Can plastic surgery stop bullying?

Cristen Conger


"I tried convincing myself that I am fine the way I am, but I just don't believe it anymore." That's what a 15-year-old young woman named Renata wrote to the Little Baby Face Foundation in New York, pleading with the non-profit to perform plastic surgery on her crooked nose. Bullied mercilessly about her left-leaning nose, Renata and her mom reached out to the organization, which, they told NBC News, had come to their attention from a news story about another bullied girl whom Little Baby Face Foundation had treated pro bono. Initially discouraged from seeking plastic surgery by her counselor, Renata ultimately received her wished-for free rhinoplasty and chin implant ("to balance her face"), and her mom reports that the teenager now is happier than ever.

In 2012, adolescents between 13 and 19 years old comprised 5 percent of cosmetic surgery patients in the United States, although data don't reveal how many were prodded toward plastic surgery by bullying. According to Little Baby Face Foundation's website, Renata is among "more than 500 children" the non-profit's surgeons have treated. Its director, Dr. Thomas Romo, has stressed that his mission is to correct low-income children's facial deformities, such as cleft palates and ear reconstructions -- not solve kids' bullying problems. In Renata's case, for instance, he diagnosed her with hemi-facial microsomia, a tissue deformity that can cause underdevelopment around the ears, cheeks, jaws and teeth. Nonetheless, plastic surgery as a solution to bullying often is the moral of the stories about Renata and others who have surgically corrected the physical targets of peers' damaging insults, which raises the question of how healthy and effective an anti-bullying approach it is.

An Australian study published in 2012 in the journal Behavioral Medicine suggests teasing is a common predecessor to elective cosmetic surgery. Out of 449 patients between ages 18 and 70 the researchers surveyed, "just under half...indicated that they had been teased or bullied about their appearance." Even controlling for age, those who had been teased also exhibited higher levels of anxiety, body dysmorphia and lower satisfaction with their appearance. As for bullying-related outcomes of elective surgeries, a more recent study offered some compelling insight: whereas the researchers found post-operative improvements in body satisfaction and anxiety, they witnessed no overall changes in self-esteem. No studies that I could find addressed whether young people who go under the knife experience less bullying after the fact, however.

Speaking to the Today Show, Chad Rose, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, said plastic surgery doesn't address what typically attracts schoolyard (and now social media) taunting: "Outside of appearing different in a noticeable way, two of the biggest factors are social skills and communications skills. Students with low social skills and low communication skills tend to be victims." But assuming that physical appearance and adolescent social skills aren't intertwined seems erroneous -- especially when it comes to girls who tend to be subjected to far more beauty-related messages than boys. And rewinding Renata's experience to before her new nose and chin, back to the torment she endured from classmates mocking her face, when and how might the bullying have been prevented? Would it even have been possible?

Read: Korea's "Plastic Surgery Syndrome"

Watch: Why are women so anxious?

Listen: Are breast implants linked to suicide?