Why Are Parents Buying Their Girls the Gift of Surgery?

This story originally aired June 24, 2005.

Lulu Diaz was excited to show her friends the high school graduation present she got from her parents -- her new breasts.

At Lulu's high school and at the beauty school she attended on New York's Long Island, she said the talk among her friends is about how they look, and getting breast implants. Some of Lulu's friends have gotten them.

"It just made me want to get them done right there. And then when I graduated, my parents were like, all right, congratulations, you got a boob job."

When she was 18, her parents had bought her a Jaguar for graduation. She didn't want a car. They told her: "OK, you can trade it in for new breasts." She did.

When "20/20" met Lulu's friend Jennifer O'Brien, she was self-conscious about having smaller breasts. It showed in her body language. She covered up her breasts and padded her bra.

Jennifer envied Lulu's new look. "Look how much confidence she has. Like, look at my shirt and look at her shirt, like, you know," she said.

Jennifer thought she could get Lulu's confidence by getting breast implants herself. So, she did. Six months later, Jennifer said her new breasts have changed her personality.

"I am a loving and caring person, and I'm outgoing, but the way I used to dress and my body language didn't say that. And now it does," she said. "I feel like a different person. I have so much confidence, I like, do and say as I want, like, I don't hold anything back anymore."

Who paid for Jennifer's new look? Her parents.

"This is a gift of love from us, and we see a difference in her," Jennifer's mom, Doreen O'Brien, said.

The gift of breast implants costs about $7,000. "But I don't think you can put really a price on your child's happiness," she said.

Nineteen-year-old Catherine Houtrids wanted implants too. She was about to have the implant surgery when I interviewed her.

"I'm nervous of the pain afterward, just like any human, I think, would be. But I'm more excited, you know? Like I said, it's something that I've wanted and today I get to go have it," she said.

I don't get it. Maybe Catherine has a body image problem? I told her she looks fine.

"If I didn't get them and I was in the circumstances where I can't afford them or it just wasn't possible, I would be fine with my body," she said.

But Catherine could afford it because it was her parents writing the check.

Catherine's mom wanted Catherine to be happy. "I think she looks fine the way she is but it's not my choice and ... if it makes her happy, I'm happy for her," she said.

Catherine's parents also wanted to give her a car, but Catherine preferred the breast implants.

Of course, cars can be dangerous. But so can breast enhancement surgery. The Food and Drug Administration lists 25 complications, including pain, inflammation, calcification, chest wall deformity, toxic shock syndrome, wrinkling and scarring. Most patients later have to have second or even third operations because the implants do things like move or break open. The surgery can later interfere with mammography, increasing the chance that a tumor will go undetected. And women who have the surgery are less likely to have enough milk for breast-feeding.

The FDA says about 40 percent of augmentation patients have at least one serious complication within three years.

Jennifer wasn't bothered by the possibility of complications. "Well, then I had one to three years of my life where I felt great about myself, and you can't take that back," she said.

'Quick Fixes' for Problems Kids Should Work Through

Why would a parent pay for an operation that is risky and medically unnecessary?

"It's really fun to give things to your kids and to say yes and to have them like you," said psychotherapist Laura Gray, who specializes in treating teens. She said it's a parent's job to teach kids that, despite what popular culture says, a better body is not the route to happiness.

I told her how happy Jennifer was in our interview. It was almost like a commercial for the surgery. She's more outgoing. It's changed her personality for the better. Some people who see the interview are going to think, "I want to be that happy."

But Gray said her question for Jennifer would be: "What was happening for you that was so difficult in life that you were unable to manage it without having breast implants?"

Gray said it's a question parents should ask instead of buying their daughters what they hope will be a quick fix.

"What I see today a lot is parents who cannot bear for their kids to be uncomfortable. They do not want them to suffer. They don't want them to struggle," she said.

Why should they suffer, if their parents can afford to give them things, like implants, that will make them happy?

Jennifer said she was unhappy and didn't feel good about herself with her size A breasts.

"I would have to say, let's talk about that or what's that like for you. That's what I would encourage a parent to do instead of immediately jumping to their checkbook and saying, 'Let me fix this for you,'" Gray said.

Gray said when parents try to fix everything, kids don't develop resilience and coping skills.

"Later in life, my hope is they'll draw on some of those skills and say, 'You know what? I remember a time when things were really hard or really awful or I felt terrible about myself. But I got through it and I did OK,'" she said.

Dr. Stephen Greenberg, who performed Catherine and Jennifer's surgeries, won't operate on kids under 18.

"We have to be the ones to say, 'No, you're not ready -- psychologically, you're not old enough. Let's just wait,'" he said.

Peers Differ on Implants and Self-Confidence

Curious what other teens would think about getting the gift of new breasts, we played a clip of my interview with Jennifer for some students at a suburban high school.

"That is saying to your child, well, maybe you aren't as beautiful as you are," one boy said.

"I think it's really sad that our society has come to the place where to make a teenage girl happy, you need to spend thousands of dollars increasing her breast size. When she was obviously a beautiful girl before," a girl in the group told us.

Another girl agreed, saying, "I think she should have had a little more confidence. Breast implants should not change your life that drastically."

On the other hand, some of the kids thought it was just fine.

"That feeling of confidence could stay with her," one girl said.

Another girl told us she thought the girls' surgeries were OK since their parents could afford it. "They have the money to do so and the means to do so and there's really nothing wrong about giving their child what they want," she said.

Kara, who had had a nose job, told us she understands why implants would make a girl more confident.

"I had plastic surgery. So I know that it made me happy inside," she said.

Jennifer admitted it's difficult to describe why breast implants would boost her confidence. "It's something so hard to explain, how something so materialistic and stupid can just make someone feel so much better about themselves," she said.

Materialistic and stupid sounds right to me.

"But it's what I wanted," Jennifer said. "And it's something that's going to make me happy, and I don't have any regrets at all."