A delicate question: What to tell the kids

Sharing news about plastic surgery can be tricky

December 13, 2007|By Monica Corcoran | Monica Corcoran,Los Angeles Times

When Kanye West's mother, Donda, died unexpectedly of complications after cosmetic surgery last month, the media homed in on the troubling history of her doctor and the risks associated with the procedure. The hip-hop star has yet to speak out on his mother's death, and there are many unknowns. But one question that might never be answered is this: How did Kanye West feel when his mother decided to undergo a tummy tuck and breast reduction at age 58?

Or did she even tell him beforehand?

Maybe not. With nearly 11 million cosmetic surgery procedures performed last year, it's more likely than ever that someone in your family has had work done. It might be as subtle as the spot removal of a stepmom's undereye baggage. Or perhaps a parent's sudden and suspicious jaunt to Tuscany without packing more than pajamas.

With all the emotional issues - including a betrayal of genes and a resistance to aging - that a nip or tuck can stir up, it's no wonder that cosmetic surgery causes frown lines in a family. So much so that some parents are now keeping mum about their procedures.

"A lot of patients don't even tell their adult kids about it because they're worried that their children will think it's vanity," says plastic surgeon Dr. Babak Azizzadeh of Beverly Hills, Calif.

The issue calls into question the most basic values that parents teach their children - that superficiality only reigns on the schoolyard, and what's on the inside is what matters most.

"My mom was a huge feminist who didn't even want me to work at Elle magazine," says Clio Manuelian, a fashion publicist who lives in Los Angeles. "Then she got a face-lift, which was very perplexing."

Clio Manuelian's mother, Taffy Manuelian, a psychotherapist and stand-up comedian who lives in Manhattan, felt sheepish enough about the procedure to play down its significance.

"I taught Clio not to make evaluations based on appearance," she says wistfully. "What can I say? I felt like a hypocrite."

Taffy Manuelian didn't consult her New York doctor on how to allay her daughter's anxiety. Nor did Clio Manuelian get prepped on what to expect after the operation. But these days, how to discuss cosmetic surgery with kids - from the inherent risks to the often gruesome recovery - is becoming a hot issue.

And it's only going to become more heated, as more baby boomers play Ponce de Leon. According to a 2007 study by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 20 percent of Americans 65 or older said that they would consider cosmetic surgery. Many of their peers already have taken the plunge: 22,718, or 16.4 percent, of all 2006 face-lifts were performed on that age group. The next youngest age group - 51 to 64 - accounted for 61.5 percent of all face-lifts.

For patients with younger children, it's the kids who are at risk, at least temporarily. "It's traumatic for young kids and may be better to say, `Mommy's going on vacation,'" Azizzadeh says. "Parents should be sure that their kids can handle it before they tell them."

A little white lie or a convenient avoidance of the issue?

Dr. Stanley Frileck, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, vehemently advises against duplicity.

"The biggest mistake you can make is to try and fool a child," he says. "Sit your 7-year-old down and tell him that you're having an operation and that you're going to be swollen afterward and will need some help."

Fibbing about having a procedure doesn't send the best message either, says David Sarwer, associate professor of psychology at the Center for Human Appearance at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's important to be honest about your health," he says. "What if your daughter found a lump on her breast and didn't tell you about it?"

Teenagers bring a whole new wrinkle of complexity to the issue. Tracie Souve, a nurse in Azizzadeh's office, promised her three kids before she had four procedures that she wouldn't look different.

"I had told them that it was important to accept who you are and how you look, of course. But I also told them my looks had started to interfere with my acceptance of myself."

The second part of that message suddenly rang loud and clear for Souve's daughter, Jennifer Jimenez, then 20, who didn't like her own nose.

"I saw how perfectly my mom's nose fit her face and started staring at my own nose in pictures," she says. She lobbied for rhinoplasty and had the surgery months later. "I don't think I would have asked if she hadn't done it."

That same philosophy didn't work for Clio Manuelian when she told her mom that she was contemplating a nose job a few years ago. "I was appalled," Taffy Manuelian recalls, with a husky laugh.

Clio Manuelian ultimately decided against rhinoplasty.

Monica Corcoran writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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