The Myth of being Plastic Fantastic

Some days I am a little sick of the stereotyping inflicted on me as a Plastic Surgeon, so I am here to put all the urban legends  to rest. There are plenty of myths about plastic surgery from both public ignorance and misconceptions established by shows such as ‘Nip Tuck’.
Myth #1 We use plastic.

Once I had a young tradesman whose face was smashed up by the windscreen in a truck rollover. Just before he was put to sleep (and this is after I have spent an hour explaining to him how I was going to put his face back together), he asked me, ‘So doc, where do you put the plastic?’

*Insert eyeroll*

I have lost count the number of times I have been asked that question. Plastic surgery doesn’t mean we play with plastic or put plastic in people. In fact, if we were to use any form of prosthetic device, it is usually silicone. The ‘plastic’ in plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word plastikos. It means to change shape, or to mould. The aim of plastic surgery is to change the shape of any part of your body, for cosmetic or functional reasons.

So, sorry folks, we don’t shove blocks of plastic into people.

Myth #2 We can perform surgery without leaving a scar or we can remove scars

Here’s a couple of frustrating conversations I have regularly with patients every week.

Scenario one:

Me: We have to make a cut around the skin cancer on your face to remove it. Once we stitch it up, it will leave a straight line scar.

Patient 1 (outraged) : A scar? But you are a plastic surgeon; I have come to you to have this done so there will be no scars.

Scenario two:

Me: I hope you have recovered from your fall last month. Your cut lip has healed really well since the stitches came out, it looks great.

Patient 2: I hate it. I can’t believe you put a scar on my lip; I want you to remove it.

Ok people, I know plastic surgeons are incredibly good, but we can’t perform miracles. Where there is a cut, there will be a scar. We can’t remove scars either. If you want scarless surgery, you should have had your surgery done when you were a foetus – that is the only way to perform surgery without leaving a scar. And if you want us to stitch up your injuries, it was not me who had created those scars; it was your stupidity in falling into a window whilst you were pissed.

So what makes us better than others in scarring? We stitch differently to other surgeons, we use finer sutures, we know how to hide and minimise scars. We have techniques which can camouflage or improve scars. We have the knowledge and means to treat bad scars.

So, apart from making people look hot, we can make your scar look sensational too. But unlike God, we cannot remove history which has been carved onto your body.

Myth #3 All we do are boob jobs, facelifts and buttock enhancements

‘I don’t understand why I have to come to see a plastic surgeon to have my skin cancer cut out, it’s not like I want a facelift or something,’ said the man sitting in front of me with a fungating growth coming out of his nostril. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to break the bad news to him, that the cancer in his nose was so big that we would have to amputate his nose. Any surgeon would be able to remove his cancer, but he would be left with a hole in the middle of his face. The reason he needed a plastic surgeon was because we can remove the cancer and reconstruct his nose.

The acronym for our specialty is actually PRS – it stands for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. There are two components to our work:

Reconstructive surgery: which is surgery to improve and restore function, to minimize disfigurement and reconstruct structure which was lost due to trauma, disease, cancer or birth defect. Basically, our job is to fill up a hole anywhere on the body. Sometimes we excise tumours ourselves, but often we work in tandem with other oncological surgeons such as orthopaedic surgeons who resect bone and soft tissue tumours, ear nose and throat surgeons who resects tongue, nose, throat cancers, as well as breast surgeons who perform breast cancer surgery. The way I see it is that my oncology colleagues are the ‘destructive’ surgeons and I am the ‘constructive’ surgeon. I remember when I first started training I was hesitant as to how much margin to take around a tumour. My supervising surgeon took me aside and said, ‘Just remember, Tiff, the reason you are going to be a plastic surgeon is because you are not afraid to make a big hole. Unlike other surgeons, you can fix holes.’

Aesthetic or cosmetic surgery: which is surgery to enhance, or to rejuvenate a specific body part, it is designed to improve a person’s appearance by reshaping facial or bodily features. So yes, we get a chance to make people beautiful. We make boobs bigger, smaller, perkier or firmer. We lift up butts, thighs, arms and faces (not specifically in that order). We inject, insert, eliminate and suck to enhance contours. There has not been a single part of the human body that a plastic surgeon has not attempted to alter, although I gladly admit that I have had no training or experience in anal bleaching – nor am I interested in expanding my field into that area.

Myth #4 Our work is frivolous and we perform non-essential surgery.

As my husband (who is a heart and lung surgeon) sums it up succinctly, ‘Honey, I save lives, you just make the world beautiful.’

