16 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Plastic Surgeons
Our culture is pretty obsessed with what it sees in the mirror: Cosmetic procedures have risen an astounding 115 percent since 2000, with nearly 16 million procedures performed in 2015 alone. Breast augmentation, buttocks lifts, and minimally-invasive “injectables” have all conspired to literally change the shape of the male and female form.
For insight into the highly skilled hands that make these transformations possible, mental_floss spoke with several accomplished plastic surgeons about the living sculptures they create.
1. THEY SEE BEAUTY AS A MATHEMATICAL EQUATION.
Early in his career, Donald Kress, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Baltimore, Maryland, would find himself puzzled when encountering facial features he found unappealing. “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he says, “until I’d match the face with the Golden Ratio.” The Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean, is a formula first articulated by Greek mathematician Euclid and later used to theorize that the most pleasing appearances in art and nature are created at a ratio of 1.618:1. In the 1970s, surgeon Stephen Marquardt, M.D., began to study commonly appreciated beauties like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren and found the ratio applied to many seemingly universal standards of attractiveness.
Visualizing the formula using a “mask” designed by Marquardt in 1992 (above, middle) can reveal where a face is asymmetrical, though experienced surgeons can make a similar evaluation intuitively. “It comes up when you’re younger and don’t have a good eye for things,” Kress says. “After a few thousand patients, you can see it in your head.”
2. THEY HOST “BROTOX” PARTIES.
OnabotulinumtoxinA—commonly referred to by the brand name Botox—has been used for decades to paralyze muscles at a local injection site, which can prevent the contractions that cause wrinkles and frown lines. Some practices have taken to hosting the increasing number of male patients coming in by offering “Brotox parties,” where a number of friends will schedule at once to make the treatment a social event.
Z. Paul Lorenc, M.D., F.A.C.S., a plastic surgeon in New York City, says that “Brotox” is a result of men who have had a good experience recruiting their friends. “It’s kind of a support group,” he says. “They can interact in the waiting room. Men used to do this at parties, but that’s become passé. It was always a bad idea. You should never have alcohol involved.”
3. THEY’RE DRAWING LANDMARKS ON YOU.
Watch enough reality television and you’ll eventually spot a plastic surgeon taking a black marker to the bare torso of a patient. Matthew Schulman, M.D., a plastic surgeon based in Manhattan, says that surgeons are basically acting as topographers, marking areas of the body that may change shape or become less visible when a patient is lying down. “We’re drawing landmarks for ourselves because a person looks different when on the table,” he says. “I might circle where the fat is thickest, or where the nipple is while standing.” No special medical ink is used: It’s just a Sharpie.
4. BREAST IMPLANTS CAN CREATE “MOTION ARTIFACTS.”
There are several ways to insert breast implants, but Kress says that one in particular can create problems for patients who do a lot of jumping up and down. When an implant is inserted in a subpectoral incision under muscle tissue, it can give off the appearance of remaining stationary while the rest of the breast moves during physical activity, creating a visual ripple effect. “If there are big arm movements, or if they’re in front of people teaching or on television, I advise them of the potential consequences,” Kress says.
5. THEY CAN’T MAKE YOU LOOK PHOTOSHOPPED.
Schulman says that social media—especially the popularity of impeccably-proportioned Instagram models—has created a few headaches for his practice. “The problem with pictures is that they’re just a guide, but it’s not like picking a body off the shelf,” he says. “Half of the Instagram models are Photoshopped, so when you say you want to look like this, I can’t do it. I can’t give you an 18-inch waist.” Though Schulman does like having a visual reference for what patients have in mind, he prefers they understand it's a starting point, not a preview.
6. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO LOOK GOOD ON THE TABLE.
“Everyone,” Schulman says, “looks great lying down.” But trying to achieve aesthetic perfection in the operating room is a recipe for disaster. “One of the first things we learn as plastic surgeons is that just because something looks good on the table doesn’t mean it’ll look good six months later. We want to make the result less than ideal to account for healing.” Breast implants, for example, might be placed higher than desired so they can “settle in.” Making them perfect during surgery means they’re likely to drop too low once the body recovers.
7. IT TAKES EXACTLY 90 DAYS TO GET USED TO A NEW FACE.
According to Kress, there’s a tremendous difference between a facelift and a procedure that radically alters the face. “In a facelift, you’re turning back the clock and people can adjust to it quickly,” he says. “But a new nose, a new chin, taking away a bump, you’re creating a person they’ve never seen before.” In his experience, it takes patients almost 90 days exactly to get used to the image in the mirror. “On day 87, they’ll see someone else’s chin. On day 91, it’s you. It’s freaky how accurate it is.” Kress will normally refuse to remove an implant (chin, cheeks, breasts) prior to the 90 days to account for this phenomenon.
