“When you talk about mothers and swinging them against walls,” said the agitated, gold-bedecked woman at the microphone, “how productive is that?” Her question for Dr. Laura Schlessinger, ""radio's number one relationship and family values talk show host," came at the end of Saturday’s crowded panel session at the LA Times Festival of Books. She’d interrupted advice columnist and panel host Amy Alkon’s closing remarks to ask it. “And speaking of plastic surgery,” the woman wanted to know, hadn’t Dr. Laura had any herself? “Some Americans,” responded Alkon, “have no sense of humor.”
How had Schlessinger incited this woman’s ire? By responding to my request for a comment on the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery for teenagers. “I’d like to take their mothers by the ankles and smack them against the wall,” she’d said. Recently, various news outlets have reported on the trend of sweet 16 surgeries and graduation breast gifts, a bit of information which was met by a resounding gasp from the mostly-female crowd in UCLA’s Ackerman Ballroom. Apparently, this particular crowd had missed the reports. Schlessinger had gone on to answer my question by asserting that these mothers (who allowed the cosmetic surgery for teens) were promoting a “Stepford mentality.” The message they sent their daughters, she’d said, was “that ‘synthetic you’ is better.”
She may have been right about the message, but Schlessinger’s focus on mothers was reductive and curiously disingenuous, given her seat here in the epicenter of image manufacture. Then again, the protesting woman’s response to Schlessinger was reactionary and ad hominem. Somewhere in the middle, though, lies an approach which girls sorely need us to take.
Sure, some mothers – like the ones described in Carrie Denny's recent Philadelphia Magazine article as insisting on bikini waxes for their pre-pubescent girls – do deserve Dr. Laura’s lashing. But they’re the minority. From Bratz dolls to tabloids to Extreme Makeover to Maxim to Tom Leykis, girls are deluged with that Stepford mentality. Mothers attempting to counter those ideas must do so in the face of a daily storm of synthetic messages pelting their daughters like hail.
Despite FDA guidelines against the procedure for girls under the age of 18, plastic surgeons performed 8,000 breast augmentations on underage girls in 2007. This is a 400% increase from the number of cases performed in 2001, when the FDA published its guidelines. Clearly, doctors and patients alike are taking advantage of the regulatory loophole approving the procedure for reconstruction and congenital defects, including asymmetry.
Almost all women have some degree of asymmetry in their breasts. How much asymmetry qualifies a pair of teen breasts as congenitally defective? The FDA provides no specific criteria, which means the flaw is in the eye of the beholder. It’s no stretch to see how easily normal asymmetry can get reclassified as defective.
Every day our culture sends the message to teens that they’re not good enough. Not only do we present them with an unattainable ideal, we promote the reclassification of normal idiosyncrasies as defects. While it’s not surprising that Dr. Laura didn’t offer a more measured response, it’s no more productive to point fingers at her for her own decisions regarding cosmetic procedures than it is for her to lay blame solely on mothers for their daughters’ requests, especially when those requests are made in the context of Los Angeles. Rather than simply condemning mothers, Schlessinger could have called for an examination of the messages with which their daughters are inundated every day. With cosmetic surgery now routinely advertised on the radio - as if buying 36-inch breasts requires no more thought than buying 20-inch rims - these messages come through the media machine into which Schlessinger has inserted herself as a profitable cog.