Even though spoken in jest, unfortunately it is a view held by many, including hospital administrators, insurance companies and sadly, our colleagues in other specialties. I have had medical students who did not attend their plastic surgery sessions with me at the clinic because they feel that it is not something they need to learn about. I was once told by a second year student that plastic surgeons are not real surgeons who practice ‘true medicine’.

People seem to forget that plastic surgery is not just about cosmetic surgery, but that the most important aspect of our role is to improve a person’s self esteem. No matter how much the self-help books may claim about not placing too much importance on one’s appearance, and to stop using your looks to determine your self-worth, the reality of life is simply – people do judge you by the way you look. And that includes yourself.

It is amazing the difference we sometimes see in our patients. Like the 12-year-old boy who was constantly teased at school for his bat ears – he got it fixed before he started high school. He became a completely different person; he happily went to the barber to have him shaggy long hair removed, started going out with his friends and strutted into my office at 8 weeks postop as if he owned the world like a typical 12-year-old boy. My favourite last month was a 30-year-old mother who had a nasty burn scar over her neck and chest from a childhood hot-water scald. The scars stopped her breasts from developing properly and distorted whatever little breast tissue that did develop. After surgery to correct the deformity and implants to provide shape, she swapped her oversized jumpers for tailored dresses, and started becoming more involved in mother’s groups. She wore a pink singlet with a pearl pendant dangling in her new cleavage when she came to her appointment, despite the visible old burn scars which covered her neck.

Surprising it may be, we do perform surgery that saves lives and limbs. We are often called upon to join small blood vessels under the microscope for organ transplantation in children. We reconstruct the neck after throat cancer, so that the patient can still eat, drink and breathe. We put fingers back on after they have been accidentally severed, and we transplant soft tissues into smashed up legs that otherwise would have had to be amputated.

Unfortunately our work often goes unrecognised, as throughout history, we have had to repeatedly fight for our patients’ right to access plastic surgery. When hospitals have budget cuts, our operating lists are often the first to be cut. Breast reconstruction after cancer was the last one they slashed from our hospital, because once the cancer has been removed, it is no longer considered life-saving surgery. Health insurance companies which exclude plastic surgery cover leave their members with a policy which pays for the cancer removed, but not the plastic surgical procedure to reconstruct or repair the hole.

Admittedly I sound like I am trying to justify our existence, but I truly believe that even though we are not saving lives every day, our work makes a siginificant difference in people’s lives.

Myth #5 We date our patients

There seems to be a misconception that we fall in love with our creations. I explored this particular issue with my male colleagues. The answer was a categorical no, although they have had plenty of invitations from patients to cross that line. Not only is it ethically wrong and fraught with medicolegal implications, it is also rather disturbing that someone would fall in love with an image they have created, which may have nothing to do with the actual person underneath.

Myth #6 We make lots of money because we charge ridiculous amount of money

I am not blind to the fact that as a plastic surgeon, I am often the target of many sarcastic jokes about money. This not only comes from patients, the general public, but sometimes our own colleagues in the medical fraternity. When I was sitting my specialist board exam, one of the candidates for general surgery taunted me, ‘I think your essay question would be on whether a Maserati is better than a Lamborghini.’ I was not shy to show him the finger as I sweetly replied, ‘well, I do hope you know the answer to your essay questions, which hole to put your finger up.’

Once I was leaving work, and one of my patients walked past me as I was putting my bag into the boot of the car. He took one look at my ten year old Toyota Corolla and shook his head. ‘Oh, doc, you need to get a new car, people would think you are not very good if they see you driving that car.’ I just shrugged and said, ‘Don’t worry Mr B, I leave my Ferrari in the garage for weekends.’ At his stunned look, I had to tell him I was joking.

It is not uncommon sometimes for our patients to comment on the cost of surgery, especially if it involves cancer surgery. For some reason people seem to think that we should do their surgery out of the goodness of our hearts if they have cancer….. but that’s another story altogether. One of the reasons that plastic surgery costs a lot more money than most other surgery is the rebate from health funds are low (because our procedures are not deemed to be a necessity), but also our practice has a lot of overheads, especially with wound care, garments, implants and dressings. We also employ a greater number of staff than other specialties, because there is a lot more patient contact time pre and post operatively. Plastic surgery patients and procedures are more complex to organise, and often requires various number of phone calls and coordination. Not to mention, our patients are usually high maintenance and requires constant reassurance.

