Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pop Culture: Teen Breast Implants

Occasionally I actually get to watch a TV show and even more occasionally I get to watch one I like. I was pleasantly surprised this fall by a new sitcom on Fox called “The War at Home.” It is a sleeper that I have no doubt will soon be put to sleep if for no other reason than I have enjoyed watching it. In the very first two months of its first season, it has confronted issues such as teen sex, sexual identity, interracial dating and drug use (not necessarily among teens.). More importantly it has done so not in a preachy way, but in a way that shows these issues are a part of everyday life for the average family and that they may not be as black and white as we think. There is no moralizing on this show – there are just ordinary people getting tripped up by the challenges of living and parenting in our culture. I don’t even know if it knows how smart it is. The people who promote it and choose its advertising sure don’t. Had I named this show it might have been called something like “Everyday Ethics” – which means it surely would have been cancelled by now. So imagine my distress when I watched this past week and found myself booing instead of cheering. This week’s conflict was resolved by the parents agreeing to breast implants for their teenage daughter! What?!?! How could this smart, contemporary purveyor of liberal values get derailed so quickly and easily? Since when are teenage breast implants a pressing cultural problem? What parents in their right minds would agree to that?

After hyperventilating, I started an internet search. Sure enough, there are a plethora of reports out there detailing the trend of cosmetic surgery becoming popular in younger and younger age groups. Last year, over 1800 girls under the age of 18 had their breasts augmented. Parents are taking out financing to do it. The mind reels with all the ways in which this is wrong. Teenagers are still forming their identities and values. They want desperately to fit in and be admired. Learning to accept oneself and find one’s strengths is a skill that needs to be modeled and nurtured by parents. By focusing on breast size and not self worth, such parents are encouraging their daughters to accept the shallow societal depiction of women and their value in the world. I could rant on about this, but others have already done so and done so better than I could. Now my interest is more academic. I always tell my ethics students that in order to understand an issue, in order to make a robust argument, one must examine the arguments on all sides. The problem is, I can’t come up with an argument for getting breast implants for one’s teenage daughter.


Kevin T. Keith said...

I knew a plastic surgeon who told me that it was quite common for girls to be given nose jobs as a high school graduation present. (He named the ethnic group he believed this was characteristic of, but we don't need to go there.)

As for "argument for getting breast implants for one’s teenage daughter", I don't think parents really need one. The girls themselves, I would bet, are making the arguments; the parents are just allowing themselves to be convinced. If kids can talk their parents into buying them a car, sending them to Europe, or splurging on a ridiculous high-school prom or coming-out party - and they do - I'm sure some teens are persuasive enough, and some parents indulgent enough, to put over a boob job.

And, as tempting as it is to be aghast at this, it is not that far outside cultural norms. In a culture in which millions of women have had breast implants, over 3/4 of them for cosmetic reasons, it's obviously well within the range of common behavior. It's not surprising that some young women would make the same choices that some older women do. Teens have shown preferences similar to adults in many other areas. If the girl has stopped growing, so the health issue is minimized, the real question is whether she is mature enough to make such a decision at her age. And here again, though we may have some real reservations on that point, it is not obvious to me that a 17-year-old wanting bigger breasts to meet a shallow and sexist definition of attractiveness is being any less mature than a 27-year-old who makes the same choice for the same reason. This may even be a bad decision - but is it any worse than the decision she's likely to make when she's older, or any worse than the other bad decisions (about boyfriends, personal identity, college major, drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) she will make at about the same age? If we let her make potentially bad decisions in many life areas - as we must - this may not be a justifiable exception.

To be sure, I'm appalled at this trend, too, but I also believe in autonomy, even for fairly young people. And I don't believe that decisions which simply happen to conform to a regrettable social standard are by that token evidence of lack of decisional capacity. It may be a sign of immaturity to want huge fake plastic breasts, but it's not necessarily a sign of greater immaturity in a 17-year-old than in someone twice her age - and if not, there is no greater reason to prohibit it for the latter than for the former. The problem is the social conditions that make that choice attractive, not the fact that people make choices in response to those conditions. We all do that.

Kristin Nelson said...

