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Photography by Colin Lenton
After a decade of marriage, I assumed that having a man who isn’t my husband stare at my boobs would be more titillating.
But this situation is all business — just one of many consultations the plastic surgeon has booked this week in his Washington Square office. In my mind, there was going to be some touching. I thought maybe the doctor would push them back up to where they used to be — could be again! — while I small-clapped in delight. I knew he wouldn’t circle fat spots with a black Sharpie — that was way too Hollywood — but I thought there would at least be some kind of computer model, like on HGTV, where an animation pops up to show you how an ugly-ass den is going to be transformed into the great room of everyone’s dreams. I was hoping to have something tangible that I could get excited about. A takeaway of sorts, so I could go back and show my husband and say, Look! Look at all that I could be! And so I could start a tankini bonfire and get some triangle tops Amazon Prime-ed over.
There is none of that.
It isn’t all clinical, however. The doctor’s waiting room feels more like a penthouse condo than an office in a medical tower, with a front-desk staffer who looks like a hotel concierge, moody lighting coming from wall sconces, and oil paintings in gilded frames. I’m only reminded I’m in a doctor’s office when I see a man being wheeled through the hallway on a gurney. When the nurse finally calls my name, I follow her like she’s some spirit guide who is going to lead me over a magical threshold into a life that’s way more glamorous than the one I actually have.
Not surprisingly, inside the exam room, the nurse is a bit more Philly — kind, loud and full of sweeties. She has me stand against the wall, untie my pink patient gown, and roll down the top of my dress. Then she begins snapping photos with a digital camera: Turn left, turn right, back to center. That’s it, sweetie! The doctor looks at those images before he enters the room to look at me in person. He asks a few questions, then gives his official suggestion: If I’m not looking to go up a cup size, a breast lift is all I need. Plus a mini tummy tuck — after two kids, mini is an ego boost, I’ll admit — and some liposuction on my waist, since he’s going to be in there already. It’s only a few hundred dollars more, I later learn.
In all fairness, the appointment is quick because the conversation is focused from the start. On the admissions form, next to “reason for visit,” I simply wrote: “Mommy Makeover.”
In the past five or six years, the term has entered the mainstream — a catchall phrase for when women group a bunch of plastic-surgery procedures together in one operation addressing the parts of the body most affected by childbirth. There are a few different variations, but we’re pretty much talking about tummy tucks, liposuction, and some sort of breast augmentation. The term has no medical significance, but it’s pure marketing genius, and doctors use it freely.
How many mommy makeovers are being done these days? It’s tough to say, but there’s no question that plastic surgery is increasingly popular — at least among people willing to spend their money on plastic surgery. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, tummy tucks are up by 430 percent in the past 20 years, while breast lifts increased eight percent from 2015 to 2016 alone. Labiaplasty, which is in essence a face-lift for your lady bits, is really having a moment: There was a 23 percent increase in the procedure between 2015 and 2016.
After the doctor leaves, I realize I’m asking myself the types of existential questions that have somehow, embarrassingly, only just hit me. I wonder how a body that two years ago was celebrated for doing something quite miraculous — growing a baby — is now not good enough. So not good enough, in fact, that I’m considering having serious surgery to erase all evidence of said miracle. It suddenly seems ludicrous: I was lucky enough to have children in an era when “normalize breastfeeding” is a movement and #mombodlove is a hashtag. See, we mothers are having a moment. Just look at Beyoncé. With the Botticelli setting and Birth of Venus poses, her pregnancy photos showed the world just how divine being a soon-to-be is. So why, after all of that, am I looking for my 25-year-old body back? Why am I willing to do anything to remove all signs that this whole pregnancy-and-labor thing ever happened?