Yes, some of us drive Aston Martins, stay at 6 star hotels, wear Gucci and walk in Louis Vuitton, but we work hard for it, and our responsibilities may not be life and death, but there is still a lot of stress involved in our surgery because we know the end result will have a life-long impact on our patients’ life.

Myth #7 We drive fast cars, hang out with celebrities, party like animals, snort cocaine and have the most glamorous life of any doctors

This is simple. We drive fast cars, because we have very busy lives and have places to get to. That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it. And trust me, my Corolla is pretty fast.

The only celebrities we hang out with are those that come for treatment. As I don’t perform a lot of cosmetic procedure, most of the celebrities I have contact with are those who have injured themselves or need reconstruction for cancers. They don’t usually act anything like celebrities when they are in my office and the last thing they need is for me to ask them for a selfie.

We try to party like animals, but often our job stops us. We are notorious for pulling out of social commitments at the last minute. One of the worst thing about being a reconstructive surgeon, is that our colleagues take all day to remove the cancers, and we have to sit around waiting for them to finish (or we may have to watch them so they don’t destroy our reconstructive options whilst cutting out the cancer). Once they are done, they piss off to enjoy their evening, while we start our work, usually at the unsociable hour of 4-5pm, working well into the night to patch up the ‘mess’ they have left behind.

What glamorous night life?

As for cocaine, yeah, I know colleagues who do it at parties, but honestly, it usually doesn’t take long for the Board to find them. It is rare that a plastic surgeon is stupid enough to risk their career and reputation to develop such an expensive habit.

Myth #8 We all have had some ‘work’ done on us

I would not deny that some plastic surgeons have had work done, but not all. Although I can’t say the same for the wives or staff! Personally, I don’t trust anyone enough to have plastic surgery done on myself and it is a little difficult perform a facelift on yourself when you should really be asleep throughout the procedure. I know colleagues who inject themselves in the mirror, but I have this unusual need to close my eyes when I see needles coming towards my face, so the results would be rather questionable if I went down that path.

Most of my staff have injections, not because I force them, but it is something I offer them if they want it. And who could say no to free Botox? Because I am very conservative in my treatments, my staff are actually free advertisements of my work. When one of my staff admits to having treatment, the patients are reassured that they won’t look like Jocelyn Wildenstein when they leave my practice.

But, truthfully, the greatest benefit in giving my staff Botox is its efficiency in stopping my practice manager frowning at me and my receptionist frowning at my patients.

Myth #9 Our practice staff are picked for their looks

So, supposedly, this means that our staff should be beautiful young girls with faces full of injectables and look-at-me enhanced breasts. I mean, it is free advertising after all, and who would’t want to be surrounded by luscious females?

Truth number 1 – Most surgeon’s practices are run by their wives. So, which wife would be stupid enough to surround her husband with gorgeous young things?

Truth number 2 – Young girls who are obsessed with their looks don’t usually have the right personality nor the prioritisation skills to run a business well.

Truth number 3 – Experience comes with age. So unless you want to be surrounded by rookies who have no idea what they are doing, you would pick more ‘mature’ staff members to make your own life easier.

Truth number 4 – Patients and clients sometimes find perfection intimidating. They are more comfortable talking about their inadequacies to someone who has flaws as they feel that someone would understand what it is like to be ‘ugly’.

Myth #10 We can make Queen Latifah look like Heidi Klum and vice versa

This is the ultimate myth. I always know it is going to be a difficult consultation when a 5’3, 200+lb person walks in and slaps a picture of Gisele Bundchen on my desk.

So here’s my spill:

  1. I cannot make you taller – go see an orthopaedic surgeon or stick to your heels
  2. I cannot make you a natural blonde – you need a hairdresser or a beautician
  3. Neither can I change the colour of your skin – that’s a disease called vitiligo
  4. Lipsouction is not a form of weight loss – get a personal trainer and stop eating junk
  5. A tummy tuck will not give you six-pack if you haven’t got one to start with
  6. I cannot turn back time to make you look 40 years younger, maybe 10, without the pimples
  7. I cannot make your woo-hoo look perfect nor make you a virgin again (yep, this is a genuine request, apparently Dr Google says it is a great anniversary present for your husband, or wedding present if you are marrying a younger man.)
  8. I cannot reverse gravity with a cream, it is called surgery
  9. And of course, I cannot perform scarless surgery
  10. Oh, and I cannot execute plastic surgery which will make your husband stop sleeping with his 20-year-old secretary, unless you want me to ask my Urology colleague to do a quick operation on your husband.