I agree that a bad decision might still be a decision we should respect. And I'm sure the young women can provide plenty of arguments. But what is the parenting argument for going along with that? Not to get too Kantian, but parents have duties. Come to think of it, there isn't a single moral theory I can think of that could justify a parent making this choice. I'm not so appalled by the girls wanting this (though I was shocked at first because it is so foreign to my high school experience, which may only be evidence that I am getting old) but I am appalled that anyone could possibly think this is the right thing to do *as a parent*. I could even understand this as a gift from an indulgent aunt, but a parent worth a mother's or father's day card should have the young woman's best interest in mind. And I don't think breast augmentations are like cars, European trips or prom dresses. I don't see cars, trips or dresses doing any damage. [Speaks someone who was given a sports car when she turned 16 :)] Breast jobs approved by one's parents can do physical and psychological damage as well as being symbolic of greater failings on the part of the parent. Parents who see it merely as an indulgence are missing the whole point. It's their decision - not the daughter's - that I want to question. Hmmm, and there you see my liberal leanings going full circle into ultraconservatism as I hop up on my "parents should be licensed" platform. Better stop while I'm ahead.

Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

Great post, Kristen! -- What's disturbing is that studies have shown that studies that breast implants do not have measurable psychological or psychosocial benefits for women -- we do prohibit other forms of the self-harm (e.g., seatbelt laws, alcohol consumption) -- and although autonomy is something we value tremendously in the US, isn't this going too far? (More about breast implants at

Anonymous said...

Also, what seems to be forgotten in this discussion is that breast implants often limit the ability of women to breast feed their children post surgery. I'm not convinced that teenagers understand this consequence.

Anonymous said...

I admit I did not see the episode you refer to. I tried to watch the first episode and was so disgusted I had to turn it off, and I haven't watched since. The whole tenor of the show was (imho) incredibly mean-spirited and vulgar. I've successfully managed to block most of it out of my memory, but I do recall a "joke" along the lines of the father saying that if his teenage daughter saw the boyfriend's penis, the dad would cut it off. I'm not one of the morality police, but I think that's wildly inappropriate for prime-time television. I can't say I find myself too surprised that the show's writers would think that breast implants for teenagers were A-OK.

As far as letting a teenager get breast implants, if you want the pro argument, just consider this: if mom has already had her own breasts enlarged and believes it's making her a happier, more well adjusted person, why would she deny this to her daughter? This is what passes for parenting these days--which is precisely what turned me off about this TV show.

Anonymous said...

Like 95% of people who express "moral outrage" at the prospect of a young woman receiving breast implants as a "sweet 16" gift, what I consistently read between the lines of "this is bad parenting" is really "I disapprove of breast implants and teenage sexuality, and this embodies both!"

Most people in wealthy nations consider breast implants for women attractive, just as they consider thin women attractive. Sure, there's a vocal minority of "purists" as well as weasley men who think that if they just say the "right" opinions they'll garner the (sexual) favor of "morally outraged" women. But when the chips fall and we observe the honesty of people's preferences in their actions, the favor obviously slants towards a big pair of saline DDDs.

If anything, I think those of you "morally outraged" are offended most by the innate honesty of observation youth possess because they have not yet been indoctrinated by your "higher" ideals and ethics. They see the utility of improved physique and enhanced powers sexual attraction, and so plainly desire it; just as they also desire wealth, skills, and social status.

Additionally, the health risks by nay-sayers have really been blown all out of proportion (no pun intended!) The risks are comperable to any surgery, and most people also have their wisdom teeth removed with little reservation. Sure, there's the statistical chance of major nerve and blood vessel damage when your wisdom teeth are removed, but we take that in stride. Likewise, we roll the dice with breast implants just as we also do with taking on a new job or a new relationship or a mortgage.

More disconcerting for me than something as obvious as young women receiving breast implants at age 15 or 16 instead of waiting until they're 18 or 19, is the vast majority of moralizers and ethics imposers who disguise their personal disgust as "advice" regarding personal health and cognitive outlook. It's just the "war on drugs" and "war on rock and roll" all over again. Those who chastize breast implanted women today would be burning KISS records 30 years ago.