Friday, September 21, 2007

Playing doll

20 Sep 2007, ST, Urban

Once regarded as adults' access to the fountain of youth, plastic surgery is now gaining popularity among baby-faced youths. NOELLE LOH takes a closer look at the phenomenon

In these celebrity-, trend-obsessed times, the seed of desire to look perfect is planted young. Ben (not his real name) is 22 but has already had his nose reduced surgically not once, or twice, but thrice. (see below).

Tired of being teased about his 'Jackie Chan nose', the current undergraduate at the Singapore Institute of Management decided to nip the problem in the bud three years ago when he was just 19.

And there are more like him in this growing phenomenon.

Plastic surgeon Woffles Wu at Camden Medical Centre says teens have been going for plastic surgery as early as 10 years ago, but the trend is now getting more common. He reports that teenagers now form 35 per cent of his patients, up from 15 per cent five years ago. Currently, the average age of his pre-adult patients is 16.

Plastic surgeon Hong Soo Wan, who runs a clinic at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, says he has seen a 5 to 10 per cent rise in the number of patients aged below 18 over his seven years of practice. These patients are mostly between the ages of 16 and 18.

The legal age for patients seeking plastic surgery in Singapore is 21. Those below this age would need parental consent before proceeding.

Surgeon Ivor Lim of the Plastic and Hand Surgery clinic at Camden Medical Centre says his youngest patient to get Botox, a procedure that smoothens out wrinkles and lifts sagging skin, is a 21-year-old girl.

The reasons for teens going plastic vary. Dr Wu has had patients wanting to look like their idols, while plastic surgeon Chua Jun Jin, who runs a clinic at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, says some do it to get better-looking dates.

'Anything you can imagine,' he says.

Such procedures do not come cheap. Parents are shelling out between $3,500 for a double eyelid procedure and $20,000 for breast augmentation.

Dr Wu adds: 'Contrary to the notion that they are a well-heeled bunch, these patients come from all walks of life.'

But before you blacklist this breed of Botox babies as a bunch of superficial squirts, psychologist Koo Shen Lin from Mount Elizabeth Hospital's medical centre says it's not that worrying a trend - so long as the procedure is 'reasonable'.

'People are recognising that plastic surgery has moved away from helping to correct deformities to enhancing beauty,' she says.

'There is nothing wrong in going for plastic surgery at a young age as long as the child knows he wants it and is in a healthy state.'

Besides, she observes, local youths ask for simpler procedures such as the reduction of pore size or the creation of double eyelids, as opposed to those in the West who go for more extreme makeoevers such as breast augmentation.

Indeed, it seems like for every adolescent patient who seeks surgery to feed his vanity, there is another who does so for a better self-image, surgeons say.

Dr Lim recalls how a pre-school boy, brought in by his mother, went from shy to outgoing after removing a large hairy mole on his forehead.

'Plastic surgery is not as frivolous as you think it is. It is also psychological surgery,' he says.

Dr Wu adds that he once defended a 19-year-old boy's request to get a chin augmentation despite fierce opposition from his mother.

'I thought that it was the right thing for him because the disproportion of his face was just so glaring. It would help him psychologically,' he says.

But psychologist Geraldine Tan from the Centre for Effective Living, which provides counselling services, has a word of caution.

'The boost in self-esteem might only be temporary if the root cause of his inferior complex is actually not addressed. Furthermore, parental consent only enforces that the child is not good in whatever he does,' she says.

Housewife Eugenia Chandra, who has three children aged 24, 22 and 17, says it is a definite no for teens below the age of 18 to go for plastic surgery.

'Their facial features and bodies are still developing, and they might not be emotionally mature enough to know what they are getting themselves into,' she says.

To fully understand whether a growing teen would really benefit from a permanent cosmetic procedure calls for a collaborative 'discovery time' between parent and child, says psychologist Koo.

'Parents need to sit down with their kid to go through the pros and cons of going through the surgery,' she says.

'Can the child deal with having a swollen nose for a few weeks? Can he deal with his friends saying that he has got a new nose, for example?'

She recommends that youths go under the knife only when they are in their late teens.

'At that time, their bodies are more fully developed, and they're more likely to be sure of their decision,' she says.

Surgeons agree. They say that it is maturity level, not age, that is the defining criterion.

In fact, Dr Wu is so strict about making sure that his patients know what they're getting into that those below the age of 25 must visit him with their parents.

General manager Mrs Soh, 52, who declines to reveal her full name, is one parent whom experts would probably applaud for not immediately agreeing to her 19-year-old daughter's request for a nose job three years ago.

'I knew she had always wanted one because she has quite a flat nose, but I was worried about spoiling her. You know teens. One day, they are into something and the next, something else,' she says.

But once her daughter hit the age of 21, she gave her consent.

'I saw how my daughter, who'd just started university, has matured and was serious about the surgery,' she adds.

'And now she's always telling me she's eternally grateful for my $5,000 investment.'



Meeting Ben (not his real name) for the first time, you would never imagine that the 22-year-old once hid himself at home because he was ashamed of his appearance. Energetic and outspoken, he has a lanky frame that he keeps in shape by hitting the gym three to four times a week.

And clearly, he doesn't mind being the focus of attention, judging by his multiple ear piercings.

What's more, his angular face and brooding eyes are features bound to turn a few heads at the clubs.

Yet his looks, and corresponding charisma, did not come naturally. In fact, he openly attributes his attractiveness to three sessions of rhinoplasty he had when he was 19 and fresh out of polytechnic.

'As a kid, I was always teased for my huge nose. My friends would call me Chen Long. When I smiled, the width of my nose was as wide as my mouth,' he says.

Chen Long is the Chinese name of action film star Jackie Chan, who is famous for his big, bulbous nose.

Ben began to toy with the idea of reducing the size of his honker when he entered polytechnic in 2002.

'The people around me were more image- conscious. They would put effort into dressing up because we no longer had to wear uniforms,' he says. 'That was when I realised that looks are important in society in Singapore.'

It was also a time when the teasing started to take a toll on his morale. 'I'd walk with my face slightly tilted down and avoid going out. I also hated being photographed,' he says.

Initially he was 'embarrased' to ask his parents about getting his nose surgically downsized, but his depression and desire got the better of him by 2004. Following the advice of his best friend, he summoned the courage to speak to his mother.

But he had little to fear. His 52-year-old mother says she had always known a day would come when her son would express interest in plastic surgery.

'My son had been a subject of mockery for quite some time by then,' she says. 'I guess the easiest way to solve the problem was corrective surgery.'

His Mum was so supportive that she funded all three of his procedures, which cost about $4,500 in total.

'I never thought my son was ugly, but I knew he had self-confidence issues because of his looks,' she says. 'I wouldn't say that the surgery was necessary, but as long as he's happy, I'm happy.'

Within six months of the first operation, which involved using a laser to shave off excess flesh, he returned twice to the surgeon, thinking that his nose was still too burly.

'Had the doctor not advised me to stop, I would probably have gone back a fourth time,' he says. 'It is addictive. When you look slightly better, you want to look much better. When you are much better, you want to look perfect.'

Three years on, both mother and son agree that his life has moved one step closer to being perfect following his rhinoplasty.

'The most important thing is that he has regained the self-confidence that he lost over the years of mockery,' she says. 'He walks with his head held high again.'

Meanwhile, he admits that he now gets more attention from girls when he is out. He also has the guts to approach people, where once he would not have.

While he keeps his enhanced nose a secret from strangers, he says he will admit to it when asked.

'I am not ashamed of having gone for plastic surgery,' he says. 'Without it, I wouldn't have so much confidence today.'

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