It is the operation many women dream of but only a few can afford. The chance of bigger breasts, increasingly regarded as a fashion accessory, is threatened by new fears over the safety of one of the most popular forms of cosmetic surgery.
Women in Britain are queuing to have implants removed from artificially enlarged busts after claims in the United States that silicone implants may cause cancer. The operation first performed in the bra-burning 1960s has now become a battleground between those who think it should be banned, and others who believe in choice.
In the United States, where the Food and Drug Administration is considering banning implants on the grounds that the makers have failed to submit adequate safety data, protesters have marched for the right to choose the size of their bust.
Last week, British doctors said a ban on implants in the US, where 2m women have had the operation, could result in an end to Britain’s growing Pounds 20m-a-year breast enlargement industry. Last year an estimated 5,000 women submitted themselves to the surgeon’s scalpel.
Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, the best-selling book about the manipulation of women by the cosmetics industry, said women should be allowed to make a choice based on the best information available. “Women are never told the likelihood of it going wrong. I would certainly not want it banned, but it should be regulated,” she said.
British women now pay about Pounds 4,000 to emulate stars such as Cher, Mariel Hemingway and Brigitte Nielsen, the former wife of Rambo star Sylvester Stallone.
Hemingway, 30, grand-daughter of author Ernest Hemingway, was among the youngest starlets to be lured by chest expansion. Since her operation eight years ago, she has claimed it was “a personal decision, not a professional one”, and taken exception to Hollywood jokes that her breasts belonged to the studio props department.
Celebrities in the “fortysomething” generation are ready to resort to lawyers to defend their integrity. Last year Cher, 45, employed a plastic surgeon to vouch for the authenticity of every part of her body, except for plastic surgery on her nose and breasts.
Older women appear even more defensive: Joan Collins, 58, successfully sued one newspaper for falsely suggesting there was more to her breasts than met the eye. Jane Fonda, 53, the film star-turned-fitness fanatic, has refused to be drawn on reports that she has had “a breast job”.
Among those with regrets is Nielsen, 28, who is encumbered by the title Mrs Rambo because of her outstanding build and 40in bust. “I’m tired of being picked for acting parts because of my physique,” she said.
Iman, the internationally famous catwalk model and girlfriend of David Bowie, is happier after reportedly paying Pounds 15,000 for “a real cleavage”.
British doctors believe the new fears over implants could have serious and long-lasting effects on plastic surgery patients, particularly breast-cancer sufferers who have had mastectomies, who account for a third of implant operations.
Michael Baum, professor of surgery at London’s Royal Marsden hospital, said there was no evidence of an increased cancer risk linked to implants, and the FDA’s actions had caused unnecessary fears among women. “Of all the decisions taken by the FDA, this is probably its dumbest to date. Some women’s lives are ruined by a poor body image. It is not just a question of vanity,” he said.
David Sharpe, the plastic surgeon awarded an OBE for helping victims of the Bradford fire disaster in 1985, said more than 100 women had asked him to remove implants in the past few weeks since the American fears surfaced. He feared that an end to implant operations would result in more cumbersome and risky surgery to assist non-cosmetic plastic surgery patients.
The importance of the operation for cancer victims was emphasised by Diana Moran, television’s Green Goddess fitness expert, whose breasts were reconstructed after cancer surgery three years ago.
The health scare follows a New York court case earlier this year in which a woman with implanted breasts was awarded $4.5m after contracting cancer. American companies have denied that their products are dangerous. In Britain, government advisers are awaiting the results of the American investigation before issuing further recommendations.