So, we may be Plastic Fantastic, but we are really just like any other regular surgeons. We cannot perform miracles, and we cannot change who you are. You need to speak to either God or a Shrink about that one.



70 thoughts on “The Myth of being Plastic Fantastic

  1. A very informative article, although aside from the medically necessary procedures, I can’t help thinking that in many cases the philosophical approach would be better (cheaper, more convenient, no side effects) than the surgical approach i.e. change the way you think about your appearance rather than changing your actual appearance.

    • DRAT. I had pegged you for my last hope in my antiaging war. And I’d hoped to cash in on a blogger’s discount. ^ ^

      Love the humorous, informative piece, Tiff, and how:
      “he owned the world like a typical 12-year-old boy.”

      If your husband continues to look this age in 20 years, we’ll know why!

    • Sorry, I don’t know why my response to Tiff attached itself to yours, MG.
      As to the philosophical alternative, indeed it is the better way on several counts – but not realistic, I’d have to say. Our self-image certainly goes a long way. But it would stand insufficient against the perception of others in this image-conscious world.

    • Aaaah a true idealist! 😛 I have to agree with Diana that sometimes it’s not about what you accept about yourself but rather what others/society accept of you. You could say that shouldn’t be important but I am a realist – it matters to everyone. It matters to a man who found that people ‘talk to’ his big nose rather than him, and a woman that her bust doesn’t fill out any of dresses on the rack in regular shops.

      • Not an idealist but a realist. The big nose matters to some people and not to others. Moreover, the person who worries about his big nose can be taught not to worry about it at all or not to worry about it so much. Of course social pressures are hard to resist but my point is that they can be resisted. Hunger strikers resist the strongest urge known to man. Ultimately it is always about “what you accept about yourself” and never about “what others/society accept of you.”

        • I definitely don’t disagree with you – otherwise I would have had a boob job already. However I don’t judge those who can’t achieve that ideal. I try to help them achieve more confidence even if it’s only skin deep. The difference I see everyday tells me that most of the time I am doing the right thing and I have changed their life so it doesn’t bother me much when people judge me by what I do. I just don’t like the misconceptions people hold about plastic surgery as a whole. You have to admit that some work that we do is essential.

  2. With a grandfather who was a reconstructive surgery guinea pig, the assumption that plastic surgery is all about nose jobs and boobs jobs for people with too much money and narcissism is something that’s riled me for a long long time. What you do as surgeons is something that should be applauded as you don’t just save lives – you give people their lives back.

  3. Lots of laughs here! I had a mole on my face that I had removed while I was a med student. After it was gone I realized how much that silly little thing had been weighing me down. Wow. Hats off to you and your kind. 🙂

    • Sorry, that was a bit of ‘too much information, need to know basis’. 😛 I only know about it because some guy rang up my office asking if I did it, then I had to google it cos I don’t remember ever reading it in my textbooks!!

      • I was tempted but I didn’t google. Makes me feel good to know a doctor didn’t know what it was. There was a Grey’s Anatomy about a woman who “va-jazzled” her hoohaa. I missed most of the show because I didn’t know what it was and had to look it up! I must live a sheltered life.

  4. Love my blethoplasty…people stopped telling me I looked tired all the time! Keep doing what you do ! ( And the Nip Tuck thing at the top – fun guilty pleasure until the show got a little too weird for me)

  5. Aren’t they called ‘cosmetic surgeons’ now? Isn’t that a more aesthetically pleasing label?

    I had surgery to remove a spot of basal cell carcinoma. (Take a look at these lovely surgery pics). Afterwards, they offered to get a plastic surgeon to remove the scar but I refused. I think it makes me look a little rough around the edges, which I needed.

    The frivolous surgeries are the ones that make the press. These other kinds you speak of don’t sell papers. Sorry about that.

    I like to think I’m somewhat worldly but I’ve NEVER heard of Myth #5! Really?

    Why would anyone want to appear to be a virgin? Virgins know nothing at all about the science of lust (not their fault). I’d think it’s something you’d want to avoid.

    Have you ever refused service from someone who, clearly, has had too much? Some people are turned into monsters and I wonder about the doctors who do it.

    Some folks post too much. You have the opposite problem. Get it together in 2015, okay?

