The Stateswoman Archive

She's Got Nothing?  A Look at the Ballooning Cosmetic Breast Implant Industry

by Mary Kinnunen

32,607 in 1992 to 236,888 in 2002: that’s a 626% increase in cosmetic breast implants performed annually on American women and teens. (1) (The number of reconstructive implant surgeries - those used for women who have lost tissue due to breast cancer and other or diseases - are not listed in this group.)

The questions are easy: Why do so many women believe their breast size is inadequate? Why have cultural pressures to look a certain way become so extreme? Why do women in the 21st century go to such lengths to change their bodies? During a casual discussion with a down-to-earth businesswoman acquaintance, I asked her what she thought about implants. She pointed to one of her employees and said she’d gotten breast implants because, “she really had nothing.”


Although the questions are easy, pinning down answers is much more difficult. It helps to address the issues of breast implant health, money and hype separately.

Saline implants were first reviewed for safety by the FDA in 2000. History has ranked their predecessor, silicone, high on the medical infamy scale, and there are thousands of stories of personal tragedy as a result of them.

Though seemingly safer than silicone, saline implants still present health risks. Most women can expect at least one complication, such as pain, hardness or leaking implant, within the first 3 years. (2) Another problem is their interference with mammogram readings - tumors simply have a greater chance of being missed. Breast feeling can change, so sexual intimacy can be affected, as can the comfort of breastfeeding.

In 2001, women under 35 years of age accounted for 57% of the cosmetic breast implant surgeries. (3) Given that life expectancy for American white women (by far the biggest implant demographic) is almost 80 years of age, a 30-year-old will need 50 years of replacements, perhaps another 3 to 4 surgeries if they last 14 years.

The cost for breast implant surgery in Wisconsin is about $5,300. ($3,000 for the physician fee, $1,000 for the implants, $300 for the anesthesiologist and $1,000 for the facility.)

As one can see, even if there are no complications, the lifetime costs of implants can be substantial, and insurance does not cover cosmetic surgery or problems caused by it.


“I’m happier where I am now in my life. The breast augmentation has helped my motivation, self-esteem and confidence. I did this for me - and nobody else.”
- Laurie, breast implant customer on

“Me - and nobody else.” I find it interesting the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ ad agency makes that statement a major selling point. In fact, I’ve heard it from other plastic surgeons.

I asked Dr. David L. Larson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Plastic Surgery of the Wisconsin Medical College, how women arrive at the size they want to be. He told me many of his patients bring in a Victoria’s Secret or men’s magazine to illustrate the results they want. If that isn’t trying to reach an airbrushed target, I don’t know what is.

The discussion of hype brings us back to health: on March 8 the British Medical Journal published a study that showed the rate of suicide in women with breast implants to be three times higher than for women in the general population. A National Institutes of Health study showed the suicide rate four times higher than that of women with other cosmetic surgeries.

The promises of gaining “motivation, self-esteem and confidence” by implanting oneself with bags of salt water don’t appear to live up to expectations. We all are dissatisfied with our looks at some point in our lives. It’s important to keep in mind that our greatest strength comes from within, and that motivation, self-esteem and confidence comes from achievement. It’s never easy.

In 2001, plastic surgeons raked in $669 million (4) for cosmetic breast implant procedures. There’s some motivation for you!

(1) American Society of Plastic Surgeons; (2) FDA; (3) Center for Policy Research for Women and Families;(4) American Society of Plastic Surgeons;

Mary Kinnunen’s lifelong interest in body image and culture led her to found the web-based business are a few websites that also deal with the issue of body image/health: - Promote healthy body image and expand the definition of what makes people beautiful! Inspiring independent thinking and fostering critical analysis of media messages

Love Your Body Day - National day of action to speak out against ads and images of women that are offensive, harmful, dangerous, and disrespectful. Sponsored by the NOW Foundation. - Is a one-stop body shop, where women and men of all cultures and sizes can learn about their bodies; feel proud and comfortable in their natural shapes, sizes, and colors; speak out against impossible beauty standards; and share their experiences.

National Women’s Health Information Center: Body Image and Your Health.

Annie Appleseed Project

This article first appeared in the June 2003 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s newsletter The Stateswoman.