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Post-pandemic boom in plastic surgery sparks concern about 'perfection fixation'

Dermatologists are reporting an increase in people seeking cosmetic consultations compared with pre-pandemic times.
/ Source: TODAY

Many Americans are emerging from their home offices and quarantines looking different than before the coronavirus crisis — a trend the American Society of Plastic Surgeons called a “post-pandemic boom” in cosmetic procedures.

Bonnie Hammer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal, TODAY's parent company, noticed it after attending a maskless party outdoors with long-time friends.

“In the time since the pandemic first upended our lives, it wasn’t just the world that had changed but the faces. Lifted, plumped, and smoothed, the women at this party looked almost unrecognizable — less like themselves and more like each other,” Hammer wrote in an essay published this week in Vogue.

In a survey of more than 100 board-certified dermatologists across the U.S. earlier this year, 56% reported an increase in people seeking cosmetic consultations compared with pre-pandemic times, and 86% said their patients cited video-conferencing calls as a reason to seek care.

Dr. Arianne Shadi Kourosh, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, called it “Zoom dysmorphia,” where people want to improve their appearance on computer screens because their looks are distorted in ways they often don’t realize.

When sitting before a laptop’s front-facing camera, the nose can appear larger and wider, for example, while the eyes can appear smaller, she said.

“Not only is a person confronting their own reflection with much greater intensity and frequency than they ever had before, but they were staring at a distorted reflection,” Kourosh told TODAY. “So this was a way that subconsciously people were becoming more self-conscious about their appearance.”

Americans spent $16.7 billion on cosmetic procedures last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Three of the top five procedures in 2020 were focused on the face, including nose reshaping, eyelid surgery and facelift, with ASPS calling it “a rush on facial procedures in response to a significant surge in Zoom calls and downtime for discreet recovery at home.” Pent-up patient demand has fueled the industry's post-pandemic boom, it noted.

In contrast, the top procedures in 2019 were breast augmentation and liposuction.

When Hammer’s friends and colleagues started talking about cosmetic procedures as the pandemic unfolded, she realized “the obsession was coming from staring at ourselves every single day in ways that we never did in our life (before),” she told TODAY.

Teens and adults are using apps to airbrush any imperfections on their faces with the swipe of a finger, and then want to look like those images in real life, Hammer noted. She was concerned about this "total fixation with perfection."

The trend is continuing this year.

The aesthetics industry experienced “robust growth throughout 2021, and we are seeing a steady shift in consumers’ mindset and behavior where aesthetics treatments are a much more accepted way for people to care for themselves,” said Carrie Strom, president of Global Allergan Aesthetics, which makes Botox. Injections of the wrinkle smoother were the top minimally invasive cosmetic procedure performed last year.

Hammer, 71, who has spent her entire career working in television, has resisted having cosmetic work done, calling herself a plastic surgery “virgin.” She understood the urge to look better, but said she has learned to embrace her imperfections and didn’t want to lose her own individuality. Hammer also avoided elective surgeries and, as a perfectionist, said she’d likely hate the results of a cosmetic procedure.

But Hammer worried about what all the pressure to look perfect was doing to younger women. She was most concerned about the female employees in their 20s and 30s she interacted with, “many of whom really do believe that getting work done is key to finding work, or a partner, or self-worth and even happiness,” she wrote in her essay.

“My main priority is trying to take one more unnecessary pressure off of women to be able to survive life,” Hammer told TODAY. “Why has our culture become so fixated with perfection? Why can't we embrace individuality?”