by Frederick N. Lukash, MD, FACS, FAAP
A recent viral story on the Internet told the all too familiar tale of 10-year old Nadia Ilse who was the constant brunt of school bullies. Nadia was called “Dumbo” by kids in her school because of her prominent ears. I’ve been hearing that exact complaint from kids for decades, well before the Internet and social media made bullying a cultural phenomenon. Nadia received a grant from the Little Baby Face Foundation that allowed her to get her ears pinned back as well as receive rhinoplasty and chin alteration.
The Internet exploded with opinions. A child should not have to undergo plastic surgery because she is being taunted by her peers, some people said. Others understood Ilse’s dilemma and felt good about her transformation, wishing her well in her new life. Some online opinions focused on her age: is a 10 year old too young to undergo plastic surgery just to “fit in” with society or to assuage school bullies?
I’m going to answer those questions from a surgeon’s perspective who has seen the before and after results of “Dumbo” bullying-inspired surgery for many years.
If a child is not happy with his or her appearance or if he or she has a physical anomaly that makes that child stand out rather than fit in, a wide array of emotional and psychological issues can result.
It’s an unpleasant part of human nature, but it’s true that kids pick on those who are different. I believe that the operating principle here is the child’s self image. If a child has protruding ears but they like and accept themselves and don’t have an issue with it–that’s great. But if a child feels an overwhelming sense of unhappiness and discomfort with his or her own body and there is a surgical solution that can help, why shouldn’t we help that child to grow into an adult who is at ease in their own body?
Many years ago a little boy called Scott came to me with the “Dumbo” ears problem. I asked Scott to draw a picture of himself as he saw himself. “Sad Scott” was the result–a little boy with tears pouring down his face. After surgery, I asked him to draw himself. “Glad Scott” was the result–a boy who felt happy with his appearance and who felt good about growing into that face in the future.
From “Sad Scott” to “Glad Scott” is a journey I’ve taken many kids on since then. And yes, I believe that surgeries like ear pinning are ideal for kids aged about six and up, as the ear is almost fully formed at that age. Nose and chin surgeries are somewhat different and need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but these, too, have their place for older children who want a more stable self image moving forward into adulthood.
I applaud young Nadia for having the courage to shape herself as she saw herself, not just as an image that others desired. And knowing the many children I’ve worked with, who have turned into successful, well-adjusted adults, I can tell you that taking your self-image into your own hands is one of the most empowering things a person can do for themselves–even at the tender age of 10.
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