After a quick discussion with the doctor about recovery, I’m shown to a checkout room for a sit-down with a practiced scheduler. She keys in the doctor’s suggestions and produces a quote in minutes, just like a contractor telling me how much a bathroom renovation is going to set me back. The tab, including anesthesia and the hospital fees, comes in at $16,740. Yes, this is a big number, especially because none of the work is medically necessary. But I’m also a bit shocked. It’s about $10,000 less than I had thought — roughly the equivalent of one year of day care for my 20-month-old. A stretch, sure, but with some savings, not totally out of reach. She points out the $500 cancellation fee and opens the scheduling book. It’s easier to set up this surgery than it is to buy a new car. The doctor has availability three Tuesdays from now. And I finally have my souvenirs: a bill and an appointment card.•
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when supermodels really became a thing. White and thin — be it Kate Moss or Christy Turlington or, hell, even Kelly Taylor — was the ideal version of beauty. This type of woman showed up in catalogs, magazines and music videos. When I look back, it feels like a century ago. Now, apples, pears and bananas are all celebrated body types. Women on our screens come in an array of skin colors and eye shapes. Real women serve as models for Athleta, which, please note, is a mainstream brand that sells clothes for athletes, not skinny jeans. Serena Williams graced the August cover of Vanity Fair, naked and pregnant. But it was her biceps that caught my attention. The image might be evocative of Demi Moore’s iconic cover, but Serena couldn’t be more different. She is modern beauty.
In many ways, social media has democratized what we consider beautiful. Everyday people can directly reach millions. Imagery no longer lies in the hands of a select few magazine editors and casting agents. What’s more: Social media comes with an “unfollow” button. We have the power to see what we want to see and filter out what we don’t. Take, for example, the digital fitness world. There are, quite literally, thousands of fitness personalities one can follow on Instagram. Think the Austrian one is too leggy? Yeah, me too. I’ve just found someone else — a runner who has to do morning workouts before her kids wake up. She’s the one for me. We live in a pick-your-own-role-model world.
“There are a lot of options for people to choose from,” says Neill Epperson, a doctor and psychiatry professor at Penn. Her work focuses on, among other things, female behavior. “The person who overall is relatively psychologically happy knows they can choose from the vast options out there to reinforce their feelings.” So you’d think all of this would leave us more empowered and confident than ever, right? Not so fast, Epperson says. This cuts both ways. “I’ve also found that the person who really feels badly about herself winds up choosing places that make her feel even worse.” (Online or in real life, Epperson says, the things one values about oneself so often come down to the company one keeps.)
See, all this enlightenment has a dark side. There are more images inserted into our lives than ever before. Social media has given us unlimited access to celebrities, as well as Insta-famous women — seemingly everyday girls who are hardly average. Most work hard to craft their brands, which includes investing in expensive editing programs and cameras and hiring photographers to follow them around. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurrier than ever.
This latter group has agitated the world of motherhood like nothing before it. When mommy bloggers first became a thing a decade ago, the most popular ones were witty writers with sites like Scary Mommy and Momastery. They were beloved for their senses of humor and honesty. We saw ourselves in these women. But soon, blogs became more photo-driven and began to be outshined by Instagram accounts. Pictures now trump words. Women like Naomi Davis of Love Taza (413,000 Instagram followers) and hometown girl Joy Cho of Oh Joy (380,000 Instagram followers) have made careers out of documenting picture-perfect versions of motherhood. Their children are always smiling and dressed right. The women themselves, the same. Judging by what they show us, doing art projects with their kids and hitting the playground — again — are the highlights of their day.
Months ago, I went on a social media cleanse and unfollowed most of these women. I realized, as Epperson pointed out, that they were making me feel inadequate: My hair was never smooth enough, my kids prefer to stick out their tongues in photos, and I can’t get my older daughter in a dress for any amount of candy. Still, they seem to haunt me. They show up on the “suggested follow” tab; my friends like their posts. It’s hard to resist a quick scroll. They’re Instagram’s version of a car accident.
Our society’s obsession with all things celebrity-mom doesn’t help ease the pressure many of us feel. Do you subscribe to People.com’s “Moms & Babies” newsletter? If not, don’t worry; you can filter images on the website via the “body after baby” tag. There, you’ll see a photo of Beyoncé in a tight miniskirt, out for the first time after having her twins. The headline reads, “She Woke Up Like That: Beyoncé Hasn’t Started to Work Out Since Delivering Twins Last Month, Source Says.”
Sure, celebrities have done their part to make motherhood a rite that should be respected. They proudly pop out their pregnant bellies. They post photos of themselves breastfeeding. But who looks like they do when breastfeeding? Theirs: a quiet, beautiful moment with the perfect topknot on a fluffy white duvet cover. Mine: screaming (the baby), crying (me) and, no joke, sometimes blood.
