The XX Factor

Health Care For All, Except Women With Breast Implants

A breast implant by the now defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese.


The European scandal over faulty breast implants continues. Last month the French government said it would pay for 30,000 women to remove breast implants made by the now defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP). About 40,000 women have the implants in the United Kingdom, and hundreds of thousands across the world (though not in the United States). After an inquiry into the safety of the implants, which were made with a substandard industrial-grade silicone of the sort used in cookware, the British government today came out against mandatory implant removal but said the National Health Service – and, it hopes, private cosmetic surgeries companies – will pay for women who want to remove theirs.

BBC radio recently hosted a discussion over whether this was an appropriate use of the British government’s funds. As with comments I’ve seen on news stories about this scandal, the radio conversation immediately morphed into a character attack on breast implant recipients, with a columnist for the London’s Telegraph blaming the recipients for what happened to them. “These are vanity operations and they knew that they carried a risk,” Cristina Odone said, labeling the implant recipients failed “beauty queens.” In a similar vein, a columnist for the Daily Mail recently commented of the women who got implants: “How they must be kicking themselves for their narcissism, their vain and hollow lust for a bigger bust. How silly they must feel.”

Wow. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that the women who received breast implants could not have known that they were receiving substandard implants which appear to have high rupture rates, which cause inflammation when they rupture, and which may or may not be associated with cancer. They couldn’t have known that because the company, PIP, covered it up. As the Guardian newspaper reported today:

The head of the breast implant company at the centre of an international health scare admitted using cheap silicone gel in his products to cut costs but told police he had “nothing to say” to those affected, according to French reports.

Questioned by fraud squad officers in November, Jean-Claude Mas, 72, founder of Poly Implant Prothèses, admitted using a silicone that was not authorised and said company staff were instructed to hide this from inspectors…

Asked about the women who claimed to have suffered health problems after being fitted with the sub-standard implants he replied: “The victims are only suing to get money … I have nothing to say to them.”

Let’s also for the moment leave aside the fact that some women who received breast implants did so after having mastectomies that left them without any breasts at all. Let’s only consider those women who got breast implants in their quest to be more like “beauty queens.” Why is their health less important, again?

“The NHS treats people for example who play rugby,” Charlotte Vere, the founder of a think tank named Woman On, pointed out on the BBC program. “They chose to treat people who have sexually transmitted diseases. Are we going to make moral judgments?”

Oh yes, we most certainly are. This taps into our disgust for what’s seen as a fundamentally female character flaw. Vanity, thy name is woman. So, the argument goes: vain women deserve everything that happens as result of their vanity, even if the results include consequences that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen. There is no such similar scorn in discussing, say, a hockey enforcer whose brain was turned to poutine because of the violent job he excelled at and chose to pursue. Rather, there is sadness and pity and calls for reform of the sport.

When people participate in seemingly nonsensical behaviors en masse, you can look at them on an individual level and think, as is tempting in this case, What vain fools! Or you can look at the sheer number of individuals committing the same seemingly nonsensical act and consider whether theirs might actually be a rational response to irrational circumstances. What’s the culture telling women that makes plastic surgery seem like a good option, even an only option? Naomi Wolf wrote 20 years ago that women “undergo surgery not as a consequence of selfish vanity, but in reasonable reaction to physical discrimination.”

More than vanity, women are responding to a sense of inadequacy, to a potent mixture of shame and fear about not being the right kind of women. There’s the fear of getting old (which is to say becoming invisible), and the fear of being ugly (same). There’s the fear of being a too-big woman and of being an under-endowed and less-than-whole woman. There’s the way we are told in all sorts of big and small ways that we aren’t just people with bodies, that our bodies are us. There’s the fear of the clothes, which tell us what we should look like rather than our bodies telling the clothes. There’s a pervasive sense that merely being a woman isn’t enough, that being oneself is not enough, that one is required to nip in here and swell there, to exhibit nothing jiggly or lumpy, to conform to an outline one had nothing to do with drawing. If that lust to be beautiful is “hollow,” it does not belong to these “vain” women alone. It is an expectation for women that we all share.