A new report says selfies are causing young women to get more plastic surgery. Here’s why it’s wrong.


A woman takes a selfie with friends in Brussels March 8. (REUTERS/Eric Vidal)

The Internet was aflutter all afternoon with the revelation that Colin Powell — four-star general, former Secretary of State — had taken a mirror photo of himself some 60 years ago.

This is well and good, and we applaud Powell on joining the long list of luminaries who have, for whatever reason, chosen to make the news this way. But there’s some way more serious selfie news at hand: Kids are getting Botox. And chemical peels. And nose jobs. Because, apparently — social media.

“Social platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and the iPhone app Selfie.im, which are solely image based, force patients to hold a microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” warned the president of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, a real industry group that put out a real report on how the “selfie trend increases demand for facial plastic surgery.”

Per the report, one in three surveyed AAFPRS surgeons said selfies led their patients to cosmetic procedures. Those procedures included nose jobs (a 10 percent increase), hair transplants (7 percent) and eyelid surgeries (6 percent). The most popular procedures remain non-surgical, though: Botox, hyaluronic acid and peels.

… seriously?

As it turns out, this latest bit of social media alarmism — like many such concerns — is both unscientific and totally overblown. I contacted the AAFPRS for some details on their methodology. The short of it? The survey was conducted by the group’s public relations firm via Survey Monkey, and only 69 surgeons answered the selfie question. In fact, the word “selfie” isn’t even used in the actual survey. The question reads: “Have you seen an increase in requests for plastic surgery stemming from people being more self aware of their looks because of social media? If so, estimate the percentage of requests for each procedure.”

It perhaps goes without saying that fewer than 100 surgeons’ estimates on the relative self-awareness of their patients — and the exact causal effect of that self-awareness — is not exactly reason to sound the alarms. Moreover, the survey never asks about social media use specifically among teenage or 20-something patients, despite implying a link in a later press release.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped this “study” from getting coverage on blogs and local TV stations across the country. (“There’s a boom in younger plastic surgery clients, and it’s probably because they’re taking pictures of themselves,” Jezebel warns.) Perhaps that’s because it fits perfectly — too perfectly! — into a popular cultural narrative: Namely that all the kids take selfies and selfies are bad.

But research has repeatedly demonstrated that the opposite is actually true: As a natural form of self-expression, selfies can actually prove very healthy — even empowering. A survey conducted by the Today Show just last month found that 65 percent of teen girls think selfies boost their confidence.

“(P)eople’s relationship to selfies are as varied as their relationship to putting on clothes to leave the house,” the researcher danah boyd said at the time. “Both clothing and selfies are useful tools for negotiating identity.”

Arguably, plastic surgery makes an excellent tool for shaping identity, too. But that doesn’t mean the two things are in any way related.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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