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SALT LAKE CITY -- Numbers and anecdotal evidence suggest that a high proportion of people, particularly women, in Utah are having cosmetic surgery done. Doctors who perform these surgeries say Utahns are educated and open to surgeries and that women just want to look like “themselves” before they had children; therapists say issues of body image and self-worth are considerations.
But what about the opinions of the women themselves? Here, five women share their experiences and feelings about their bodies and why they chose to have or considered having cosmetic surgery. (Names have been changed because of the sensitive nature of the topic, but identifying information has not been changed. )
“I’m kind of on the petite side, and I had 9- pound babies,” said Abby, 37, a mother of five living in Springville who had a “mommy makeover,” a combination of breast augmentation, tummy tuck and liposuction, in 2009. “By the time I was done having kids, it was just like I felt like I was living in somebody else’s body.”
"I'm kind of on the petite side, and I had 9-pound babies. By the time I was done having kids, it was just like I felt like I was living in somebody else's body." Abby, mother of 5
“I had my daughter at 19 and I had no image issues before then,” said Becky, 31, a mother of two who lives in St. George and had a tummy tuck about 10 years ago. “After I had my daughter, I looked down and the first panic moment was when I was at work. I saw four stretch marks. I had marks ... (that are) keloid, so they had texture. Every time I’d get undressed to take a shower, I didn’t want to look at my body; I didn’t want my husband to look at my body. (Then) my son pushed my muscles apart. The surgeon said he’d never seen a gap as big between the two muscles as in mine.”
“I had been married to a verbally and physically abusive man who had told me I looked like a boy when I was naked. I had given birth to two children, and my breasts had lost some volume from that, but also from weight loss in general due to all the marital stress I was under,” said Claire, now 40, from Salt Lake City. “Upon divorcing him, I elected to get breast augmentation surgery to boost my self-esteem. I never had a problem with body image before that abusive relationship. Before I had kids, I was pretty perfect in my opinion.”
“I had saddlebags: I had to buy pants a size bigger and have my (pants) waists taken in just to fit my thighs. Honestly, it was a huge issue for me; I thought about it every single time I got dressed or went shopping,” said Deborah, 32, who lives in Ogden but is from the East Coast. “(In my home state I would think) I have to dress to hide this, it’s nothing horrible; I can deal with it. Then I moved out here, where there are a lot more young people. I’ve never seen so many people with perfect makeup and hair.”
Four of the five women interviewed referred to a culture of image or perfection in Utah. Becky, who grew up in Hawaii and is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as are all of these women, observed, “Utah has its own culture; everything here is different. There’s Utah hair, the Bumpits (plastic hair inserts). They all wear the same thing, they wear the same jeans, the same clothes. I’m (even) seeing it with my (12-year-old) daughter’s classmates.”
“I’ve been a member of the (LDS) Church my whole life,” Deborah said. “It seems like (in Utah) at church it’s all about appearance; back (East), church was a place to go because you need that peace. Here it’s because it’s a social club, everyone in your neighborhood goes. It was a huge culture shock when I moved here. No one (at home) had Bumpits. We were trying to get our hair to sit down.”
"I often find myself thinking that maybe the reason I have not had the privilege of finding someone to spend my life with is because I am not the ideal look of the "cookie-cutter" type of LDS woman that, in my opinion, most LDS men are looking for." Emily
Emily, who is 25 and lives in Salt Lake City and hasn’t had surgery done but considered it seriously enough that she saved up money for it, said, “I feel a great deal of pressure to look a certain way because I am not married. Both of my older siblings were married at young ages, and I often find myself thinking that maybe the reason I have not had the privilege of finding someone to spend my life with is because I am not the ideal look of the ‘cookie-cutter’ type of LDS woman that, in my opinion, most LDS men are looking for.”
Emily is from Washington state and observed, “Every time I go back to the Northwest, the pressure is gone. I feel that people are looking at me and I get all this attention. (But) when I’m here in Utah, I don’t know ... it’s just there’s all this competition with beautiful people.”
Abby said she’s never lived outside of Utah, but “it does seem like there’s sort of this crazy, underlying drive for perfection, (the feeling that one should) bake bread and sew my children’s clothes and work out every day and look perfect.”
The women observed that there is a stigma about certain kinds of surgeries, while others are either “acceptable” or even “popular” and something women enjoy talking about openly.
Abby said, “I think there’s this stigma — (someone looks good) only because she had surgery, not because she took care of herself. There’s (also) this stigma of being worldly or vain to take that step with your appearance. (But) I have had a few come out of the woodwork (who admitted having surgery). Everyone I’ve talked to has been very happy that they did it.”
“I found out in the surgery culture that having breasts done or nose done is fine, but lipo is like cheating,” Deborah said. “It’s kind of a quiet thing how word gets around. I only told a couple of close friends at work; my husband’s family knows because they live here. I don’t tell people about the lipo, because it’s like, oh, you couldn’t just stop eating.
