When plastic surgery goes wrong
On March 26, Shiryl Saturnino, 29, described as a “businesswoman engaged in the selling of beauty products,” died after undergoing three surgical procedures: breast augmentation, liposuction, and buttocks enhancement. The Metro Manila clinic where the operation was done has since been ordered shut, and the case is now under investigation.
Previous “cosmetic procedures gone wrong” have gripped the public in the past. In 2008, Mary Jane Arciaga-Pereira, 29, a vacationing overseas Filipino worker, died while undergoing liposuction in Quezon City; in that same year, Louem Martinez, 34, filed a P26-million suit against the Makati clinic where he had a “penis enlargement operation,” claiming that his organ had been deformed by the procedure.
More recently, the face of Ellowe Alviso, 24, was reported to have been disfigured as a result of a solution injected into his nose and chin, which turned out to be “wax, petroleum jelly and sealant.” From a local model with big dreams, Alviso had turned into a balut vendor by the time the TV crews got to him.
These cases have particular valence in a country where many are obsessed with not just beauty pageants but also the pageantry of everyday life. And the people’s reactions to them say a lot about our shared values, expectations, and ideals of health and beauty.
In Shiryl’s case, many described her as a beautiful woman who “should have been contented with what God gave her.” As for Ellowe, many lamented his naivete, wondering why he believed that a P500-procedure could be real, safe and effective.
But some have also pushed back against this “victim blaming,” calling for sympathy for people who have suffered the consequences of their actions, and whose beauty aspirations are actually shared by many. As one netizen remarked: “Aren’t we all trying to make ourselves more attractive? Ironic how those people who are bashing her as ‘discontented’ are wearing makeup in their profile pictures.”
Shiryl’s case, just as the ones that came before her, should not end as a blame game; neither she nor the health professionals should be prejudged. As Dr. Jose Joven Cruz, a longtime plastic surgeon in the Philippine General Hospital, reminded me, there are four factors that could have gone wrong: the patient, the healthcare providers, the facilities, and the procedure itself. Was the performance of three procedures warranted? A thorough investigation should consider all these before we jump to conclusions.
But beyond the case, it should lead to a broader look at how various aesthetic procedures and products go unregulated—from glutathione injections to nose jobs—and how many unlicensed individuals and clinics are able to engage in this lucrative industry. Alas, as Dr. Cruz says, we don’t even have data about how many cosmetic procedures go wrong precisely because of this lack of regulation.
Moreover, it should also lead to a consideration of why people undergo plastic surgery in the first place; we cannot dismiss it as mere vanity. The fact that Shiryl sold beauty products—and that Ellowe aspired to be a model—meant that for these individuals, a more attractive appearance can lead to economic advancement. In our service economy where “pleasing personality” is a euphemism for attractiveness, beauty can indeed be “body capital” that leads to various opportunities.
Then there’s the psychological dimension: mental health issues that surround the decision to pursue plastic surgery, and on the other hand, a seemingly legitimate pursuit of self-esteem and confidence. Or even just “normality,” as a patient once told me: “I don’t want to look beautiful. I just want to look normal.”
Finally, lest we forget, our preference for foreign—mostly Western—beauty standards deserves further unpacking.
These contexts, however, should not detract from the responsibility on the part of the providers of beauty products and services in managing clients’ expectations, informing them of all possible risks, and upholding the highest standards of safety. Regardless of their reasons, everyone deserves a chance to wake up from plastic surgery and be able to look at themselves in a mirror.
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