A Culture Reshaped

dsc0174-copy.jpgHappy birthday, fake boobs! This year, the silicone prosthetic turned 50, having been first successfully implanted in a woman in 1962.

Whether you love breast implants (I’m looking at you, strip-club owners), or hate them (hello, fathers of teenage girls), you have to admit, they’re tenacious. Or rather, consumers and manufacturers of them are. They’ve persisted through a storm of controversy that’s been slow to settle.

For instance: When I told my boyfriend I was writing this story, he asked if I would include the part about silicone implants and breast cancer. Actually, cancer was not the main issue. Of the many thousands of health claims and lawsuits filed by Americans with problems they believed were caused by silicone breast implants, most had to do with autoimmune and connective-tissue disorders. After reviewing dozens of medical studies, the National Cancer Institute concluded in September 1997 that breast implants don’t cause cancer. Apparently, they don’t cause anything. Scores of medical studies over the last three decades have, for the most part, indicated no increased health risk from breast augmentation.

But that didn’t stop the Food and Drug Administration from yanking silicone implants off the market from 1991 to 2006, a period when they could only be used for breast reconstruction, and patients receiving them had to participate in research studies. For women looking to augment, saline implants became the go-to material.

Science ultimately carried the day, and the silicone implant is now deemed safe. The redemption of silicone was welcomed by cosmetic surgeons such as Las Vegas’ George Alexander, who performs a couple hundred of the 300,000-plus breast augmentation surgeries done each year in the U.S. Alexander, the former chief of plastic surgery at Mountain View Hospital and Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital, started out doing breast reconstructions. Today, about 99 percent of his practice is aesthetic.

“The Southwestern U.S. tends to be image-conscious, and Las Vegas in particular, so we tend to do a lot of breast augmentations here,” Alexander says. “It’s popular and culturally acceptable.”

Some observers wonder whether implants have crossed over from acceptable to de rigueur in some walks of life—a body transformation that’s become a cultural and economic necessity. Are we looking at the modern Western version of Chinese foot-binding? Not necessarily, says Jenni Whitmer, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UNLV who studies and writes about the commodification of beauty.

“In Las Vegas, we see that the decision to get breast implants is often a rational decision that has direct bearing on women’s earnings potential,” she says. “And among women for whom breast implants help lessen self-image problems, again, they’re making a rational choice to solve a problem in their life, and it’s a choice that works.” Nonetheless, Whitmer says, it’s important to understand that these decisions, however rational they may be, are made in a society that places disproportionate emphasis on women’s appearance as the source of their worth.

And if that’s not enough to make you think twice about the mainstreaming of breast implants, maybe this is: A 2007 study in the Annals of Plastic Surgery found that women with implants are three times more likely to commit suicide than women overall. The take-home from the study is not that implants cause anything at all—this industry has had enough hasty cause-effect reasoning—but that perhaps something is amiss in our culture: If we want to change ourselves enough to go under the knife, it may be that our dissatisfaction is more than chest-deep.

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