychological condition that makes the affected person obsess over perceived defects in their appearance. A study by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Leanne Magee found that the more severe a person’s BDD, the greater their desire for cosmetic surgery. As a result, their surgeries tend to be more numerous and extreme. Even if the disclosure to children is done cautiously, studies have suggested that body dysmorphia is inheritable, which puts children who have parents with BDD at higher risk for impaired body image and makes disclosure riskier.

There is healthy debate among experts, but ultimately parents have to decide for themselves what to tell their kids about their cosmetic surgeries. Neither full disclosure nor zipped lips works in every situation. Yet parents can be sure that surgical complications and a rough recovery are not the only things they risk when they go under the knife.

About the Author

Taylor Kubota

Taylor Kubota has always loved learning. She studied biological anthropology and health care/social issues at the University of California, San Diego, which allowed her to take classes in ten different departments. While an undergraduate, she also worked seven jobs, ranging from work in student affairs to a museum volunteer position. In the hopes of continuing (and sharing) her life of diverse learning, she is honored to be a part of SHERP’s 30th class. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.



Dave Harris says:

Interesting concept, looking at the parents surgery through the eyes of their teen. I work with parents and troubled teens, and I have never considered the impact of the parents plastic surgery on their teen. We work with teens that are disrupted, many times because of the actions of their parents. I have never specifically asked a teen if this has had, or would have an influence on how they viewed themselves.

Yvette says:

Nice article. This gives another angle to one of the considered increasing issues among our teens. I’ve read lots of articles about how parents should respond to their teens when they ask for surgical enhancement, like, but never read an article about whether a parent should disclose their surgery to their kids.

I will only consider surgery if it’s needed and if it’s the last option I could have, and as a mother, I would let my kid know about my surgery. I would tell her the reasons why I have to take that surgery and would tell her what I learned from it.

Jan says:

I am curious ss to whether Ms Bisch hås shared if she hås had any plastic surgery with her teenage clients

Natalie says:

My mother has had 2 Brest augmentations, liposuction, butt injections, lip injections, has been receiving Botox for years, tans regularly, and is obsessed with looking young, often wearing face masks, looking in a mirror messing with her face, commenting on her looks, ordering beauty products (even going as far as to order varying dermal fillers so she can inject herself. She looks very good for her age, quite young and she doesn’t look made of plastic, but when I look at her face, it’s just different from the old pictures of her. She spends massive amounts of money on beauty products, money she says we don’t have when I try to spend it on something else, like a room free or eating out, or even my AP tests. This had without a doubt taken a huge toll on my body image. Where other people view cosmetic alterations as a huge deal, I see them as merely nothing, a little tweak, because my mom has downplayed their weight. She says she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with making small changes on your appearance if it makes you feel better about yourself. Rather than working hard on encouraging me to love all of myself and accept the parts of me that I see as flaws, when I comment on something I don’t like about myself, she usually says something along the lines of “well you know we can get that fixed if you want.” I often consider small tweaks, like making my nostrils smaller, getting birthmarks removed, or wearing waist trainers because she’s made plastic surgery seem like such a normal, accessible thing. My parents are divorced and my dad hates superficial things, he even complains non-stop to me when I wear a pair of fake eyelashes. It makes me sad that I’m so open to changing myself, because I want to be comfortable with myself just as I am, and as my father encourages me, but at the same time, I’ve been taught for years by my mom that plastic surgery isn’t bad, and it’s so ingrained in me. She’s offered to get me subtle lip injections for a Christmas (I’m 16 years old, a junior in high school.) I don’t think I’m bad looking, but with her, all of my flaws seem like such “easy fixes,” it’s almost too tempting to fall into the trap and alter my body. Coming from the child of someone who is vey open to plastic surgery, my opinion is don’t tell your kids if it’s something very subtle and small, like liposuction, or something small that can be explained by weight loss etc. if it’s big, and not easy to explainable conceal, or you think your child will know you’re lying, explain it to them honestly, but always emphasize the importance of loving your self just as you arr. make sure they know they’re beautiful without any changes, something my mom doesn’t do for me. Explain that you had an operation, but don’t make it overly accessible to them, and they can make their own opinions and decisions on it when they’re older. Even as I type this and fully understand the abnormality of how open she is about it, yet because it’s so ingrained into me, I still want to get my insecurities fixed! I wish she had treated plastic surgery as something that is a last resort to being extremely insecure about one thing, rather than changing your body like your hair cooor or your outfit. Just my opinion, which I feel is pretty valid, considering I have body issues because of my moms “body fix” habits.

Jen says:

Sadly I understand this. My mom was also very into her looks and plastic surgery, but so is my dad. In fact my dad makes me feel even worse about myself. They both comment on my flaws. And sometimes flaws I wasn’t even aware of in myself. My dad encourages plastic surgery in women because he thinks it makes them look good. Never did I ever mention that I want plastic surgery or that I think it’s good, but my parents are constantly harassing me since the age of ten that I’m suppose to get something done and it’s not a big deal. I’ve seen the most traumatizing things happen to friends and family that have had plastic surgery, and my dad still thinks the same. I think it’s horrifying and somewhat abusive to do this to daughters. I never actually felt insecure about my body image until my parents started telling me all the things I needed to fix and often commenting about the flaws in my everyday appearance. I can’t explain to you how awful it is to grow up in a family like this. I’ve never had boys here tell me that I was flawed in looks, but my dad constantly reminds me all the time of how terrible I look. I’m upset how he encourages my moms plastic surgery, even when my mom and I agree that the doctor did a bad job. I don’t want to have plastic surgery but when I’m really depressed I feel I have to do as they say or feel beaten down by their persistence to get plastic surgery.

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