Can Cosmetic Procedures Make Us Happier?


We all know, or at least have seen on an awards show, that person who has had Way Too Much Plastic Surgery.

We’re used to stories about how screwed up the Jocelyn Wildensteins are and how disturbing it was to see Renee Zellweger looking like a plastic version of her former self when that Bridget Jones sequel came out. We are led to believe, in general, that those with low self-esteem seek out the knife as a way of feeling better about themselves.

But there’s evidence—both scientific and anecdotal—which suggests that surgical enhancements and cosmetic procedures can have a positive impact on the psyche. “Among those dissatisfied with a particular physical feature and considering aesthetic surgery, undergoing surgery appears to result in positive self-reported psychological changes,” reports a 2013 study (an earlier study had already suggested as much).

Even better news: Today, surgery isn’t required for those who want a physical and mental lift without having to go under the knife, as there are now non-invasive procedures that are just as effective.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go through another surgery after having a C section,” says Mary John, a former wealth advisor. “But at the same time, I was mortified when I looked at my body. I was 42 and it was harder to lose the weight than it had been for me when I was younger.”

Instead of opting for liposuction, John tried coolsculpting—a non-surgical fat-reduction treatment that uses controlled cooling to target fat cells under the skin. According to John, the impact it had on her mind was just as dramatic as the one it had on the fit of her jeans.

“Seeing the change it made on my body had a ripple effect that really altered my behavior,” she recalls. “When I was pregnant, I was eating a lot of carbs but I suddenly switched to eating salads and more holistic foods. I started exercising.”

John also got to have a new Mommy’s version of a Pretty Woman moment. Before her procedure, she had found herself in something of a shame spiral while shopping in Barneys. “I was embarrassed because nothing I was trying on was fitting,” she confesses. “I kept making excuses to the salesman and saying, ‘You know, I just had a baby.’” Post coolsculpting, she returned triumphantly to the store, where she tried on everything that hadn’t fit before and celebrated how fabulous it suddenly looked.

Platinum Care director Dr. Vinay Aggarwal, a board-certified internal medicine physician, says that a little more than half of his clients are new moms. According to Aggarwal, it’s not just the pregnancy pooch that motivates the move. “Women lose up to 1000 calories a day breastfeeding,” he explains. “Then they start to gain weight back again when they’re done breastfeeding, suddenly people are asking them if they’re pregnant again.”

The shame of having to utter the sentence, “No, I’m not actually pregnant again” is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that we live in a culture where celebrities pop out kids and then are photographed with their perfect bikini bodies gallivanting around places like Turks and Caicos right away.

“I’d look at these women who had 0 body fat the day after giving birth and know I wasn’t that person,” says John. “And that way of thinking would start a sequence of thoughts where I would start to look at my whole life negatively.”

It’s exactly this phenomenon—women pretending to be cosmetic procedure free and in turn making other women feel insecure—that motivated Jamie Rose, a 58-year-old actress who starred in Falcon Crest and also published the well-received memoir Shut Up and Dance: The Joy of Letting Go of the Lead-On the Dance Floor in 2011—to open up about her own surgeries in a popular story for The Orange County Register.

“I believe in being candid,” Rose says. “So many women who have done surgery say they haven’t and it’s unfair to other women because we judge ourselves against these people who aren’t telling the truth.” Though she’s not naming names, Rose says she knows of several women in the public eye who go out of their way to publicly claim they haven’t done any work when she knows for a fact that they have.

Still, Rose is quick to point out that surgical enhancements aren’t going to make anyone happier if that person isn’t balanced in the first place. “It can help with self-esteem but you have to have it in the first place,” she says. “When I was 28 and someone suggested I should have my boobs done, I didn’t have a strong self-image; I was weak minded. Now I’m 58 and I do have a strong self-image. I’m very clear about the dangers of too much. I can accept that some things are just the new normal.”

Still, she admits that a recent neck lift has brought her genuine joy. “I’m happy that I’m aesthetically more pleased with the look of my neck,” she admits. “Is that vain? Yes. It’s also true.”