Plastic surgery often springs from a desire to look younger and more attractive. But it may not be possible to have both, even if top surgeons are wielding the wand. A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that while facial plastic surgery reverses about three years of visual aging, it doesn’t make you prettier.
“[A] surprising finding was that we didn’t see a statistically significant attractiveness improvement,” study author Dr. A. Joshua Zimm, a plastic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.
The Science of Attractiveness: Age vs. Beauty
Between 2006 and 2010, 37 women and 12 men between the ages of 42 and 73 who'd had facial procedures, such as face-lifts, neck-lifts, and brow-lifts, were photographed and participated in a follow-up.
Fifty raters, each randomly assigned to a rating group, were shown nearly 200 photographs of the patients, both before and after surgery. Raters recorded the ages they thought each patient was in each photograph, and assigned the patients an attractiveness score from 1 to 10.
After surgery, patients shaved a perceived 3.1 years off of their lives, but “good looks” were a bit harder to quantify.
Overall, 75 percent of the patients were rated between 4 and 7. These numbers didn’t change significantly between pre- and postoperative photos. Contrary to expectations, perhaps, no one went from a 4 to a 10 after a face-lift.
The Age Bias
In contemporary culture, there’s an unspoken link between age and attractiveness: The older you are, the “less” attractive you appear. As a judge of looks—and don’t we all judge aesthetics?—you automatically assign others an attractiveness score subconsciously, Zimm says. That means you may see a very attractive 70-year-old as less pretty than a moderately attractive 45-year-old.
“Everyone who undergoes aging face surgery wants to look better,” Zimm said, although most don’t necessarily say so. Looking better may simply mean looking less tired, or for some, looking younger.
“As aesthetic surgeons, one of the points we’re always very careful not to say is that ‘you’re going to look 15 years younger’ and the kinds of things that relate false or unrealistic expectations,” Zimm said.
If you venture into a cosmetic surgeon’s office, chances are you’ll hear “refreshed” or “less tired” before you hear “more attractive.” Doctors want to make sales, but must also rein in patients’ expectations.
Can We Quantify Beauty?
“One of the complexities of this kind of study is that we’re trying to objectify something that is very, very subjective, and there are a lot of pitfalls with this kind of thing,” Zimm said. “Aaron Spelling said something to this effect when trying to describe beauty: ‘I can’t describe it, but I know it when it walks in the room.’”
So the takeaway from this study is a truth most of us already know—attractiveness isn’t something easy to define or to create, even for the most skilled surgeons.