For a trade fuelled by the public scrutiny of women's bodies, the cosmetic surgery industry hasn't enjoyed recently finding itself the subject of the media gaze. It didn't take long for the PIP breast implant scandal to expose as a sham the carefully crafted public image of responsible professionalism the industry fosters. Unencumbered by regulation and accountability, the UK cosmetic surgery industry has ballooned into a £2.3bn business – and a public health scandal. But, unless action is taken to curb the aggressive advertising campaign at the heart of this expansionist project, perhaps the most widespread damage being wreaked by this trade will continue unabated.
Unlike prescription medicines, it is totally legal for commercial clinics to advertise medically unnecessary invasive surgery. And advertise they do. In public spaces, in magazines, on the internet and on TV. "Is cosmetic surgery only for the rich and famous? Not any more, it is a Lifestyle choice!", boasts a Right Choice ad in Cosmopolitan magazine. It's estimated that 10 per cent of surgical turnover is spent on advertising. This is spending with a purpose: it drives demand and helps normalise the idea of cosmetic surgery. So, while those undergoing the 100,000 cosmetic surgical procedures carried out each year are in the minority, half of young women aged 16 to 21 now say they would consider it.
But cosmetic surgery ads are a public health hazard. They frame surgery as quick and easy, trivialising the risks, like blood clots, post-operative infection and, in rare cases, death. In promising "affordable surgery with flexible finance options", a Harley Medical Group ad is typical of clinics' attempts to convince women, through special offers and discounts, that not even money is a barrier. Leading clinicians insist that one of the most important steps to reducing clinical risk is removing the profit motive. Yet that motive is the only reason cosmetic surgery clinics advertise.
The ads also ruthlessly exploit women's body hatred. "I've had my breasts done, but everyone notices my smile", reads a Transform ad campaign. Missing from the small print is that those who've undergone cosmetic surgery are more likely to have low self-esteem than those who haven't, and women who've had breast implants are three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Cosmetic surgery clinics like to say it's all about personal choice, yet we're forced to see their ads. To stop them implanting their toxic ideas, the Government should legislate to outlaw this advertising, as France did in 2005. "Confidence," claims Harley Medical Group, "starts with cosmetic surgery excellence." Wrong. It starts when we consign these pernicious ads to the dustbin of history.
Kat Banyard is author of 'The Equality Illusion' and founder of UK Feminista, whose campaign for a ban on cosmetic surgery ads launches this week.