Outrage over Tamil Nadu offering the poor breast alteration surgery reveals a sick mentality

YasheeFeb 26, 2018 | 15:04

Outrage over Tamil Nadu offering the poor breast alteration surgery reveals a sick mentality

Women seeking augmentation will have to pay for implants.

Reports that a public hospital in Tamil Nadu will offer free breast reduction and augmentation surgery for the economically disadvantaged has led to an outcry, with many accusing the government of entertaining misplaced priorities and saying that it should focus on fixing basic healthcare facilities.

Last week, the state government announced that Chennai's Government Stanley Medical College and Hospital, which has been offering free breast reconstruction to cancer survivors, will now offer free breast alteration surgery.

The state health minister C Vijaya Baskar’s comment to The Times of India – “Why should beauty treatment not be available to the poor?” – has got a lot of flak, with people pointing out that the government should not be promoting artificial standards of beauty, and instead make sure the poor get adequate nutrition and treatment for fatal diseases.  

Why the assumption that the poor don't know what is best for them? Photo: Wikimedia CommonsWhy the assumption that the poor don't know what is best for them? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The arguments miss a few important points, and make one worrisome assumption – that someone else should decide what the “poor” want.

No, the state government is not offering larger cup sizes while withholding money for cancer and TB treatment.

According to a report in the BBC, “The clinic will offer three types of procedures: reconstruction for cancer patients, breast augmentation for those with small breasts and breast reduction for those with large breasts”, including for men.

While breast reduction and reconstruction will be performed free of cost, women seeking augmentation will have to pay for the implants. All patients will be examined by doctors before the decision to carry out the surgery is taken.

Breast alteration surgeries are not motivated by vanity. Women can need breast reconstruction after suffering serious burns or other accidents. As doctors have pointed out, large breasts can mean back pain, posture problems, rashes and fungal infections. Often, the only way to correct these is by artificially reducing the size of the breasts.

A breast alteration surgery at a private hospital can cost up to Rs 80,000  this essentially means the treatment is out of question for poorer people.

As the hospital has clarified, the one treatment that is mostly “beauty”-driven – bigger breasts – is chargeable.  

However, the fact that people jumped to criticise the government for this “fanciful expense” is a revealing commentary on our society.

While it is true that physical beauty should not be given undue importance and notions of a certain breast size being more beautiful are manufactured, we cannot discount the psychological and even social costs of having too big or too small breasts. Men with large breasts are bullied mercilessly, and women are shamed and harassed. It also impacts the marriage prospects of both genders, and severely impacts people's confidence and self-esteem.

This is wrong, yes. As a society, we need to move beyond using physical beauty as the measure for our, and other people's, worth. The government should not be contributing to propping up standards of good looks.

However, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, more than 90,000 cosmetic breast surgeries were carried out in India in 2016, up from 50,600 in 2010. Thus, while those who can afford it chase “ideal” looks, we virtuously proclaim that the poor should look beyond physical beauty.

Why were we in such a hurry to foist the battle for moving beyond outer appearances on the poor? Why the assumption that the poor don't know what is best for them, and that we need to decide their priorities for them?

There is nothing wrong in the government giving people the option to have some more control over their lives. It is up to the intended beneficiaries whether they wish to go for the procedure or not.

Also, the government has not said that it will withdraw funds from existing schemes to offer the breast alteration surgeries. So why the assumption that the service will be offered at the cost of treatment for other diseases?

It is true that government schemes are often not implemented very efficiently. There needs to be scrutiny on how this initiative is put into action, and if the benefits are going to those they are meant for.

However, the half-informed criticism and claims of what the poor “actually need” seem less altruistic and more driven by condescension.   

Last updated: February 26, 2018 | 15:19
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