‘Cowboy’ plastic surgeons in spotlight after scandal

Three famous fans of the surgeon’s knife. From left: Cher / Katie Price / Dolly Parton © Getty Images

‘Unqualified’ doctors have been carrying out plastic surgery for years, it has been revealed – the latest scandal to rock the industry after faulty breast implants caused outrage and alarm.

Suhail Cantalamessa got breast implants in order to boost her confidence. Instead, they have ruined her life. Earlier this year it was discovered that a French company called PIP had been making its implants using industrial mattress filler, a potentially toxic chemical. Now, says Cantalamessa, she feels as if she has a pair of time bombs buried inside her chest.

Fully 300,000 women around the world are in a similar situation and, for some, the ‘time bombs’ have already gone off. Breast implants are essentially just soft bags full of fluid silicone. With the faulty PIP implants, those bags have a dangerous habit: they burst, causing pain, lumps, disfigurement and – sometimes – irreversible complications.

As the number of horror stories grows, journalists and governments have begun investigating the cosmetic surgery with new vigour. What they have found has caused deep concern. A huge industry, carrying out nearly twenty million operations each year, is so unregulated and unsupervised that it has been compared to the lawless Wild West.

The latest revelation is that many plastic surgeons in private clinics are not even fully qualified to carry out surgery at all. In the state-run NHS, they would be working as trainees – not in charge of full-scale surgical procedures.

Will this storm of bad publicity deter people from going under the knife? Probably not. Cosmetic surgery is a booming business, with the number of UK operations doubling in six years.

International markets are taking off too. In Brazil, ‘bum lifts’ are all the rage. In east Asia, women have surgery to change the shape of their eyes. Botox treatment – injecting poison into your face in order to prevent wrinkles – is so popular that people do it at parties.

There has been a huge cultural change too. Once people were embarrassed to admit to having had surgery. Now, more and more actresses and models admit openly to surgical enhancement. For some women, it is now regarded as almost routine.

Skin deep

Some social commentators say this is a depressing state of affairs. How sick has our society become, they ask, when healthy, normal women feel forced to pay thousands of pounds and suffer dangerous surgery in order to fit in with a false idea of female beauty promoted by sexist men and glamour models in magazines? When will women at last be judged not on their looks but on their character?

Who knows, say cosmetic surgeons and their allies? What matters is that in the real world, now, women – and men – are judged on their looks, whatever anyone might think about it. Cosmetic surgery allows people to take control of their appearance rather than being stuck with bodies or faces that make them unhappy. It is not oppressive – it is empowering.

You Decide

  1. Is cosmetic surgery a good or a bad thing?
  2. Where do ideas about physical beauty come from? Why are people willing to risk serious harm just for the sake of ‘looking good’?


  1. Who should pay for the cost of taking out faulty breast implants – private clinics, the government or patients themselves? Write a short speech arguing for one of these three options.
  2. People have always been willing to modify their own bodies in the search for beauty – sometimes in very extreme ways. Research one historical form of body modification and report on it to your class.

Some People Say...

“People who get plastic surgery are silly and vain.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I really be losing sleep over dodgy breast implants?
Two thirds of young women now say they would have cosmetic surgery if they thought it would make them feel better about the way they looked – so this sort of issue could affect a lot of people at some point in their lives.
And what happens to the women who already have faulty implants?
In France, the government has said it will pay for the bad implants to be removed. In England, however, the government is hoping that the bad implants will be removed by the private clinics that first put them in. Health secretary Andrew Lansley said they had a ‘moral obligation’.
And how is that going?
Some clinics have said they will do the operations, but some have closed down and many are simply refusing to play ball.

Word Watch

Potentially toxic
The industrial silicone used in the faulty implants (as opposed to special medical-grade silicone) caused them to have a much higher rupture rate than normal. There are also fears, so far unconfirmed, that the filling, if it leaks, carries a higher risk of causing cancer or other diseases.
Wild West
In the 19th century, isolated settlements in the western states of the USA were notoriously lawless and dangerous, plagued with outlaws and bandits who lived and died by the gun. Today, professionals in any field who operate outside the scope of authority are often known as ‘cowboys’.
Botox, short for botulinum toxin, is a paralysing chemical produced by certain bacteria. As a beauty treatment, it is injected into the skin, paralysing the muscles underneath. By preventing people from wrinkling their brows, for example, or smiling with their eyes, it can prevent the onset of wrinkles.


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