Some bullied kids are looking to a new solution for their social problems, at least according to this past Sunday’s episode of Dateline, which profiled a few teens who have suffered harassment because of their appearance.
Their stories are heartbreaking in the most visceral way. Fifteen-year-old Renata has been homeschooled for the past three years after the bullying became unbearable, and she firmly believes that her nose -- and not the behavior of her bullies -- is the problem. When she and her mother heard about another teenage girl who had successfully received free plastic surgery through a non-profit organization that provides this service to low-income kids with facial deformities, they applied, and the Little Baby Face Foundation sailed in to the rescue.
Renata was chosen to receive the plastic surgery after [Dr. Thomas Romo, Little Baby Face Foundation co-founder and president, and director of facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital] diagnosed her with a hemi-facial microsomia, which left her face underdeveloped and caused her nose to lean to the left. It’s the second most common facial birth defect after clefts, occurring in as many as 1 in 5,000 newborns, although that may be an underestimate, because the condition is often not diagnosed, or treated.
The condition is not diagnosed or treated much because in a great many cases, it’s a cosmetic matter, unlike clefts, which certainly have a cosmetic component, but can also have long-term medical and developmental complications, from difficulty feeding in infancy, to hearing loss and trouble in language acquisition later on. It’s true that more severe cases of hemi-facial microsomia can result in breathing and ear problems, but if this were true of Renata, ostensibly these issues probably would have manifested in a medical context before now.
Are you uncomfortable yet? There are LAYERS to the discomfort here. Let’s peel back a few more.
Like Renata, many children with hemi-facial microsomia may not even recognize that they have a deformity. All Renata knew was that she hated her crooked nose, and that Romo was offering her a new one. But he offered her something else, too: a new chin, to provide balance to her face, he said. The teenager had never considered her chin to be a problem before, but she and her mother agreed to the implant. Romo believes that once the deformity is gone, the bullying will likely stop, too.
I cannot blame Renata herself for wanting this surgery. Severe bullying causes unspeakable misery, and to an adolescent in particular, it can feel like the world is ending and things will never get better. It can feel so horrible that you are willing to do almost anything to make it stop -- and given the rates at which severely bullied kids attempt suicide, plastic surgery seems almost reasonable in comparison.
I will, however, give a big ol’ side-eye to this doctor. Because the second we get that bit about adding a new chin to “balance” this fifteen-year-old’s still-growing face, I got the rage flames going.
Obviously, this approach sends a troubling message, that bullied kids are responsible not only for their own bullying, but for changing whatever it is they're being bullied for. Yet as anyone who’s ever experienced it -- or even perpetrated it -- knows, bullying is deeply complicated, and is rarely as simple as one's physical appearance, although that can certainly be a point of entry for bullying to begin. Most of the time, bullying is really about a failure to develop those often arbitrary social skills that register, however annoyingly, as “normal” to one’s peers. Having a memorable nose alone does not necessaily mean you will be the subject of bullying, but having a memorable nose AND an inability to conduct oneself with confidence in the often-horrible world of preteen and teen society very well might.
In the moment, to Renata at fifteen, plastic surgery may seem like an ideal solution, and this Dr. Thomas Romo is certainly working hard to make it a valid one (if you want to feel extra icky, watch this clip). Plastic surgery will remove the concrete, tangible thing that she believes is causing her to be bullied.
And you know, I can relate. When I was being bullied as The Fat Kid, there was a part of me that would have leapt at the chance to erase my body and replace it with a different one. I tried. I tried with diet after diet, and when those failed I tried simply starving myself, and the bullying continued, even as I raged inside with the knowledge that I was trying to do everything right and it just wasn’t working, no one was seeing how hard I was trying. Or maybe they were seeing it, and the fact that I had to try so hard was itself something to pick on me about. I didn’t know how to make it stop, and there’s not much I wouldn’t have done to make it stop.
But there was also a part of me -- even as early as the sixth grade -- that deeply resented the suggestion that I should have to change myself to fit in, or even just to gain the right not to be verbally (and sometimes physically) attacked at school, or on the bus.
The difference was that I never had ANYONE tell me -- or even obliquely suggest -- that I needed to lose weight in order to deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by other people, or that I was at fault for my own bullying. I was lucky to have parents who were supportive of my efforts to lose weight, but who never implied that they thought I needed to be smaller in order to be worthy of friendship and love. That message, even when it's subtle, can be toxic to the self-esteem of a developing kid.
I’m not opposed to plastic surgery when it’s a decision made by a person who is emotionally (and physically, for that matter) an adult. I have no problem with grownup folks doing whatever they like with their faces and bodies, so this isn’t a question of whether plastic surgery is itself bad or wrong. I do have a problem with a doctor essentially telling a (still growing!) teenager that all her social issues will be solved with a new nose (and a bonus chin that that she didn’t even know needed “fixing”), and who believes that this is a better course than going after the bullies making her life hell in the first place.
Because the fact is, not all socially troubled kids can be rescued by plastic surgery. Several groups of kids are at increased risk for severe bullying, among them not only kids with cosmetically different faces and bodies, but also kids who resist or reject their assigned gender, kids who are gay, kids who are disabled, kids who are neurodiverse, and kids who are simply developing social skills at a slower rate than their peers. What about those kids? By putting the onus to change on the bullied victim, instead of on the bullies themselves, we may be setting up the ones who cannot change themselves so easily for a lifetime of self-loathing and internalized hatred.
Our task as adults in care of the next generation is not to erase these kids’ differences, something we could never fully accomplish anyway. Our task is to protect at-risk children from being hurt by other kids. Our task is to teach all kids to recognize and respect diversity in all its forms, even when they are made uncomfortable or afraid or frustrated by it; to teach them that attacking kids who are different from them is never, ever, ever OK. Yes, many kids will probably still experiment with bullying behaviors, but we can work to create a culture in which those behaviors are not acceptable, or just shrugged off as “normal.”
“You take a child, and you change the way they look. To anybody who sees them, they’re good-looking,” Romo told NBC News’ Hoda Kotb, in a segment to air on “Dateline” on Sunday. “That gives the child strength. We can’t go after the bully. But we can try and empower the children.”
Except we CAN go after the bully. The bully is the one that needs the intervention here, as their behavior is just as socially inept and destructive as anything their awkward insecure target may be doing.
Renata’s mother reports she is happier than she’s ever been, post-surgery, and that she intends to return to school, and hey, that’s great for her. When an individual child is suffering, it’d be monstrous not to cheer for them when they find their confidence. But on a social and cultural level, this is a happy ending that comes at a heavy price, and it won't be the bullies who are paying for it.