8. MORNINGS ARE BEST FOR DETAIL WORK.
If you’re opting for cosmetic surgery and have a nose job scheduled for late in the day, you may want to reconsider. According to Kress, procedures that require fine motor skills like nose jobs, facelifts, or eyelid surgeries are best performed in the morning, while gross motor work like breast implants and liposuction can come later. “You don’t want to reverse the order because it can take between 45 minutes to an hour for fine-touch motor skills to return. I start with the most delicate surgeries first, have a good lunch, and do bodies later.”
9. THEY CAN MAKE YOU LESS ANGRY-LOOKING.
Not all cosmetic surgery is focused on restoring the appearance of youth: Some people just want to look happier. “Many of my Botox patients coming in say that everyone thinks they’re angry all the time,” Lorenc says. “They want to correct a frown or a heavy brow.” Kress has also seen people ready to go on the job market for the first time in years who want to appear more awake—or sober. “Sometimes eyelids can make you look like you drink, or don’t get enough sleep,” he says.
10. THEY WORK WITH WITNESS PROTECTION.
That gangster-movie cliché of having to modify your face to avoid being spotted after offering damning testimony? It’s true. Kress has operated on several government witnesses, and they can forget about follow-up visits. “I’ve had Federal Marshals come in and tell me, ‘This is the only time you’re going to see this guy, so give him whatever instructions he needs,’” he says. Kress has also worked on covert military operatives who have had their name and image published in media and run the risk of being recognized.
11. THEY HAVE SIGNATURE NOSES. (AND BUTTS.)
Many surgeons get into the cosmetic field because of an artistic impulse: They don’t want to perform cookie-cutter procedures and like to improvise. But a certain segment can also offer procedures with a dependable aesthetic outcome that becomes a kind of signature. “Some doctors are known for noses I can spot across the street,” Schulman says. “I do a lot of butt-lifts and make them look like an upside-down heart. Patients come in because they want that result.”
12. CALF IMPLANTS ARE A THING.
And not just for men, either. Lorenc regularly sees patients of both genders who want to rectify their genetic misfortune and sport shapely, powerful-looking calves. “I’m one of the few surgeons who does them,” he says. “The stereotype is that it’s only bodybuilders, but that’s not true. They make up only a percentage. Some people just can’t develop them in the gym no matter what they do.”
13. BEING A SMOKER IS A REAL NO-NO.
One universal truth of cosmetic surgery: Operating on a smoker is never a good idea. Nicotine constricts small blood vessels, which can delay healing and open up the door for complications. “Every good plastic surgeon will require a patient stop smoking before a procedure,” Schulman says. His patients sign an agreement requiring them to cease any kind of smoking four weeks prior and for eight weeks following an operation. “They agree I can nicotine-test them [via urine] and if they’re positive, the operation is canceled and I keep their money.”
14. THEY’LL WORK ON KIDS FOR ONE REASON.
There are very few cases of surgeons electing to work on anyone under the age of 18 for purely cosmetic purposes, with one key exception: protruding ears. Kress says that ears that stick out too much can become a psychological burden and that there’s a sweet spot to get them pinned back. “Around age 5 or 6, the ear has gotten big enough to work on and see a lot of the underlying structure,” he says, “but it’s also before they get into grade school and the taunting really starts.”
15. THEY THINK TRANSPLANTS ARE THE FUTURE.
While fat transplantation is an increasingly popular and effective alternative to artificial fillers—adipose tissue can be harvested from unwanted areas and injected into the butt or face—Schulman sees the future of plastic surgery being far more radical, and less focused on aesthetics. “I think in the next ten years, we’re no longer going to be doing reconstructive work for trauma,” he says. “If you need breast tissue after a cancer operation, it will be from a donor. Things like face transplants and hand transplants are being led by plastic surgeons, by microsurgeons. I see full limb transplants. The possibilities are endless.”
16. THEY’RE NOT REALLY STRESSED.
Lorenc finds it amusing when friends or acquaintances remark that being a surgeon must be one of the most stressful jobs you can have. “When I step into the operating room, it’s like nirvana,” he says. Barring the rare complication, no one is in critical condition, bleeding to death, or under any extreme duress. Surgeons tend to work at their own pace, sometimes with a soundtrack. “I listen to Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes reggae.”
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise credited.