    • You had Moh’s surgery on your head by a dermatologist for your BCC? Hope that was your only one! I usually tell the blokes that scars are good, chicks dig scars 😀
      As for myth number #5, you should google hymenoplasty. On second thought, may be you shouldn’t. It was a request from a very very rich 65 year old lady who is getting married to a 40 year old man. I didn’t ask.
      I do actually turn people down quite a bit and I think that’s part of the reason why my wait list for a cosmetic appointment is 3 months. A lot of doctors recommend me because apparently (so I am told by the patients) that I have a reputation for being brutally honest. I make my patients lose weight, I refuse to do anything that would not (in my mind) make a significant difference and I will not do revision on revision on revision. I tell people they look unnatural. I would hate to have an overdone face walking around telling everyone I did their surgery!!!
      And as for posting. I am going to make it my new year’s resolution to post more regularly! My problem is that I often come up with great ideas for posts whilst at work then I forget it as soon as I sit down at the desk!
      What about yourself – for some reason I can’t seem to like or comment on your posts!!! Are you afraid that I’d leave abusive comments again?!?! 😛

  6. Love this. I haven’t picked my specialty yet but know I want to do something surgical and mentioned to my husband (also a medical student and future Orthopod) that I might be interested in Plastics and had an argument about the necessity of Plastics. I’m sending this to him RIGHT now.

    • What would the aweful-pedic surgeons know?!?! 😛 you tell him that we save his ass. When his plates and screw get infected or the skin breaks down over it, they usually need to grovel to us to save their metalwork!

  7. I love this post! I hate misconceptions about any field of medicine. I have a few classmates who had cleft lips/palates corrected as infants, and there can be no denying how much that surgery meant to them! Keep doing what you do, and please keep writing 🙂

  8. What I love about your posts is that you get right down to it, with humour, warmth and a plain ol “I don’t give a shit what others think” attitude…lol. You also let us non-medical folks into your world – something that seems so foreign and mystical to me (I sometimes picture druids with staffs behind the scenes). I certainly learned a lot here – I have to say I knew a little bit about the reconstructive side of things, but not all, so I got schooled just now. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this – love your posts!


  9. I have the greatest respect for plastic surgeons due to the reconstruction jobs they have done after having cancer in both breasts. I learned early on by seeing the pictures that I would not come out with the boobs of a Playboy Bunny. I guess I am lucky to live in Canada where reconstruction is free. I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise if I had to pay out of pocket. One of my plastic surgeons volunteered his time regularly at Operation Smile, going to 3rd world countries to operate on children with cleft palates and other facial deformities.

    Even with our “socialized” medical system, the plastic surgeons I know seem to drive fancy cars!

  10. I am well-acquainted with a number of people who have suffered face disfigurement as a result of neurofibromatosis-related tumors, and for them, plastic surgeons have offered a lifeline to the world. Lucy Grealy’s essay “Mirrorings” has also helped me better appreciate the work plastic surgeons do.

    I’m wondering if the complaints you get about scars tend to come more from women than from men. Our western ideas of appearance do seem to regard scars in males as being enhancers of looks and attractiveness, while in females they are only a blemish to hide and feel self-conscious of.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for coming by to read my post! Yes, females tend to be more worried about scarring but believe it or not, it is the gay males who are the worst!! I say this without prejudice but as an observation. They are the first to admit to me their vanity! You are right tho, chicks do dig scars on a man!! 🙂

      • Hi Tiffany. This site was brought to my attention by Diana at The Holistic Wayfarer; I like stopping in at blogs and reading posts that make me feel a bit more informed and educated.

        On the subject of scars, I think there’s probably a broad misunderstanding among laypeople about what a scar actually is, and why they’re so permanent. Maybe you should write a post about the underlying anatomy of scars, and why even the best plastic surgeons can’t make them go away.


  11. It’s a constant source of astonishment to me that people (many of whom seem reasonably intelligent in other ways) are so ready to make endless, utterly asinine, assumptions about what happens behind the scenes in any field other than their own, without bothering to investigate or ask a reasonable question or two. Bad enough that they’re willing to believe ridiculously illogical and wholly incorrect things, but sillier yet that they wouldn’t question their own ignorance about fields they’ve never studied. Ha.

    Me, I have never needed plastic surgery for anything—yet—but the friends and loved ones who have had moles and skin cancers removed and the incisions closed by plastic surgeons make me incredibly grateful for your art. Respect, sister!


    • Thanks Kathryn! I think these days with google and internet, everyone thinks they are an expert at everything. It is also funny how people form expectations from their opinions which are difficult to persuade. Thank you for your comment 🙂 we do try and do our best work for the public!

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