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​New Study Says Asymmetrical Boobs May Have Negative Psychological Effects on Teens

Do you suffer from a made-up medical condition called breast asymmetry? Fear not: the American Society of Plastic Surgeons is here to help.
Image via Wikimedia commons user Dylan Ashe

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) journal, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, published a new study in its December issue that says "breast asymmetry may negatively impact the psychological quality of life of adolescents."

The study included 160 subjects with macromastia, in addition to 59 girls between the ages of 12 and 21 years who had unevenly-sized breasts. The researchers, it would seem, failed to realize that nearly every female-bodied person on earth has some level of "breast asymmetry."

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The press release accompanying the study even alludes to that in its first sentence:

Differences in breast size are common, especially in early adolescence. The breasts usually even out over time, but in some girls the difference persists after puberty. The new study is the first to focus on the mental health impact of breast asymmetry.

"These findings suggest that patients suffering from breast asymmetry have poorer emotional well-being and lower self-esteem than their female peers," Dr. Labow and coauthors write. They note that the mental health impact is similar for girls with mild versus more severe breast asymmetry.

Study co-author Dr. Brian Labow, who is both a professor at Harvard Medical School and a surgeon at Boston Children's Hospital, goes on to say that while younger girls don't necessarily need surgery right away, "early evaluation and intervention for these patients may be beneficial, and should include weight control and mental health counseling."

Message to teen girls everywhere: not only are your (still growing) boobs all wrong, you are also fat and crazy.

VICE wrote to the Boston Children's Hospital requesting comment on the message this study sends to young girls about body image, and also requested data on the amount of breast reconstruction surgeries taking place annually at Dr. Lebow's Adolescent Breast Clinic located at the hospital. The hospital did not respond.

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A disclosure in the study's author information claimed: "The authors have no financial interest to declare regarding the content of this article." Just below, it conceded that the research was supported by the Plastic Surgery Foundation—which states in its annual report that a percentage of membership dues go toward state and federal lobbying as well as health policy.

While it's clear that this "research" is inextricably tied to the financial goals of the plastic surgery industry, it's disturbing to know that such studies can impact legislation and health policy affecting young girls whom already face massive pressure to think there's something wrong with their bodies. The board of the Plastic Surgery Foundation is comprised of around 25 men and two ladies (presumably sprinkled in for good measure).

VICE spoke with Dana Edell, executive director at teen-driven campaign SPARK, which stands for Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge. A SPARK member, Julia Bluhm, successfully campaigned to get Seventeen magazine to stop using Photoshop on its photos of girls in 2012 when she was just 14. A large part of the group's mission is to block the constant barrage of media images that tell girls there is something wrong with the way they look.

"Companies are trying to make money off of every inch of our bodies," Edell told VICE. "If you can instill this idea in girls from a young age that their breasts are not normal, of course they are going to be insecure."

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Edell said that studies like this can make it seem as if the insecurity girls feel comes first, but in fact body image problems are usually caused by the very messages the studies propagate.

"It's the opposite. They create the anxiety, which then leads to mental health problems," Edell said. "If there's a girl growing up in a place where this kind of thing doesn't exist, she's not going to care if her breasts are slightly different sizes."

Alice Wilder, another member of SPARK and a 19-year-old student at University of North Carolina, told VICE that she still remembers the body anxiety of middle school, when she and her friends started discussing the possibility of one day getting breast implants.

"The problem isn't within girls. The problem, when I was in middle school, was what boys are going to think," Wilder said. "That I'm going to be a freak, and this is how girls are supposed to look. We talked about turning your body into a to-do list of problems that need to be solved.

"I think it was a thing mostly when you're younger and you don't know as much about medical realities. You're afraid to talk about one of your breasts being bigger than the other," said Wilder. "Now that I'm in college, I know that no one has boobs that are the same exact size. People would talk about it like it was a big secret, but now we know it's just a medical reality."

Wilder said that reading the press release for the study made her "angry," and worried that a lack of good sex education programs could leave girls with misunderstandings about whether their bodies are normal.

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"There's an enormous amount of money and time that goes into making teenage girls hate themselves," said Wilder. "It's like people sit in boardrooms and think up ways to get teen girls to see their very pores as a problem, when pores are just part of the anatomy."

In a video on the website of the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, editor Dr. Rod Rohrich claims that the study "was able to conclude that breast asymmetry—which, unfortunately, is often classified as a cosmetic issue—is truly a condition which has lasting psychological and emotional effects."

Dr. Rohrich's assertions would presume that nearly every woman in the world is suffering from psychological and emotional problems.

"I would rather see them doing studies on sexualization and the root causes of these insecurities," Wilder told VICE. "When I was 12 years old I thought I had small breasts. Would he have done surgery on me? Now I'm 19 and I'm fine with my body."

Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on ​Twitter.