Pandemic fuels interest in cosmetic procedures, but critics question the timing

·8 min read

For years, Jordan Murphy longed to complete her weight-loss transformation with another round of cosmetic surgery. It was a matter of finding the right time.

The Toronto social media influencer knew from her prior procedures that going under the knife could require weeks of bedrest. She was also conscious of the fact that medically altered beauty doesn't come cheap.

But when the COVID-19 crisis cleared her calendar, Murphy found herself with a sudden abundance of time and money she would typically spend on travel and recreation.

The 27-year-old filled the hours by scrolling through social media, sizing up how her body compared to others, particularly the before-and-after photos plastic surgeons posted to their feeds.

"I think it just put the idea into my head: This is the perfect time to do this," said Murphy, adding that she's been barraged by questions from her online followers since documenting her "360 lift," an operation that removes excess skin and fat from the abdomen, waistline and back, last summer.

"(The only downside is) that I haven't been able to dress up cute and go out anywhere to rock the new bod."

Murphy is one of many Canadians who plan to emerge from lockdown looking leaner, lifted or augmented in all the right places as several clinics report an uptick in demand for cosmetic procedures during the pandemic.

Some cosmetic physicians say more patients are seeking out their services as the crisis has afforded people more time to scrutinize their perceived flaws, and the flexibility to get work done without raising eyebrows among friends and coworkers.

But critics worry that people could be rushing into serious medical procedures as the psychological toll of the pandemic has fuelled body image issues, in part because of the distorting powers of video-chat platforms and social media.

Others in the medical community, including a Quebec doctors' association, say private clinics shouldn't be performing cosmetic surgeries as COVID-19 caseloads have strained the health-care system, forcing many patients to wait for medically necessary operations.

There's little data available on the number of cosmetic procedures that are performed in Canada. But according to a Google Trends analysis published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, U.S. searches for some of the most popular ones dropped off in the early months of the pandemic, before rebounding to hit two-year peaks over spring and summer of last year.

This is consistent with what Dr. Mathew Mosher, president of the Canadian Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, is hearing from members who, in some cases, have been struggling to keep up with the increased interest in their services.

"The sustained nature of the added interest has surprised many of us," said Mosher, who operates out of the YES Medspa and Cosmetic Surgery Centre in Langley, B.C.

When private clinics started to reopen last spring, Mosher said surgeons were bracing for a backlog of postponed procedures, but didn't expect they'd be fielding an influx of calls from first-time patients and regulars.

It's hard to gauge whether this spike in inquiries is translating into more surgical bookings, Mosher said, noting that COVID-19 precautions have curtailed many clinics' operational capacity. It also seems that demand has ebbed to some degree as many jurisdictions ramped up lockdown measures.

Still, he said, it's clear that the pandemic has opened up new possibilities for patients to revamp their natural assets.

While job losses have forced many Canadians into financial precarity, Mosher said those fortunate enough to have maintained a steady paycheque may have more money to spend on esthetic concerns.

Moreover, he said, patients are able keep up with their professional duties while recouping at home.

"Doing something that is in some ways empowering and positive has come up on the to-do list for a few more patients."

While most of his patients are seizing the chance to move ahead with procedures they've been thinking about for a while, Mosher said he's also sensed a concerning "urgency" among clients who seem to be fixated on a newly detected imperfection or acting on an impulse to make a change during a stressful time.

"I've seen more patients coming to the office where they frankly have been given poor advice," he said.

Toronto dermatologist Dr. Julia Carroll said she credits the surge in demand for cosmetic services such as Botox, lip fillers and laser peels in part to what some have dubbed the "Zoom boom."

As our conversations have shifted to video conference calls, many people are spending more time staring at their own faces, and some don't like what they see.

"Most people get up in the morning, brush their teeth or put on their makeup, and they don't look at themselves for the rest of the day," said Carroll. "But now, you're seeing yourself in animation all day long.... So you see things that bother you."

Carroll cautions that these virtual visages probably aren't accurate, because most webcams use short focal lengths that can warp how certain features appear onscreen.

But while she doesn't think anyone "needs to look a certain way," Carroll says cosmetic procedures can boost a person's confidence.

"For some people, there's a real disconnect between how they feel on the inside and what they present to the world," Carroll said. "I think a lot of patients are just trying to reconnect those two parts of themselves."

Catherine Sabiston, a University of Toronto professor and Canada research chair in physical activity and mental health, says the lack of in-person social interaction under lockdown means people are spending more time online comparing themselves with filtered images of others, which can negatively impact body image.

The internet is also filled with counterproductive messages about the COVID-19 crisis being a time for self-improvement, feeding into the guilt many feel about changes to their exercise and eating habits, she said.

As these forces conspire to make people feel bad about themselves, Sabiston said it's no surprise that people are turning to the scalpel as a quick-fix solution.

The fact that cosmetic surgeries are moving forward when many patients can't access cancer treatments speaks to the social disconnect that seems to prioritize people's appearance over their health, said Sabiston.

She urged authorities to adopt a more balanced approach that would allow people to access the services they need to ensure their bodies are healthy and help them feel better in them.

"Our bodies are miracles in so many ways, and yet, we hone in on the appearance aspects when there's so much more to what our bodies can do," she said.

"We should be putting our emphasis on how to help people so that more plastic surgery isn't necessarily the bottom line."

In a statement Wednesday, the Quebec College of Physicians called for all non-essential cosmetic procedures to be postponed in light of the measures the province is taking to limit COVID-19 spread.

Health Minister Christian Dube told reporters last week that the province is considering how to address the medical staffing crisis, but suggested it would be easier to bring in intensive care personnel from other regions than to enlist nurses from private care and cosmetic surgery clinics.

A spokeswoman for Quebec's health ministry added that staff from private cosmetic surgery clinics can still volunteer in the public health sector without shutting down operations.

In Ontario, some clinics that offer cosmetic procedures have opted to scale back services or shut down altogether.

While health practices remain open under the province's latest directive, a spokesman for Ontario's health ministry said "it's up to each professional's clinical judgment to determine what services should be offered," in accordance with the rules set out by their regulatory colleges.

On its website, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario says regional restrictions on personal care services, such as facials and hair removal, apply to medical practices, but clinics can continue to offer procedures that can only be performed by health-care professionals.

Mosher appreciates the frustrations front-line medical workers feel as the recent surge in infections pushes health-care systems to their limits, but argues that closing private clinics will do little to assuage capacity concerns.

Cosmetic surgeons report relatively low rates of complications, so there's little risk that their patients will need urgent care in overburdened hospitals, he said.

Mosher said the cosmetic surgery industry isn't large enough to provide the reinforcements that hospitals require, and while some cosmetic surgery providers work in both the private and public sector, many don't have the expertise to help much with urgent care.

"Health-care workers that are involved in delivering (cosmetic surgery) services would be more than happy to step up and assist if we were called upon," he said.

"But like everybody else, we rely on the guidance from the health authorities."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2021

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press