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Makeover Mania

To what lengths will we go for youth and beauty?


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Not long ago, cosmetic surgery was viewed as a last resort—the only remaining option to fix or fend off the unpleasant, if not unsightly, signs of aging. It was elective, expensive and extreme surgery. If you had it, it was unlikely you talked about it.

Today, the surgery is still elective, still expensive and possibly even more extreme. But if you have it, you are more than likely pleased to talk about it.

The media steadily display the results of cosmetic surgery. Check out, for example, broadcast commentator Greta Van Susteren, the articulate but dowdy legal analyst whose prolific television career began with the O.J. Simpson trial. Two years ago, she was bumped off CNN, only to reappear as a regular on Fox News Channel, age 47, looking a good 10 years younger and delighted to discuss the plastic surgery that made her so.

And of course, there’s Extreme Makeover, a hot property that debuted on ABC-TV late last year and immediately soared to a top-20 spot in ratings, with a viewing audience composed of the coveted under-50 set. Each week it showcases the often-stunning surgical transformation of what is usually an average Everywoman/Man into One Fine-Looking Female/Male.

The change in public opinion regarding plastic surgery is as dramatic as the results it can produce. Today’s youth-obsessed culture not only accepts it but regards it as a proactive step in preventing telltale signs of aging, as well as a fine-tuning measure for a healthy lifestyle.

“The stigmata of plastic surgery have changed,” says Dr. Robert Singer, a La Jolla physician many consider the dean of plastic surgery in San Diego. “It’s become a normal topic of conversation.”

He lists other reasons for the rising popularity of plastic surgery: Advancements have led to more limited, precise procedures that produce better results; a highly competitive job market seems to favor a younger-looking applicant; people simply want to look as good as they feel.

“Most people have reasonable motivations and expectations for plastic surgery,” Singer says. “But there are limits to what you can do. Cosmetic surgery doesn’t correct poor relationships, and it won’t turn a stockroom clerk into a CEO.”

Meryl Des Forges exemplifies what professional plastic surgery organizations say is increasingly becoming a typical patient. Earlier this year, the 40-year-old San Diego resident consulted Dr. Maurice Sherman, a longtime cosmetic surgeon based in Del Mar, about undergoing abdominoplasty, a procedure more commonly known as the tummy tuck. A fit and attractive woman who trained as a classical dancer and runs 3 to 5 miles a day, Des Forges nonetheless showed the signs of three childbirths: sagging skin no amount of exercise would firm up. She wanted to explore options with Sherman on how to physically reflect the robustness and vigor she felt.

“People today are focused on healthy lifestyles—plenty of exercise and proper diet,” Sherman says. “Their mindset is younger, and they want their bodies to reflect that.”

Following evaluations with the surgeon and after viewing a computer image of what additional physical enhancements could produce, Des Forges decided a little may be good, but a lot might be better. After a goals assessment session with Richard Levak, a local psychologist who has helped select candidates for such TV shows as Survivor, Des Forges was ready for the operating room.

The final result: two phases of surgery over three weeks that included the tummy tuck and breast augmentation that took her from an A-cup bra to a C cup, a “mini-facelift,” eyelid surgery, chin augmentation and rhinoplasty to shorten her nose and remove a bump —a package of services that carried a $28,000 price tag. These procedures were followed by sessions with Dr. Russell Okihara, a dentist who reshaped her oversized teeth with crowns and veneers. Des Forges then met with hair, makeup and wardrobe consultants. Her final step was to hire a personal trainer for an intense eight-week strength-building program.

The results of this extreme makeover? To the layman at least, it’s all very natural looking, with no visible signs of the surgeries involved. Facelift scars, for example, are near the rims of Des Forges’ earlobes—not the most viewable area. The breast implants were inserted through her nipples. A large scar from the tummy tuck is situated above the pubic bone, but Des Forges says she can confidently wear a bikini. All told, an attractive woman has been made more attractive.

While she originally sought only a tummy tuck, Des Forges says the idea of a facelift and other elective enhancements began to make sense to her. People often told her not to smile widely in photos because it made her facial lines too prominent. Her mother is badly wrinkled, she says, “and I saw what was coming for me.”

She’s also especially pleased with her increased bustline. “At first I didn’t think I’d like having them [larger breasts], but it’s one of the best things I’ve had done. They feel very natural.

“I have absolutely no regrets about the procedures,” adds Des Forges, a sales representative in the biotech industry. “People tell me I look great, and even one of my new bosses said, ‘You’re 40? You sure don’t look it.’ That was wonderful to hear.”

With today’s refinements in cosmetic surgery, Sherman says, it’s not unrealistic to make a 40-year-old woman appear to be 29. On the other hand, due to such factors as less skin elasticity, a 60-year-old cannot expect to look 40; 55 would be more likely. Results vary, of course, but many procedures will last from six to 10-plus years.

“If you are a twin who has a facelift and your twin doesn’t, you will always look more refreshed and younger than your sister,” says Singer, who adds that most patients having facelift surgery do not have a second one.

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