Plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures have come a long way over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, cosmetic surgery was not perceived to be serious medicine, and its practice was limited by the number of surgeons who could carry it out.

Into the 1980s, cosmetic surgery was breaking out of the aesthetic surgery circles and receiving greater credibility. It was shedding some of its major and unwarranted image issues. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) credits one of its founders, Thomas Baker, for helping to change attitudes and improve access to a hitherto largely unobtainable bank of procedures.

It was wealthy individuals who drove the early growth stages of the industry, but as society’s affluence and disposable wealth increased, little by little aesthetic medicine became more mainstream, and not just the province of the rich.

Today, into the second decade of the 21st century, there are few, if any, restrictions on who can access anti-ageing medicine, though it remains for the most part privately funded. It has become legitimate medicine surrounded by established training structures. The ASAPS’ own records bear witness to the growing acceptance of cosmetic medicine over the years: its launch meeting in 1968 was attended by just 18 people; now over 2000 professionals fly in from 30 countries for a 6-day conference.

It has truly become big business, and it now meets the needs of a wide cross‑section of users. That being so, some may take issue with recent comments from the CEO of the US Luxury Institute, Milton Pedraza, who likens the anti-ageing market to luxury retail.

Wealthy Americans

‘Consumers who pay premium prices for … membership at an exclusive health club are the same consumers shopping for premium merchandise at places like Nordstrom,’ he says. Marketing youth to the wealthy provides a rich opportunity to tap into a powerful set of demographics and psychographics that never goes away, he adds.

Those sentiments may be true, but ignore the progress made by an industry that now serves hundreds of thousands of implant clients globally, offers lunchtime services for nine-to-fivers, and has spawned an entire medical tourism industry for customers who often need to work within a tight budget.

But while the Luxury Institute may have been largely overtaken by events and the democratisation of anti-ageing and cosmetic procedures, its views nevertheless offer a fascinating insight into the upper end of the aesthetic medicine market. In fact, a recent survey of its members’ opinions about plastic surgery, entitled WealthSurvey: Age Obsession, delivered some surprising findings.

Its headline observations were that most wealthy Americans (those earnings at least $150,000 annually) are concerned about maintaining memory, eyesight and weight as they age, while women worry particularly about wrinkles — although few opt for cosmetic surgery or Botox.

Up to 53% of wealthy Americans admit to having adopted an anti-ageing regimen (anything from a healthy diet to liposuction) in pursuit of better health and a more youthful appearance.

Women within this social group are more concerned about the effect of ageing, and are thus more likely to engage in anti-ageing routines than men; 67% of US women say they would or have done, compared with 32% of men who are similarly disposed. More women than men will eat health foods (76% say they would), strive to get enough sleep (58%), or alter alcohol intake (53%). Men are 16–21% less likely to embrace any of these behaviour-altering tactics.

While there is an evident drive to avail the elixir of youth, wealthy Americans are seemingly realistic about ageing, with 71% professing that ‘age is just a number’. Nonetheless, many feel the pressure to look younger. In this regard, the Age Obsession survey yielded interesting observations. The reasons given for adopting anti-ageing procedures included:

  • Pressures to look ‘young’ are greater now than in the past (68%)
  • A youthful appearance can boost professional success 58% (women only: 81%).

As to this latter finding, the cosmetic industry can take a share of credit for the claim by 72% of women and 62% of men in the Luxury Institute’s ‘wealthy’ bracket that they consider they look younger than their age.

However, the ever-increasing uptake of cosmetic medicine is no longer fuelled only by the conspicuously wealthy. As reported previously in PRIME, global markets are returning to pre-crisis levels of confidence. The US, for instance, recently reported a 5% increase (to 13.8 million) in the number of procedures carried out. With the recession easing and Americans finding they have more disposable income, more are seeking to fix their ‘imperfections’.