“Getting implants is like buying a bad house.” After an hour’s conversation with a licensed attorney, who has worked in litigation against breast implant companies for nearly 20 years, his caveats, anecdotes, and knowledge of legal proceedings all amounted to this one statement.
While breast augmentation, both for cosmetic reasons and reconstruction, exploded in the 1970s and ’80s, we’re now witnessing the effects of the internet and popular culture taking hold of a brand new generation of women, whose deepest insecurities and body image issues are being exploited for profit.
As the attorney I spoke with observed, our moms and grandmothers might have once gone under the knife with little understanding of the dangers they would one day face, either immediately or in the years following their surgeries. Now, however, there’s a deluge of information on implants available to young girls, and the majority of it isn’t helpful at all, as it fails to explore the history of implants or advise on the risks they present.
The Timeline You’ve Never Seen Before
In an information society, it can be difficult to distinguish where something originated, or how it came to have the cultural relevance and significance it now holds. Interestingly enough, implants have a long and troubled history that spans nearly six decades, affecting three generations of women regardless of race or socioeconomic backgrounds.
World War II: With increased production and technological advancement as a result of the war effort, the properties of silicone are explored by the Dow Chemical Company located in Midland, Michigan.
1962: The previously popular flat-chested, slimmer figure has vanished from the collective, post-war social consciousness. Now, voluptuous figures, like the sex symbols of the time Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, are considered the ideal models to physically emulate. Using a silicone implant, the first breast augmentation is done in Houston, Texas. Previously, silicone and even paraffin had been injected straight into the breast tissue, often resulting in silicone rot and gangrene. Dow Corning Corporation, Dow Chemical’s start-up subsidiary, begins producing and marketing the silicone breast implant.
Previously, silicone had been injected straight into the breast tissue, often resulting in gangrene.
1975: In addition to Dow Corning, there are now three other major implant manufacturers in the United States, like McGhan Medical Corporation (founded by a former Dow employee). In competition with one another, each strives to make implants as realistic as possible — resulting in an explosion of popularity and the relative affordability of implants.
1976: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) begins to regulate silicone breast implants.
1985: More and more breast augmentation patients report negative effects from their surgeries.
By the mid-’80s, the FDA would mandate that chemical companies file applications for product approval, subjecting them to industry standards, and labeling them “Class III” devices.
As the ‘80s draw to a close, more and more patients of breast augmentation begin to feel the effects of their decades-old implants. On the low end, they experience difficulty concentrating, fatigue, joint pain, hair loss, breast sensitivity (or no feeling at all), dry mouth, connective tissue problems, and capsular contracture. On the more serious side, they develop rheumatological disorders, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases.
Patients developed rheumatological disorders, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases.
1992: The FDA concludes that manufacturers have failed to demonstrate the safety of silicone gel-filled breast implants, and a moratorium is issued by FDA Chair David Kessler, prohibiting their use in first-time cosmetic surgeries. Implant pioneer Dow Corning ceases the production and sale of implants.
1995: In the midst of the FDA’s decision, thousands of women filed suit against manufacturer Dow Corning and its competitors in the market, resulting in a class-action settlement with a generous schedule of financial relief for women seeking compensation for their health problems.
After approximately 20,000 suits are filed and a settlement schedule is negotiated, Dow files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, effectively torpedoing the settlement and resulting in more modest settlements, one involving Dow’s competitors, and the other involving Dow. Both settlements compensate for implant rupture and reimburse some costs for removing the implants, as well as for diseases, based on the severity of the woman’s disability. As attorney Brooke Cohen of A Case for Women asserts, “Dow Corning in their marketing and selling of breast implants are a perfect example of such a company’s blatant disregard for women’s health.”
Breast augmentation becomes the most popular cosmetic surgery in the country.
2006: After years of unresolved controversy regarding whether or not silicone breast implants can cause disease, the FDA’s ban on silicone implants for cosmetic use is lifted.
2010: Augmentation becomes the most popular cosmetic surgery in the country. 62% of implants used in surgeries are silicone, with the number of surgeries per year in the hundreds of thousands.
A Lifelong and Life-Changing Financial Commitment
Medical device corporations and complicated legal proceedings aside, it’s important to understand the heart of what we’re talking about, especially when accompanying health issues are often overlooked and underreported.
For silicone gel-fill implants, studies show that with each year an implant stays in the body, the risk of rupture increases. When saline implants (traditionally less popular due to their “less realistic” feel than silicone implants) rupture, it’s usually obvious and has to be dealt with immediately. When silicone gel-filled implants rupture, it’s not immediately obvious, and women can go for months or even years without knowing that their implants are broken.
Each year an implant stays in the body, the risk of rupture increases.
Both types of implants are susceptible to a basic principle of engineering — the longer a product is used, the more wear and tear accrues, meaning that a woman of 25 who undergoes augmentation will likely have to replace both within 10 years if not sooner.
Furthermore, women who go on to breastfeed with implants may experience difficulty in doing so. Implants also present a whole host of issues with cancer detection and mammograms, which each woman will eventually have to undergo for their own safety.
Our information society creates a paradox for us. While information is available from every side, it becomes much more difficult to warn people, especially vulnerable women, of the dangers they face because much of the information is one-sided.
For a 17-year-old girl soon to graduate high school who feels she’s not as big as her friends, finding a cosmetic surgeon in her area with payment plans as well as glowing patient testimonies is as simple as a few Google searches from her phone.
The stakeholders behind this increased availability of information are responsible for the industry that began back in the ‘60s and, despite the roadblocks along the way, still continues to have a major hold on our self-image as women.
Implants also present a whole host of issues with cancer detection and mammograms.
These include chemical and medical device companies like Dow Corning, which dominated the market for years and is responsible for the struggle and pain of so many. It also includes the scientists and industry partners they may have commissioned for their own peer-reviewed studies and figures to further promote their products.
Cosmetic surgeons closed ranks with manufacturers. They gained an inordinate amount of influence as well. As the attorney I spoke with explains, “If you're a plastic surgeon and doing this in your community, putting in a pool, sending your kids to college, paying for a Jaguar, naturally you're not going to be open to the idea that you're making women sick.”
Let’s go back to that 17-year-old girl. She’s going to college or starting a job soon and doesn’t want to wait an additional five years to see if she’ll grow any bigger. She’s been told it’s a one-time cost and recovery should be relatively simple. After all, her friends, mom, aunts, teachers, and other female influences in her life have likely undergone augmentation as well.
But it’s not a one-time cost, and the likelihood of complications increases the younger she is and the longer the implants are in her body.
40 years ago, this girl would be playing right into the hands of those who stand to gain the most from the lack of available information. But knowing what we know now, and seeing the plethora of issues our mothers and grandmothers have faced from making this decision as young, impressionable people, we have no excuse to ignore what we know now, even with assurances that these devices have been vastly improved to be safer.
Getting implants is like buying a house — a problematic, potentially dangerous and unhealthy, extremely costly house. We buy the house initially because we like the look of it and the idea of the person we’ll become if we buy it. But the realtors aren’t forthcoming about the hidden costs lurking behind every corner.