I want an ‘Extreme Makeover’

This is the time of year when many of us make promises to ourselves we can’t keep. Who among us wouldn’t like to quit a bad habit, lose a few pounds, get more sleep or make more time for whatever it is we really want to do?

But a growing number of Americans are looking at their lives and wanting a more extreme change. And increasingly, those changes involve plastic surgery and pills, not willpower.

TV’s “Extreme Makeover” program is a symptom of a larger problem: The standard of beauty has shifted so far that we can’t attain it without major surgical help. For women, that means even a gorgeous woman who is a size 8 or 10 can only be a “plus size” model.

For men, it can mean a great looking face or impressive job isn’t enough – you need to somehow achieve a body that until recently was reserved for comic book superheroes. And for both men and women, it means even the most beautiful and handsome models need hours of makeup and hair care and perfect lighting and even then they must be computer-enhanced to make them look even more perfect.

For those who haven’t seen the TV program, it’s the old makeover idea from women’s magazines brought to a new extreme. In addition to new makeup and hairdos from a makeup artist to the stars, the men and women on “Extreme Makeover” undergo multiple plastic surgeries in addition to expensive clothes and a personal trainer.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to look our best, but you know things have gone too far when “Extreme Makeover” and “Face Lifts from Hell” are TV entertainment programs shown during the holidays as an alternative to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” If there was one time of year when we usually think about internal beauty and not just external beauty, this used to be it.

At the same time that TV is reminding us how imperfect we are, the new Food and Drug Administration commissioner will be making decisions on some of the products designed to help us overcome those imperfections. In just the last few years, the FDA has approved diet pills, saline breast implants, Botox and other products aimed at helping us feel better about ourselves, sometimes at the expense of our health. They have looked the other way as liquid silicone has been injected into wrinkles by dermatologists across the country, without ever being tested or approved for that use by the FDA.

What will the new year and the new commissioner bring? We can count on new medical products to prevent wrinkles or make us feel younger, many of which are sold as cosmetics or natural supplements that are virtually untested for safety. We now know hormone therapy for menopause is much riskier than we thought, but human growth hormone is growing trend despite safety concerns. And we can also look forward to the attempted comeback of silicone breast implants, which is coming up for possible approval this year. What will the standards be? Will the new commissioner make sure these products are truly safe and effective for long-term use, or will FDA continue to approve products based on only short-term safety studies?

Our makeovers will be more extreme than we bargained for if the FDA doesn’t do more to protect us from wishful thinking and billion-dollar promotions. In recent years, the pressure to sell youth in a bottle or implant has been stronger than the pressure to make sure these “miracle” products are safe. Will we continue to take chances with our health in order to look as good as we possibly can? Will the FDA save us from ourselves or let us decide what risks we are willing to take in our quest for perfection?

Stay tuned.

Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families.