LONDON, May 2, 2008 — -- Rebecca Ward is just 16 years old and counting the days until she can undergo cosmetic surgery for breast enlargement. She plans to go under the knife as soon as she turns 18.
Ward is among a growing group of young women who are considering cosmetic surgery to overcome self-consciousness and boost self-esteem. Figures show that cosmetic surgery is becoming increasingly popular among young people, and is fast becoming a quick fix for self-conscious adolescents.
Ward told ABC news that she didn't want to wait until she was older as "it would only make her depression worse." She not only wants to boost her cup size but also her confidence.
She belongs to one of hundreds of plastic surgery groups on the social networking site Facebook. Young people meet online to discuss cosmetic surgery, post pictures and offer advice and support.
"I'm hoping to get the confidence to get out there and just be myself, especially since I want to be a CSI [crime scene investigator] so I'll be in the public eye a lot and will need the confidence," she said.
The media has speculated for years that cosmetic surgery for teens is on the rise, but it was the March 2008 death of South Florida teen Stephanie Kuleba, 18, during breast augmentation surgery that refocused attention on what many industry insiders describe as a growing trend.
Just a few weeks ago, the Australian state of Queensland made the decision to ban cosmetic surgery for nonmedical reasons to anyone under the age of 18. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has reported a 64 percent rise in the number of women undergoing breast augmentation surgery in the last eight years.
Although teenagers still represent a very small proportion of women undergoing breast enlargements, the ASPS confirms that the procedure has become more popular among young people. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of breast implants for girls younger than 18 nearly tripled, from 3,872 to 11,326.
But this is not just a trend for teenagers in the United States.
Figures from the U.K.'s three largest cosmetic surgery chains show that almost 600 teenagers had breast enlargements last year, a substantial increase from the previous year. One group, Transform, a chain of cosmetic surgery clinics in the U.K., reported a five-fold increase in the last few years.
Lorraine Ishak, clinical director of Transform, acknowledged the increased demand for surgery from young women but explained that many are turned away.
"You have to assess someone in two categories: first, their physical maturity. Have their bodies stopped growing? And the second category: Are they emotionally mature? We turn down about 50 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds, and it's mostly because during the consultation process … we see that [the cosmetic procedure] hasn't been thought through properly."
According to the ASPS, adolescents view surgery as a way to fit in with the crowd, while, conversely, adults want to stand out from the crowd.
Psychologist consultant Eileen Bradbury offers counselling to prospective patients. "Peer pressure is a big issue. The main issue I will see is that other girls will have commented about their appearance. It's this competitiveness among your peers that is far more noticeable in adolescents than in adults."
The "cult of celebrity" and Internet revelations by popular stars also put teens under constant pressure to conform to a contemporary ideal of beauty. The popularity of MTV's "I Want a Famous Face" in which 12 young people chose plastic surgery to look like their celebrity idols, or the recent publicity given to Tori Spelling's confessions that she had a nose job when she was a teen and breast implants in her 20s, clearly illustrate this pressure.
Helen Bownass is the features editor at More magazine, a U.K.-based teenage glossy aimed at 16- to 25-year-olds. "I think they see celebrities having plastic surgery done quite openly in the media; they see how easy it is, and they want to buy in to that lifestyle a little bit."
Bownass told ABC News that the magazine often gets letters and e-mails from readers asking about plastic surgery. "It's something that is more accepted among young people. They're not shy to talk about it, to admit that they want it and to ask for help on how to get it."
Many doctors report that cosmetic surgery is increasingly offered to teens as a graduation or birthday gift.
Psychologist Bradbury told ABC News that teenagers often put their parents under pressure to fund their surgery. "There is that 'must have' consumer culture now that makes busy, successful parents feel it's one more thing they can give their child, like the X-box, for example, and they'll give it to them because they feel under pressure to give their child what they want."
Young people also can fund their own surgery more easily than in the past. Companies like Transform make it very convenient for anyone to consider surgery, offering procedures on credit with 0 percent interest.
But what happens when teenage cosmetic surgery patients get older?
Paris Stilton, who lives in Nottingham, England, had her breasts enlarged at 18. Now 22, she believes she was probably too young. "I do wish I had waited. It's a big commitment for life," she said.
Stilton told ABC News that after her operation she had trouble obtaining postoperative care, which resulted in another two operations.
"I wish I had researched the company a lot more before proceeding. The companies are just after as much money as they can make. They tell you how fabulous you will look, but don't really touch upon the complications that may arise and the risks involved with surgery," Stilton said.
Bradbury believes that many young people may come to regret their decision. "Adolescents often believe they are lot more mature then they actually are," she said. "As they lack insight into the difficulties that they might have in the future, they tend to be very black and white."
She added, "Adolescents have always been self-conscious. It's just that in the past people have had to wait a longer time, and I would imagine as time passes people drop out along the way. I've had people say to me, 'I thought about having it done, but then when I grew up, I changed my mind.'"
But with cosmetic surgery now more easily available and affordable and mainstream, it seems teenagers like 16-year-old Rebecca Ward don't have to wait to go under the knife.