Professor aims to give cosmetic surgery a new complexion

GLENDA COOPER

In a world which has created a "new cosmetic underclass", plastic surgery should have the same moral value as treating heart disease, Britain's first professor of plastic surgery said yesterday.

Presenting the inaugural Medical Journalists' Association/Action Research Lecture, Professor Angus McGrouther said it was time to question labels such as "morally worthy" cosmetic surgery (for burns victims) and "morally unworthy" surgery (seen as pandering to people's vanity).

Two million people in Britain have some form of disfigurement and research suggests that plastic surgery can dramatically improve the quality of their lives.

"I have seen three people in my clinic today who came in with stories of abuse from strangers for no reason other than they have a physical deformity," said Professor McGrouther. "It is a strange idea that we put values on treatment of different things. We see it as a good thing to treat cancer or accidents but we're not quite sure about disfigurement.

"We should be looking at whether we can help people with treatment rather than whether or not it is worthy. Someone with heart disease could have been a heavy smoker, but someone with a disfigurement has no control over that. We have got curious values. It's too simplistic to classify it as life-threatening or not." He said that he deplored the "supermodel culture of the 1990s" which was obsessed with idealised body images, causing those who could not measure up to lock themselves away. There was nothing new about the power of body image, he added - after all, Helen of Troy had launched a thousand ships with her face - but that film, TV and advertising industries had given it a sharp new definition.

"It is society at large which needs treatment. We need to adjust our views about body image. Disfigurement is the last bastion of discrimination.

"We always used to have beautiful icons to look at but now there is encouragement to imitate those icons." he said.

"We're much less tolerant about the way people look. This is true of all walks of life. It's questionable as to whether Winston Churchill, or even Harold Wilson, who was also on the rotund side, would have been electable today."

It was no surprise that the Princess of Wales had been treated more sympathetically than the buxom Duchess of York.

"Until her recent appearance on Panorama on BBC1, most of the public had little idea about the way Diana spoke or about her intellect. Until then we had only heard a few soundbites. We'd only had one criterion by which we could judge her directly: her body image."

Research in Oxford had shown that breast reduction surgery could have a dramatic effect on the quality of life. Removing a tattoo from a young man's face could help him get a job and support his wife and family.

The professor went on to warn about the limits of surgery.

Reports about Michael Jackson had created a misleading impression. Cosmetic surgery had helped to build up a half-white, half-black, half- child, half-adult, half-male, half-female image. "Most of the procedures he appears to have had have a limited lifespan. For example, the nasal reconstruction he's had is notorious for requiring additional multiple grafts over the years - a kind of chronic maintenance policy."

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