News that thousands of women have received breast implants containing mattress filler seemed to incite a competitive streak. Who’s going to show the most ostentatious contempt for the affected parties? Way out in front, of course, you’ve got Jean-Claude Mas, founder of PIP – the company that made the implants. Mas has admitted that he both ordered the use of the non-surgical-grade silicone, and deliberately concealed this from inspectors, although “admits” is a big word to use of a man who has no sense of guilt or feeling of responsibility to the women affected.
Then, you’ve got the surgeons. The business of the commercial cosmetic surgeon is to confirm a woman’s worst fears about the way she looks. Some cosmetic surgeons, of course, operate perfectly ethical practices and routinely turn away women they believe are mentally unsuitable for surgery; but at bottom, they’re all selling a physical solution to a psychological problem. (It turns out that gobs of silicone are infinitely more marketable that CBT.) You’d hardly expect an industry whose entire profit margin is drawn from feminine self-loathing to act honourably towards those it serves, and the UK’s main cosmetic surgery chains seem to be conforming to type, with the Transform group shrugging off responsibility for its use of substandard implants onto the government.
But for all the contempt they show, the implant manufacturers and the plastic surgery companies are just collecting the run-off from a huge depository of dislike. In many cases, the people who really hate women who have plastic surgery are the women themselves. Women with breast implants are three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to one longitudinal study; they’re also three times more likely to die from drug or alcohol use. The implication is that women seeking breast enlargement are significantly more troubled than most.
And that shouldn’t be a surprise: the complications of breast enhancement are widely reported, and the rise in plastic surgery’s public profile has been driven by gorily graphic TV shows. Women who have implants know that it isn’t a minor nip and tuck, however naive their faith in surgeons might seem in the light of the PIP scandal. Imagine how bad you’d need to feel about your body for painful, expensive, invasive surgery with a relatively high complication rate (the NHS says that 30% of women with implants need further surgery within ten years) to seem like the solution. It’s fair to assume that the women who have implants feel at least that bad pre-operation.
Which makes it especially uncomfortable when a tone of sneering peeps through the commentary. In the Times, Janice Turner has a jab at the “melonious gazongas” of the “zombie Barbie army”; in the same paper, Sarah Vine hit an uncomfortable nerve when she wrote, “There used to be three classes: upper, middle and working. Now you’re either a Jordan, a Mensch or, like me, an unenhanced untermensch.” Vine’s point is that obvious plastic surgery is a bit common. The AB’s like Louise Mensch have their tweaks, but have them subtly.
A survey of breast implant patients found that they’re more likely to have low levels of education and early ages at first birth – both of which are associated with low social status (as are higher rates of suicide and substance abuse). I suspect that it’s much too simplistic to say (as Turner does) that women who have breast enhancement are influenced by pornography, not least because “all natural” is so often used as a selling point. Plenty of men – including the ones who like big tits – are turned off by silicone. Implants are about status at least as much as sexiness. If the rationale for having a boob job seems completely alien to you, maybe you just don’t know enough to have an opinion about the women involved.