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Perfection or Bust

By Lia C. Larson

Full of passion and eagerness, women from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, pickets in hand, to join in a united protest—a pending vote was threatening the safety of women nationwide and they were going to put up a fight to stop it. The National Organization for Women led the rally, calling on the government to “save women” and prevent the harm that tens of thousands have already suffered. Their stories were heartfelt, their vision impassioned. These protesters had a mission and they were determined to be heard.

And what was their issue? Equal opportunity? The right to choose? Wage discrimination? No, these women were out to tackle a much more menacing threat: the reintroduction of silicone breast implants. Armed with graphic pictures of women whose breasts implants had ruptured or been removed, the protesters demanded that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) delay consideration of the issue before further research was conducted.

Despite the women’s protests, last week an advisory panel to the FDA voted to recommend that silicone breast implants be allowed back on the market after a prohibition that has lasted for the past eleven years. In 1992, the United States banned breast implants filled with silicone gel after hundreds of women complained that ruptured implants had leaked silicone into their bodies and caused long-term chronic immune system disorders. Saline implants, though less “natural” in appearance and feel, were used alternatively after the ban.

In the past few weeks, the controversy surrounding the reintroduction of silicone-based breast implants has become a highly divisive and emotionally charged debate—pitting woman against each other as they argue over the dangers of ruptured implants and the benefits of the firmer and more natural silicone feel. Feminist groups contend that the long-term health risks of silicone have not yet been settled. Silicone advocates argue that they should have a right to choose what plastic product they insert into their bodies.

While the intricacies of silicone have provoked a contentious political dispute, a greater social problem has been conspicuously absent from the discussion: the fact that women feel the need to get them in the first pace. No one seems to be questioning the perverted idea that going under intensive surgery and inserting an alien material in one’s body is an acceptable form of dealing with a body image problem.

Breast implants are by no means the bra stuffing of our generation. Smuggling a couple socks in your bra is one thing—forking over thousands of dollars and going under the knife is quite another. The operation can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $9,000, and the implants do not come with a lifetime guarantee. Additional operations are almost always necessary in order to replace or remove implants due to problems such as deflation, capsular contracture, infection, shifting and calcium deposits.

The implants have been known to interfere with mammography—potentially delaying or hindering the early detection of breast cancer. The surgery can also dramatically reduce sensitivity in the nipple and may affect sexual response or the ability to nurse a baby. From 1985 until January 2000, 195,202 women complained to the FDA about medical problems experienced from their breast implants, and the FDA’s own epidemiologists have identified long-term potential health risks from silicone implants, such as fibromyalgia. Just this month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear a lawsuit against former manufacturers of breast implants, including Baxter, Bristol-Meyers Squibb Company and 3M on behalf of the federal government and tens of thousands of U.S. women with implant-related medical problems. As of January 2000, the FDA had received 123 reports of deaths allegedly related to breast implants.

With so many risks and side effects, it’s disturbing that implants seem to have become an acceptable and ever-growing fashion trend. Of course for victims of breast cancer who have undergone mastectomies, implants can be a very comforting part of the recovery process. But breast restoration is very different from breast enhancement. Every year, more and more American women are attempting to kiss off their body insecurities by pumping up their chests with superficial self-confidence and saline. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there has been a nearly 600 percent increase in the number of women undergoing breast implant surgery in the last decade, from 32,000 in 1992 to 225,000 in 2002.

If these anti-silicone protesters are really concerned about protecting women, then they should be spending more time addressing the real threat breast implants pose: a skin-deep solution to a complex body-image problem. More and more women are viewing being stuffed with plastic as their only answer for body confidence—and American culture seems to enthusiastically support their quest for a larger cup size. By failing to include this concern in the discussion, these female activists are indirectly suggesting that there is nothing wrong with undergoing potentially harmful plastic surgery in order to look good in a bikini.

The contention over silicone will fade into history and soon be forgotten—medical technology will no doubt come up with safer, firmer, more “natural feeling” implants in the future. But the greater societal problem lies at bay. Some argue that their implants make them feel better about themselves and claim taking a medical risk for a larger rack is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff. Unfortunately, they are sorely mistaken. After undergoing hours of painful surgery and dishing out thousands of dollars, these women who seek solace in silicone are bound to discover that their newfound self-confidence is just as fake as their chests.

Lia C. Larson ’05 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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