In February the American Society of Plastic Surgeons released its national statistics for 2015. Among the findings: Doctors performed 6.7 million Botox procedures, and buttock implants were the fastest-growing type of cosmetic surgery.
But one major statistic stood out: Male breast reductions accounted for more than 40% of all breast reduction surgeries. That's nearly 27,500 of the total reported 68,106 procedures — a 35% growth since 2000.
Blame our superficial culture, blame the internet, blame too many photos of Zac Efron shirtless — one thing is for sure: Men are becoming more and more aware of their bodies, and, like some women, their self-esteem is increasingly and more deeply tied to their appearance.
"It's actually not that hard an operation, it's not very risky, the scars are not noticeable and men are becoming aware that they can treat this problem," Dr. Michael Salzhauer, a Miami-based plastic surgeon better known as Dr. Miami, told Mic. "The stigma of plastic surgery is slowly but surely shaving away."
What is it exactly? Plastic surgeons call it gynecomastia — a swelling of the breast tissue in men or boys. The causes vary. It can be linked to being overweight or losing a drastic amount of weight. It also commonly can be the result of hormonal changes that show up in adolescence. In some cases, it's a side effect of medicines that change testosterone levels, including prostate cancer medication (and, of course, steroids). Studies on animals have also linked it to marijuana.
Gynecomastia is a cosmetic issue like droopy eyelids or sagging breasts. Though an uptick in the number of surgeries may partly be the result of increased population or high obesity rates, this statistic is a sign of something more culturally significant: Men aren't just more conscious of their bodies; they're willing to do something about it.
ASPS president David H. Song has operated on obese men, older men, former body builders, a father and son who both had male breasts and younger men who developed gynecomastia in puberty. "A lot of them are compensating, working out excessively hoping this can go away. But it's not associated to muscle-building. It's tied very closely to self-esteem and images. It changes their lives," Song told Mic.
A photo posted by Dr. Emmanuel Asare, MD (@wallstcosmeticsurgery) on Mar 6, 2016 at 1:51pm PST
A photo posted by Dr. Emmanuel Asare, MD (@wallstcosmeticsurgery) on Mar 5, 2016 at 11:14am PST
Why the boom? Overall, plastic surgery has been booming in the United States — 115% increase in total cosmetic procedures since the year 2000, according to the ASPS report — and that shows no sign of changing direction, especially paired with the other industry boom in America: social media.
Now when you go to the beach, your shirtless body is not just seen by your friends and other beachgoers, it becomes an Instagram pic, a Facebook post, a Snapchat story. As we document our lives and present every moment, of course we want to look our best. And there's only so much the Mayfair filter can do.
"I'm almost 44 years old and I've probably had 30 photos taken of me my entire life. My daughter has 50 pictures of her taken yesterday," Dr. Miami said. "We are all much more aware of how our body looks. Way more than a mirror — now we see it online."
A shift in masculinity: The destigmatization of breast reduction is not a small step for the XY chromosome set, as breasts are historically seen as the ultimate symbols of femininity. Terms like "man boobs" and "moobs" are often hurled as insults, creating an idea that male breasts of a certain size are somehow wrong.
Not to mention the fact that plastic surgery has synonymously been a surgery performed on women. A 2014 report from the ASPS found that 92% of all cosmetic surgery procedures in the U.S. were conducted on female patients that year.
"Men think it's not something you seek for yourself, and go with scars and bad acne for their lives," Dr. Christopher Balgobin, a Minnesota-based plastic surgeon who had the procedure done on himself around eight years ago after a significant weight loss, told Mic. "Men live with shame because it's supposed to be part of being a man." But if recent numbers are proof of anything, that thinking is beginning to shift. Not only that — guys are loving the results.
A photo posted by DrMiami (@therealdrmiami) on Oct 12, 2015 at 2:56pm PDT
Self-confidence is born. A quick search on Reddit finds dozens of testimonials. "Absolutely, 100%, without a doubt worth it," redditor BonanaPeel wrote. "I went into debt to have the surgery, and would do it all over again. If I hadn't, I'd probably still be a total reclusive virgin." (The physicians fee for the surgery, according to the 2014 ASPS report, costs on average $3,333.)
"I have gained a significant amount of confidence. I can wear just one shirt now without three layers underneath," redditor tziy wrote. "I can finally stand up straight. And I can finally hug someone without feeling self conscious."
"It did wonder[s] for my self-confidence," redditor 3216549 wrote. "I could hit the gym without feeling like I needed Spanx. I could wear tank-tops or go to the pool and not feel bad. This segued into hitting the gym and changing my nutrition later (22 now) and I have lost about 90 lbs, am decently fit and getting better every day. Getting the surgery was probably the best decision of my life."
The staggering increase in interest in male breast reductions could be seen as an example that men are allowing themselves to be more vulnerable, more open and more willing to seek change. Realizing you don't have to live with unwanted breasts and can do something about it is something new — and life-changing — for these men.
And in our hypercompetitive, hypervisual culture, they need all the help they can get.