Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The terrible cost of low self-esteem

Magazines and images in the public space make almost all of us despise our bodies

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This is a horror story, a real one, and it's only just begun. In France, more than 30,000 women have discovered that their breast implants are made of industrial-grade silicone. A French company manufactures these "economy" alternatives to the more expensive inserts. As this paper reported yesterday, this silicone is also used for mattresses. Women, mattresses, what's the difference? And, anyway, you get what you pay for. Business can't be expected to consider ethics when it goes after profits. Or so it believes.

Up to 50,000 British women may have opted for this product, which often ruptures, allegedly triggers chronic illnesses and, it is feared, may have links to cancer. The French government has decided to pay for the removal of these suspect implants, while here regulators dither and politicians ignore the perils.

Their removal will require further surgery and cost money. I feel angry on behalf of all the unfortunate women, particularly those who had the insertions as part of reconstructive surgery after cancer. But there is exasperation, too, that so many choose to have "breast enhancement" for no good reason at all. One plastic surgeon tells me that he will be doing these boob jobs well into April because so many have chosen the op as a Christmas present from their husbands, lovers and even dads.

I understand that women like to look good – I know I do and will do so even when bent over and half-blind. But magazines and images in the public space that push fantasy bodies make almost all of us despise our bodies, and some then turn to the knife. It is a terrible, existential death wish.

That the demand comes as Western women are slowly gaining more power and life chances is baffling and disheartening. We should be more capable of resisting these manufactured temptations. Now, they are being exported successfully to the newly emerging markets, and the goods soon follow. The French company which made the cheap implants sold them around the world to millions of excited women. What happens to these women when things go badly wrong?

I once handled breasts which had been expanded to unnatural size on a tiny woman (this was for journalism, not erotic adventure). Though they looked luscious, they were horrible to touch, hard and slippery like wet footballs. I asked her why, and she simply said: "Everyone has them now. I don't want to be a freak." What a world. Ladies topped up with silicone are normal. Or just very, very gullible? This scandal might wake them up. But it won't. Distended tits are now a cultural imperative. Only a "freak" would say otherwise.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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