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Why Do Americans Keep Falling Victim to Unlicensed Plastic Surgery?

Why Do Americans Keep Falling Victim to Unlicensed Plastic Surgery?


Plastic surgery represents a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. As one might expect in an industry that generates so much revenue, there are those who are looking to profit illegally by performing unlicensed procedures, as well as patients who are willing to believe that they have discovered a deal that is too good to pass up. There have been similar trends in gambling, with illegal bookies who set up offshore accounts and advertise great financial windfalls to anyone willing to place a bet with them; and in construction, with contractors who hire unqualified, sometimes undocumented employees to do their work in order to place bids on contracts that would be impossibly low for a legitimate enterprise to match. Such unscrupulous people offer seemingly comparable work to their legal counterparts at a fraction of the cost to the consumer. The reason they are able to do this is precisely the reason that people should stay away from them: they do not have to pay the heavy overhead costs of a legally run business, which can include insurance, facilities, and staffing of reputable, qualified workers.

Victims of Unlicensed Plastic Surgery Are Usually Normal, Everyday People

Victims of unlicensed plastic surgery include people from every walk of life, from those struggling to make ends meet to the reasonably well-off who are looking to save money. Of course, there are always going to be people who prey on the disenfranchised, but an increasing number of everyday Americans are being lured into this seedy world with no more than vacant promises of cosmetic renewal. Many are less worried about credentials and experience and more concerned with the finished product and the cost it takes to achieve it. The disturbing and somewhat saddening result of this trend is that when something goes wrong (and in the surgical business, there are many things that could go wrong), people who choose to undergo an unlicensed plastic surgery procedure have very little recourse to recoup their losses.

There is an ever-growing preference in our society today to take shortcuts. No matter how important the issue and how seemingly ludicrous the solution, we seem to err on the cheap side when it comes to solving our problems. It is no secret that Americans love a bargain. Companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco have made fortunes for their investors for this very reason. Penny-pinching is no longer looked down upon; it is now the norm. Who doesn’t like to find their favorite clothing, home appliances, or CDs at discounted prices? Websites like eBay, Amazon, and Overstock help to fill the need of American consumers to feel that they are always getting the best deal possible. Lost in all of this tragic, frugal madness is our sense of ourselves; our own bodies have become equivalent to products, with people seeing their faces, breasts, and tummies as no more than simple components of a larger product, similar to, say, a house or a vehicle.

The following two cases, taken straight from recent headlines, exemplify two of the most common types of victims of unlicensed plastic surgery: patients who are willing to trust unsavory “doctors” because they do not know any better, and patients who know all of the risks, yet choose to ignore them.

Exhibit A: The Disenfranchised

In September 2007, a San Jose couple accused of performing at least nine botched plastic surgery procedures was arrested and charged with performing cosmetic surgery without a license. Their alleged victims tell nightmarish tales of gruesome surgeries performed in secrecy in the couple’s kitchen, which has been described by investigators as being filthy, even by non-surgical standards. Advertising their services in local publications as a legitimate permanent tattoo makeup business, the couple allegedly used everyday kitchen utensils and household instruments to perform complicated cosmetic procedures ranging from liposuction and tummy tucks to full-blown breast augmentation. The victims of this egregious medical fraud were Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom did not speak English and were unfamiliar with American legal practices. This allowed the couple to remain undetected by local authorities for quite some time, despite their flagrant disregard for their patients’ well-being.

Exhibit B: The Quick-Fixers

In 2004, a woman was arrested in Miami for performing illegal facial filler injections using industrial-grade silicone, which is normally used to lubricate heavy machinery and seal furniture, and closing the incisions with Krazy Glue®. This case represents an extreme variation on the so-called “BOTOX® parties,” where women, usually with college educations and healthy incomes, invite their friends and acquaintances to their homes to receive BOTOX® or other injectable treatments from an alleged plastic surgeon. These surgeons, who are usually touted as either experts from other countries or assistants to well-known surgeons, inject the guests with dermal fillers and other treatments designed to take years off of their faces. These parties have become nearly as common in American haute-couture as book clubs, weekly bridge games, and swingers’ parties. And the women who choose to attend are generally not desperate for a new look or incapable of paying top dollar for cosmetic procedures. The primary reason that these back-room cosmetic procedures have become so popular, and indeed so much a part of mainstream America, is because we, as a society, have become desensitized to the risks of cosmetic surgery while becoming obsessed with its rewards.

Plastic Surgery Is Not Equivalent to Home Repair

The human body should not be treated as a consumer product. Just as people who are contemplating major additions to their homes should check the credentials and work history of the contractors they hire, so too should people who are contemplating major work to their bodies. The reason is purely common sense: illegal contractors are not obligated to adhere to any standards. If a deck-addition fails to meet the structural guidelines set by the state, a consumer can legally sue the contractor who performed the addition and recoup damages. If that contractor happened to be the guy down the street with no credentials at all, then not only does the consumer have a deck that is effectively useless, but it becomes much harder for him or her to pursue compensation. Likewise, someone who undergoes rhinoplasty at the hands of an unlicensed surgeon runs the risk of being stuck with a botched nose, with little or no recourse.

As America transitions from an industrial labor-based economy to one that is rooted in technology, research, and innovation, and as our unskilled labor is increasingly outsourced to countries where manufacturing costs are far cheaper, we begin to lose that ethic of hard work that defined the generations prior to ours. This ardor and tenacity has largely been replaced with a casual sense of invincibility and self-entitlement, a condition which leads to seemingly normal, logical people seeking quick-fixes to their problems without considering the possible consequences of their decisions.

When people begin to lose sight of their own well-being, priorities become distorted. If a person has had success in the past with illegal labor, then why not use it again? If Jane from down the street has perkier breasts because she went to an unlicensed doctor in Thailand, then those butchering rumors must be false. Often, the last thing that we see is regarded as truth despite sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We frequently fail to – or are unwilling to – realize that one example of success cannot substitute for many examples of failure. In short, people generally see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy, to be sure, but that’s what our society is based on. If Americans did not believe that anything is possible with hard work and a little ingenuity, we would not be the country we are today. From the time we enter kindergarten, we are inundated with this ethos – it defines who we are as a nation, and it is certainly something we should be proud of. However, that philosophy does not and should not influence how we treat our own bodies.

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