It’s no wonder, then, that some mothers will do pretty much anything to feel better about themselves these days.•
Naturally, it was the photos that ultimately made Spencer Jackson (some names in this story have been changed) decide to have the surgery. The Ambler resident had spent hours at the gym and hundreds of dollars on belly-targeting workout systems; she’d even pull on a Victorian-era binding contraption that clipped to her bra in order to smooth out her stomach. After she had her two kids, no matter what she did, her ab muscles would not knit back together. She has a small frame, which made her unrelenting pooch even more noticeable. She dreaded summer because she had to trade her roomy shirts for thinner tees. When friends extended invitations to the Shore, her first reaction was tears. She became unable to enjoy life with her family. Which is why, in 2015, she began to look into options that would produce real results. A friend told her about Dr. David Bottger.
If you’re a plastic surgeon today and don’t have a “Mommy Makeover” link on your website, you’re essentially invisible to your largest potential client base. Bottger, based in Newtown Square, is winning the SEO game. He also has a comprehensive before-and-after gallery on his site, and a five-star rating on Realself.com, the Yelp of plastic surgeons. There, patients call him “a true artist” and “everything and more.” He performed 84 mommy makeovers in 2016, which is a few more than he did the year before, and is on track to do even more in 2017. That’s fast approaching two a week.
Photography by Colin Lenton
I’m sitting in his office, which, except for a few photos of his smiling wife and daughters and the requisite nude oils on the wall, is rather devoid of personality, though he’s a very personable guy. I’m told it’s part of his appeal — he’s real, a good listener, sympathetic. Across the hall is his photo room. There’s a black curtain backdrop, a tripod and a giant flash. It’s like a photo booth you’d step into at a wedding, minus the props. This is where he takes the before-and-after photos that are on his website.
Like Spencer, I can’t stop looking at them. The photos are transfixing, showing women of all different skin colors and body sizes. My eyes jump back and forth, comparing the pre- and post-surgery shots as if they’re those find-the-difference puzzles I do with my daughter. In the afters, everyone looks amazing. The women stand with their shoulders back, proud of their new tuned-up bodies. Some now wear tans and sexy underwear.
The before pictures vary greatly. In some, it’s obvious how the surgeries will improve the subjects’ lives: Their breasts are outsized for their frames, or are two completely different sizes, or hang low and flat like putty, molding around a stomach bulge. “The financial barrier is real,” says Bottger. “Many people that get the surgery are not wealthy people.” But when a solution like this could have such a major impact on their quality of life, they’ll find the money, he adds.
Others, well, their before photos look pretty damn good. So I say to my screen: You are crazy! You looked great! Dr. Bottger has had to say the same thing. “I think I’ve used exactly that line, but not in a demeaning way,” he says. “If I think people look good and that doing something has more risk than making them significantly better, I won’t do it. You definitely have to be a little bit of a therapist in this business.”
The other thing I keep going back to are the captions on these photos. Thirty-four. Thirty-two. Twenty-nine. Some of these women are so young. Plastic surgery is no longer a tool reserved for the aging.
Spencer was 29 when she had her mommy makeover. A low point came at the gym. She was doing cardio on a machine when a woman next to her asked when she was due. “I just didn’t feel like getting into it, so I said I was four months pregnant,” she says. The woman on the other side overheard this and chimed in. “Now I have to keep on going with this lie or I look like a sociopath. She asked me to have coffee!” Spencer didn’t know anyone who’d had plastic surgery and had never before considered it for herself, but after that, she booked a mommy makeover. “The tummy tuck was necessary,” she says. “But the boobs — that is just fun. That was straight vanity.”•
I’m out to dinner in a Rittenhouse restaurant with a few friends over the summer. Amanda, who has three kids, casually drops a bomb that brings the table chatter to a halt: Did she really just say she was considering going for a fourth? She’s rattling off her rationale, which includes that she loves being pregnant. Now this, I truly do not understand. I love my kids. I’m in awe of how my body did all this crazy biological stuff to grow another human, and how I had all the supplies on my person to nourish those babies. I’m aware that many women aren’t able to do that; I’ve seen friends struggle with it. I’m not unappreciative. But man, did I dislike being pregnant. Every millimeter of my body felt different, and rarely in a good way. The first baby was at least exciting. For the second one, I felt like an elephant, both in size and in that elephants carry their offspring for two years.
