Perplexed: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who three years ago took part in a radio discussion about why so many women hate their bodies
Sue had a lovely face and looked a little like a young Felicity Kendal, yet it was her disproportionately large bust — her pride and joy, she said — which made her feel like a real woman.
She had found a plastic surgeon who did ‘economy’ boob jobs and went for it with three of her pals (they got a group discount). Thus she became one of the rapidly growing number of smart young women who opt for serious aesthetic surgery.
I encountered her when I was invited on to a radio programme to discuss why so many Western women hate their bodies. She excitedly showed me her bosoms, and even invited me to feel them. They looked luscious but unreal, and were truly horrible to touch — like leathery footballs. It was difficult at that moment to understand how anyone would find them a turn on.
I asked her why she had objects bigger than soup bowls put into her young and healthy body. She was baffled by the question and threw me a pitying look as though I was hard of understanding.
‘Everyone has them now. It’s no big deal. No one forced me — it’s normal. I don’t want to be a freak.’ In other words, if you don’t have breast implants, so her argument ran, there is something wrong with you.
It was one of those truly depressing moments when you realise just how twisted values have become in modern Britain. To women such as Sue, and the tens of thousands like her, ladies who get ‘topped-up’ with silicone are normal, even superior to other women.
One plastic surgeon told me before Christmas that he is fully booked up to perform these ‘augmentations’ until well into April, because an unprecedented number of young women have chosen the op as their Christmas present from husbands, boyfriends — and even fathers.
The surgeon has a gorgeous country mansion and a home in London: ‘OK, I make good money. But I am also selling confidence, helping women to feel they can be amazing instead of hiding inside big jumpers. Think of it as a kind of social work.’
As you can gather, he was the smoothest of operators, though I am sure many of his patients are deeply grateful for the service he provides. Some years ago, of course, doctors like him were less blasé and a little more cautious about who they were willing to re-model.
Re-modelling: The work of cosmetic plastic surgeons seems to have become standard-issue
Except that manicurists are unlikely to give you cancer. And, as very many women in Britain now know, if you are unlucky enough to have been given the wrong kind of silicone implant, there is a risk of that happening.
For months, concern has been mounting in France about breast implants made by a French firm, Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), which used industrial-grade silicone, also used as the filling in cheap mattresses.
Doctors offered them as the economical alternatives to expensive artificial breasts, yet it is now known that PIP implants are more likely to rupture, and can allegedly cause chronic illnesses, as well as having links to cancer.
The French government has decided to pay for all implant removals requested by affected or alarmed women, yet the response at the time in the UK was, at best, sluggish, at worst, shockingly indifferent.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency yawned and concluded there was nothing to fear, that the failure rate for these implants was less than one per cent.
In reality, the 50,000 British women estimated to have had these inserted must now be dreadfully worried.
Some of them had reconstruction surgery after breast cancer. But most others chose to have the work done for purely cosmetic reasons.
I wonder if Sue is among those who had these defective implants. Hers were done on the cheap, after all. If she is really scared and regrets her decision, will she have the wretched things taken out?
The irony is that she, and many women who chose to do the same as her, are not the empty-headed bimbos you might expect them to be.
Concern: The French-made PIP implants which have provoked warnings from health professionals
The problem was that successful careers had failed to imbue them with enough self-confidence to stop them allowing someone to cut open their bodies with a scalpel and push in foreign bodies which may yet prove to be hugely harmful.
So why do they do it? Because they have been bombarded all their adult lives with images of ‘perfect’ female bodies on TV programmes, in magazines and on the internet, brainwashed into thinking that to be ‘worth it’ they have to be stick thin or make themselves look like porn stars.
After years of being made to feel flawed and inferior, for these women the prospect of going under the knife becomes increasingly tempting.
Then along come the fairy godfathers (most plastic surgeons are male) promising perfection at a price that is just within reach of many ordinary people. You see their adverts everywhere — gorgeous women smile and jut out their enhanced chests, showing you exactly what is possible.
But none of those glossy adverts flag up the numerous health risks. Breast implants require serious surgery and proper recovery time. And things, as we now know, can go wrong. Very wrong. Belatedly this week, experts in the UK are beginning to take the problem seriously. But it may be too late for many women who already have that dangerous silicone in their bodies.
Do not get me wrong: I do not condemn these women outright for the choices they have made, not least because I can see for myself the reasons they made them.
Danger: Plastic surgeon Denis Boucq poses with PIP silicone gel breast implants
Two acquaintances who had reconstructions have been inconsolable over Christmas.
One, weeping copiously, told me: ‘I can’t bear it. My kids were just beginning to have hope that I was well. I feel suicidal. And guilty. I should have learned to live without a breast. I hate the bloody thing, so unnatural and hateful.’
It is inexcusable that doctors used inferior products for such vulnerable patients. In these cases, the NHS clearly needs to step in and remove them without charge.
I also sympathise with women like Sue, but their cases are slightly different. Maybe they shouldn’t have been so weak or vain in their efforts to attain what so many of them regard as unattainable physical ideals.
Our anger, though, should be directed at our lackadaisical regulators, who must wake up and start to monitor the plastic surgery industry, which has grown exponentially in the past decade. Good, professionally competent plastic surgeons have nothing to fear, but cowboy doctors must be held accountable and struck off if necessary. They have got away with it for too long.
Douglas McGeorge, former president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, accepts that private clinics have a duty of care and should take responsibility for these defective implants, which were chosen by doctors, not patients. Yet he thinks the removals should be done at ‘cost price’ to the patient.
What a travesty that would be. Many of these women saved for years to get the breasts of their dreams. Now they have turned out to be a nightmare, why should they have to raise more cash to pay for the greed and incompetence of the clinicians?
The Health Secretary needs to act tough and force those who inserted these implants to remove them without charge, and fast. Surely the clinics are insured against just this kind of crisis?
Above all, let this be a wake-up call, not only to the cosmetic doctors with their eyes on profit margins, but to all those women convinced that a pair of inflated plastic breasts will be their passport to happiness.