“The breast jobs, though, everyone’s excited and talking about: ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve had my breasts done.’ I’ve never heard people say, ‘Oh, I’ve had a nose job.’ I’ve heard someone say, ‘My friend had a tummy tuck;’ it’s a quiet, through-the-grapevine, I- know-someone-who’s-had-that-done. Except the breasts; everyone’s proud of those. It’s like somehow that’s OK; anything else is a little vain and selfish.”
Becky said, “Breast augmentation is really big here in southern Utah. For a little while, it seemed like you could just go to Target and grab them (breast augmentations) — they were that popular.”
The men in these women’s lives tended to try to discourage them from going through an invasive procedure but supported them in their decisions. All of the women, except for Claire, whose former husband was abusive, said they considered surgery to make themselves feel better, not to make a mate happy.
“My husband was totally against it,” Abby said. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to die on the table!’ My husband told me if I had to do it, OK, but he didn’t really want me to, but I felt so bad about my body that I did not even want my husband to see me naked.”
“My husband was really supportive,” Deborah said. “He always said, ‘You’re beautiful the way you are.’ He’s the sweetest guy ever. But he said, ‘I won’t get in your way.’ ”
At the same time, she still hasn’t shared news of her surgery with her family back East. “I know what my mom would say, and I don’t want to hear it. My mom will notice when she (does) see me.”
The women who had surgery all were very happy with their results and had no regrets. Deborah said, “Part of me is disappointed with myself because I had this work done, but I know I’m so happy now that I’ve had it done. I love it.”
"The surgery made me feel like me again. No amount of counseling was going to help me because no amount was going to make me see myself any differently than just a skinny girl with a big belly." Deborah
“I would definitely do it again, hands down, no doubt,” Becky said. “I know how sad I was before, how it affected my relationship with my husband and my children. I wouldn’t go in the water in Hawaii with my kids even though I was in a one-piece. The surgery made me feel like me again. No amount of counseling was going to help me because no amount was going to make me see myself any differently than just a skinny girl with a big belly. It was too ingrained, too deep. For me, I knew who I was before, I was just trying to get back to the me before, not be a different me.”
For Claire, the surgery was part of moving past a bad relationship. She met her current partner a month after her surgery in 1997. “I think the surgery did add to my happiness,” she said. “Being in an abusive relationship was horrible, so obviously I was very low at that point, and after I got out on my own and started the road back, when I did have the surgery not very long after that, it was a huge confidence boost.”
There were a few costs, in terms of money and some drawbacks. Claire, for instance, had one of her implants deflate and had to decide whether to have another surgery to remove them entirely or put in new implants. Since no one at her workplace knew she had implants, in the week between the deflation and her new surgery, she had to stuff a sock in her bra.
At that time, in 2007, Claire did decide to have new implants inserted. But “if they need to be replaced every 10 years, I think in five years, I’d consider getting them taken out just so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting them done again. I don’t have the body complex anymore that I used to.”
Recovery also can be a challenge. “I tell you one thing I was not prepared for is the skin is now numb; right where the surgeon cut, about a few inches above and below the belly button, I can’t feel anything on the surface of my stomach,” Becky said. “That’s one of the side effects I didn’t count on.”
Deborah said, “The one thing no one told me, which I found it online, is that you’ll never gain weight in that same area again. Your body still wants to gain weight somewhere, so it’ll go somewhere else. Now I’m starting to gain a little bit of fat on my stomach for the first time ever. I didn’t know that your body would do that, but I’d still do (the procedure) again.”
Prices for the procedures vary, and none of the surgeries was covered by insurance. Abby’s mommy makeover cost $13,500. For her family, the cost wasn’t an issue because their income is high.
Becky’s tummy tuck cost $6,000, which she paid for on a credit card. The liposuction on Deborah’s outer thighs cost her $2,500. Claire paid about $3,500 for her first breast augmentation in 1997, for which she used a credit card, and about $3,200 the second time, for which she used funds from a second mortgage.
Overall, these women were pleased with their results, despite any costs or stigmas; those who had surgery after pregnancies feel better being “restored” to pre-baby bodies.
Contribute to the discussion
This article is part of a continuing examination of the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in Utah. The author is still seeking input from more people who have personal experiences with surgery, either those who have elected to have cosmetic surgery, those who have considered it, those who have opted not to have aesthetic surgery and/or those who know someone who has had surgery.
Interviews will be arranged at your convenience, and published quotes will not feature full names. The author would like to provide an in-depth look at this issue from varying points of view and allow an open and thoughtful dialogue. If you have interest in contacting the author to contribute, please email her at utcosmeticsurger firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cathy Carmode Lim is the founder of RatedReads.com, a website that reviews books and gives them ratings according to content. She also blogs about beauty and self image, books and other topics at LifeandLims.com.