I press Amanda on why she loves being pregnant. “I’ve never liked my body,” she explains. “But when I’m pregnant, my body is revered. I am glorified. All of this,” she says, bringing her arms up and down along her contour, “has a purpose.” And after the baby comes out? Well, she always went back to hating her body, only now there were even more things to hate.
“Women, we are so many different things today,” says Spencer. “We go out with friends and take our kids to the park and have our own careers. Why should we limit ourselves to being frumpy?”
These two contrary things — mother-as-goddess and goddess-not-good-enough — co-exist in women’s heads. It’s no wonder, then, that we want to win both games. And it’s why, of the many women I spoke to for this story, all said that if cost weren’t an issue, and if they were guaranteed nothing would go wrong during the surgery, they would do it. Even my most self-confident friend, the beauty who doesn’t wear makeup and was the only one to flat-out say she doesn’t feel good about the mommy-makeover concept in general, acknowledged its appeal: “Well, if someone was like, ‘It would be so easy and no recovery time,’ I would maybe have a boob lift. I don’t ever see it actually happening, but maybe.”
Part of what’s changed here is the fact that we so easily talk about all of this now. These days, for many women, no topic is off the table. We have Botox parties. We share the names of our waxers and estheticians more freely than we do our babysitters. The endless marketing of “wellness” and “self-care” is really just womanspeak for trying to look better than you did yesterday.
When I was 18, I got a nose job. I wanted one, but I was horribly embarrassed by it. I didn’t tell some of my best friends. We went on vacation afterward so I could recover out of sight, the way a pregnant teen would get sent to her “aunt’s house” for the summer. I still recall the relief I felt when a boy I liked brought me a teddy bear with a Band-aid on its nose and told me I looked great. Back then, it just wasn’t something we talked about.
Today, doing extreme, invasive things to our bodies for the sake of removing any signs that we’ve, you know, actually lived a life is something we see everywhere. Kim Kardashian got stretch marks removed from her breasts on TV. Dr. Miami (with a name like that, no bio is necessary) posts live videos on Snapchat of the plastic-surgery procedures he performs. My friends and I text about microblading and Cool-Sculpting as if they’re names of restaurants we want to try.
Linda Morrison from Villanova got a tummy tuck and a breast reduction from David Bottger at age 56, when her kids were just entering their 20s. The results, she says, were life-changing: “I’ll be at a clothing store and I’ll chat with other women. I tell everyone I had it done,” she says. “Most women say, ‘Oh, I had that done, too!’ I was shocked. Now, I tell everyone so they can be as happy as me. I’m like, ‘Don’t struggle! Just get it cut off!’”•
Back at my consultation, the nurse tells me I look great. “You are crazy!” she yells. “The doctor could never say this, but honestly, sweetie, you look great.” My friends tell me I look great. My husband tells me I look great. (My kids? They only ask what snacks I have.) It’s hard to take the compliments, even though I know how I look and feel in a bathing suit isn’t on the spectrum of the Most Important Things in Life. I’m ashamed that I can recognize the superficiality of all of this but can’t control the emotions behind it.
In many ways, I feel more comfortable in my own skin today than I did when I was 15. (I have the journey of motherhood to thank for that, too.) Still, I can’t help but wonder how it would feel to not have to consider my body in the day-to-day. To not have to buy 10 bathing suits and return all but the one I deem not totally awful. I’m not sure which crater of my moon-sized issues this would fill, but I do know it would make me feel better about my looks — and isn’t that my right? Isn’t it the modern woman’s prerogative to do everything in her power to feel the best she can?
Out of all the women I spoke to about plastic surgery, Linda is the only one who had regrets — and they’re not the kind to make me eat that $500 cancellation fee. “I spent my adult life constantly going to the gym, dieting, struggling,” she tells me, and with a sigh. “I wish I had done it earlier. I tell everyone, ‘You should do it in your 40s!’”
Published as “Baby? What Baby?” in the September 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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