A few weeks ago, I read Beauty Junkies, the book about cosmetic surgery by New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski. It's a fascinating read, and one of the most surprising things I learned was that the majority of people who undertake cosmetic procedures have moderate incomes. Then, today's Times reports about a third of people considering plastic surgery reported household incomes of below $30,000; only 13 percent made more than $90,000.
How are people affording pricey procedures that can cost up to a third of their incomes? Loans, of course—some of which boast interest rates of 25%, plus loan-processing fees of around $600. Dr. Robert Kotler, a surgeon in Beverly Hills, puts it this way:
“What does it cost to amortize a nose over the useful life of it?” Dr. Kotler said. “It costs 30 cents a day, cheaper than a can of soda, and unlike a car, you get the benefit of a nose for the rest of your life.”
To find out why people are literally buying into his theory, read more
Whether it's because of advertising, makeover television shows or insouciant celebrities with nose jobs, many middle-class Americans are buying into the belief that a better life is just a nip, tuck, slice or injection away. “In a bosom-obsessed society where you think you can earn $20,000 more with bigger breasts, is it insane to consider taking out a loan to have surgery?” sociology professor Dr. Laurie L. Essig told the Times. “The demographic is teachers, law enforcement officers and stay-at-home moms.”
A few things about this story make me uneasy. I think it's one thing to decide to have surgery, but it's another thing to do it if you have to take out high-interest loans to afford the procedures. While people might be happy with their new noses and breasts, paying off loans with 25% interest rates (by the way, 25% is above the usury limit in some states) is bound to cause significant stress. And what's really bizarre to me is this: If middle-income people are going into debt to afford surgery so that they can have better (and wealthier) lives, isn't there a weird irony in the relatively small percentage of high-income people considering surgery?