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Ariel Winter strikes a pose on the red carpet at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, five months before downsizing her breasts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Fans of Modern Family are about to start noticing something different about Ariel Winter, the 17-year-old who plays Alex on the hit show.
In June, after enduring years of intense back and neck pain, Winter underwent breast-reduction surgery, decreasing her bra size from 32F to 34D.
“It’s something I did to better my life and health,” she said in a recent interview with Glamour.com. “I had been discussing my chest with doctors for many years, but when I finally said, ‘I’m thinking of doing this,’ he said, ‘Your back is going to thank you so much.’”
The surgery didn’t just change her physically, however — it lifted a psychological burden as well. These days, Winter is enjoying a huge boost in body confidence, which had been worn down by the constant comments and sexual attention she received as a teen with a voluptuous adult figure.
Now that her breasts are more in proportion to her 5-foot-1 frame, Winter has many more options in clothing, which makes her feel better about herself, she says. She no longer feels she has to keep her breasts covered all the time, whereas before she might “look a certain way that I’m not intending to look,” she told Glamour.com.
The health and body-image issues Winter had to deal with are the same factors that drove about 4,000 teenage girls to have breast-reduction surgery in 2013, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (A total of 122,838 women of all ages had the procedure that year.)
And while age 17 might seem very young to undergo surgery that permanently alters a girl’s appearance, the decision to have it is something teens don’t take lightly, doctors and psychologists say.
“Large breasts change the body’s center of gravity, causing back, neck, and shoulder pain,” Scot Glasberg, MD, a plastic surgeon in New York City and the president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, tells Yahoo Parenting. “This can keep a teen from playing sports or exercising, and it interferes with daily living—it can even be hard to sleep.”
Most surgeons won’t perform the procedure on a teen who is younger than 16 or 17, says Glasberg, in part because that’s when breasts generally stop developing (though they can keep growing until her early 20s). Also, girls at this age have the maturity to want a reduction for herself, not to please someone else or conform to a cultural preference.
“When a minor and her parents come in to ask about surgery, we do a psychological assessment to make sure she is making an informed decision about the risks, such as pain and scarring, and that a reduction is what she wants — not what a boyfriend or parent is pressuring her to do,” he says.
Having breast-reduction surgery can be a mental-health decision as well. In our sexualized world, the attention a teen receives for having large breasts can be overwhelming — and lead to body-image and emotional problems.
“The unwanted comments and attention a teen may get can result in depression, self-harming behavior, and early sexual activity,” Robyn Silverman, a body-image expert and the author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat, tells Yahoo Parenting. Surgery is an option for girls who are well adjusted but tired of the fallout from having an out-of-proportion chest, she says.
Of course, not all teens are candidates for the surgery, and the cost can make it prohibitive for many families (it’s covered by insurance only about 50 percent of the time, says Glasberg). For girls who don’t have the option or for teens still too young for the procedure, parents can encourage body confidence by practicing it themselves while praising what their daughter does and achieves and not how she looks.
“Placing too much emphasis on whether your teen looks pretty will only reinforce that she needs to look good and that physical features matter,” Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Instead, praise her for studying hard for a test or hustling on the sports field.”
And remind her that most people have something they dislike about themselves, so it’s better to focus on physical features they approve of. “Teens can feel better about themselves by putting more focus on the parts they do like, rather than thinking about only the parts they don’t like,” says Morin.