Plastic surgery as an economic indicator

Since the America Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) released their 2011 plastic surgery statistics, I’ve seen a lot of talk online about how, “despite the economy,” plastic surgery numbers are rebounding from the lows they hit in 2007 and 2008. People say this as if plastic surgery is—against all odds—somehow rising above the general trends and setting unprecedented records.

I can see why it’s tempting to frame it that way—while the economic climate has certainly improved in the past few years, I think we can all agree that we haven’t quite gotten back to where we were before everything bottomed out. That version of the story doesn’t quite convey the big picture, however; in fact, when you break down the numbers, it becomes clear that they are not climbing again in spite of the economy, but rather as a result of it.

In order to understand all this, it’s important to look back farther, past the beginning of the recession, to the year when plastic surgery’s popularity was truly peaking: 2005. Nearly 11.5 million cosmetic procedures were performed that year, 2.1 million of which were cosmetic surgeries, and expensive, invasive surgeries like nose jobs and facelifts topped the list of preferred procedures.

Last year, meanwhile, according to the ASPS, 13.8 million cosmetic procedures were performed. On the surface, that number is staggering, and it surpasses 2005’s 11.5 million by a long shot. Digging a little deeper, though, we see that only 1.58 million of those procedures were actual cosmetic surgeries, which represents a significant decrease from 2005’s 2.1 million.

So what does this all mean? Basically, this: There are many, many kinds of cosmetic procedures. Many of them are not surgical, and some are far less expensive than others. As finances have become tight, most patients have fallen into step with the times—not by abandoning cosmetic procedures altogether, but by opting to substitute cheaper, noninvasive procedures like Botox for more expensive procedures like facelifts.

When it comes to plastic surgery trends mimicking economic trends, 2008 is a great case in point: that year, the number of cosmetic procedures increased 3 percent from 2007, yet overall spending on said procedures dropped 9 percent. Essentially, in keeping with the precarious position the economy was in at the time, cosmetic surgery patients found ways to stick to their thin budgets and still get work done.

The truth, then, is not that plastic surgery has escaped the burden of the sagging economy, but that—like other industries—it has found ways to compensate for it. In offering a diverse enough array of prices and procedures that patients have been able to work around their financial limitations, plastic surgeons have managed to stay afloat these past few years; and through the details in its yearly reports, the ASPS has demonstrated that plastic surgery is a pretty accurate barometer for the health of the economy.

As the 2011 numbers indicate, we’re still not quite back to where we were in 2005. Things are getting better all the time, though—and that’s good news not just for plastic surgeons, but for all of us.

Donald Brown is a plastic surgeon.

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