6-year-old Gage Berger was being bullied by his first grade classmates because he had protruding ears, and was often derided as “Elf Ears.” His Salt Lake City parents decided to address the problem here and now, before, they say, his self-esteem (I almost wrote elf-esteem…) was permanently damaged, so they had his ears de-elfed to look like everyone else’s.
Now he’s bullying other funny-looking kids.
But seriously, folks, the story has aroused a controversy over societal and medical ethics. Did the parents choose plastic surgery too early and for the wrong reasons? Is that how we want society to be, where bullies and critics can pressure individuals to conform to a narrow standard of acceptible appearance? Doesn’t this give them power? Does it not encourage bullying? Is a first-grader old enough to meaningfully weigh these issues? Isn’t this a choice he should make, when he’s old enough to make it?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for today is…
Was it ethical to clip Gary’s ears?
The New York Daily News interviewed psychologists and plastic surgeons, among other experts, about Gary’s parents’ decision.
“It is not unusual for a child to have ear surgery at a relatively young age,” said Dr. Tracy Pfeifer, a plastic surgeon, who specializes in facial plastic surgery.
That makes it ethical then, I guess! In addition to this obvious rationalization, she added, “The surgery is relatively simple and it is life-changing in a positive way for these young children.”
The fact that’s it’s simple surgery makes it responsible and right? How does she know that the life changing aspect is positive? She has no idea what Gary would be like if his parents took a different course. (My father was bullied constantly, and learned to box. He also learned never to give in to unethical authority, which became the defining theme of his life.) What if Barbara Streisand’s parents and Jimmy Durante’s parents had given them nose-jobs?
Then she said,
“While in an ideal world children would not be bullied, plastic surgeons know all too well that children with abnormal looking ears are bullied and made fun of in school and this has a tremendous negative impact on their self-esteem.”
Or it builds character.
I think plastic surgeons asked whether parents should have their children rush to plastic surgeons have a conflict of interest. What did the Daily News expect her to say? Steven J. Pearlman, MD, another facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, tells the paper that “It’s harder to make friends so they become socially stunted. They are also perceived as less intelligent by peers and even adults.”
Wow. Whatever did the human race do before the miracle of plastic surgery?
The story once again brought to mind the creepy Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” which I discussed last year after actress Rene Zellweger emerged after a long while out of the spotlight looking like someone else entirely. That episode depicted a nightmare future where children are forced to undergo radical physical transformations to live in a society that would not tolerate “ugliness,’ defined as deviation from the society’s requirement of beauty. I see Gary’s transformation via scalpel as indistinguishable from that future, which the Charles Beaumont teleplay portrayed as hostile to individuality and corrupting to society.
He was right.
Before being led to the cookie cutter, children should be encouraged to resist the demands of the mob, peer pressure, and opposition to their individual characteristics. “It is concerning to use plastic surgery to stop bullying,” said Dr. Karen Caraballo, a Bilingual-Spanish Child and Family Psychologist.
I just read an essay about how male in our society “bully” women in to using weasel words: how about, instead of “concerning,” calling this wrong, doctor? Imagine the power Gary’s parents have given to aspiring bullies, the next generation of Donald Trumps. “We can make a kid change his face!“ As for Gary, he has been taught that it is crucial to conform, even if you have to go to a hospital to do it. He is now a servant to the desires of others. Will he be a leader? Will he have the courage to stand up for himself and others? You never know, but his parents responding to mere taunting with such early surgery doesn’t bode well.
The surgery is also premature, and thus unethical from a medical ethics standpoint, because at six no child’s adult appearance can be accurately predicted. Nor can a six year old make an informed decision about surgically changing his or her appearance at that age, though The Daily News found some dubious experts—as in “flacks for the plastic surgery trade”—to claim otherwise. Except in a case of serious deformity, the choice to radically change a child’s appearance should be made after the child has gained some understanding of the issues involved.
Paget Brewster, the stunning and vivacious actress who portrayed Emily Brewster on CBS’s “Criminal Minds,” was interviewed in a documentary about her prominent nose…
and why she never had it “fixed.” She said that she considered surgery many times as a teen (“I mean, It’s a big nose!”) and as an aspiring actress, but realized that “take away my big nose and I’m just another standard issue starlet.” As a teen, she said, her unconventional looks forced her to rely on her personality, energy and intelligence….and when she turned out beautiful anyway, she was glad that she had delayed her trip to the plastic surgeon, as it turned out, forever. Gary never got that chance.
My vote on this quiz is that Gary’s parents jumped down a particularly slippery slope that can lead no place good.