Beauty Redefined Blog

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Salt Lake City is Vainest of Them All?



Salt Lake City, Utah, is known for its ski slopes, Latter-day Saints, Sundance Film Festival and … unmatched vanity? One of these things is not like the others, but according to research at Forbes, the Beehive State’s capitol earned the now-infamous title “Vainest City in the Nation” in 2007, which still stands, according to the most recent data. Anyone who has driven along a SLC freeway and seen the billboards might not be shocked to hear the city has the most plastic surgeons per capita at six per 100,000 residents – topping NYC and LA! But it’s not just plastic surgery that places SLC at the height of vanity, where 66% of procedures are considered “cosmetic.” The little metropolis’s “self-help” regimens lead the nation, as well, due to the record-breaking millions spent on cosmetics, skin care and hair products each year: ten-fold the amount spent in cities of comparable size.

Thus, we decided to take a closer look at SLC’s unfortunate distinction to further investigate how and why these stats are playing such a role in this locale, and how it may be taken for granted as normal and natural. Even if you’ve never been to Utah, we see this as a case study that is very representative of the rest of the Westernized world. And while it’s well known that statistics can be manipulated or misinterpreted, we’d like to provide some context for how and why THIS is the place for cosmetic surgery and an apparent quest for physical “perfection.”

First, keep in mind the University of Utah has a premier School of Medicine offering residencies in plastic and reconstructive surgery, which may lead to higher numbers of surgeons staying in Utah to practice. Plus, getting “work done” in Utah is cheaper than the rest of the nation, where a tummy tuck is around $6,000 but as much as $15,000 in LA. Even then, Utah surgeons estimate only about 20 percent of their clients come from out of state.

We also see Utah’s chart-topping birth rate and early marriage age leading to the perfect storm for the ultra-popular “mommy makeover,” which includes breast enhancement, tummy tuck, and lipo. Utah plastic surgeons report online that a “very large” percentage of their work is devoted to body contouring and breast surgery, where nearly 100% of their patients are women and roughly 80 percent elect to those procedures. Women who have lost weight, given birth, and want bigger breasts appear to represent the vast majority of cosmetic surgery clientele in the Salt Lake City area.

And get this – according to stats just produced by RealSelf, the “most visited website in aesthetics,” people in SLC search online for info on getting breast implants more often than any other city in the U.S.! They calculated the total searches for a topic based on millions of consumers in a three-month period, and then broke them down to location of the visitor. In Salt Lake City, residents seek out info on getting breast implants 74% more often than the national average. Wow.

One SLC plastic surgeon, Dr. Brian Brzowski, told he believes the intense interest in breast implants can be attributed to both the fact that women have babies at a younger age than the rest of the nation and that Utah women lead an active lifestyle. “A thinner, fitter populace tends to have less breast fullness. This can complicate clothing choices and make fitting into swimsuits and the use of padded bras more of a reality,” he says.

While his point about young mothers is very accurate, the latter point about the thinner, fitter populace and their troublesome small chests is a bit off the mark, in our opinion. Sure, it might be true that a fitness-oriented population might not have as much “breast fulness” as the rest of the population, but the assumed “complicat[ions]” of that fact are what’s bothersome. Women shouldn’t need to “fit into” swimmingsuits – swimmingsuits should fit THEM. And why the use of padded bras? Why the unquestioned, unchallenged pressure to visually enhance the parts that have likely been instrumental in nourishing the babies they’re so proud of? Why is the appearance of breasts such a dominant concern?

Another reality here is that many “fit, active” women will tell you breast implants get in the way of physical activity. Ever swung a golf club with large breasts? Ran? Jumped? Dove off a cliff? The list goes on. Having implants in your breasts does not exactly contribute to that “active lifestyle.” Plus, the time spent on the operating table, weeks recovering, chances of a botched surgery, and implant replacements every decade can really get in the way of a healthy and fit lifestyle.

Did you know the American Medical Association banned advertising for plastic surgery procedures until 1982, when the FTC demanded more competition between medical providers to decrease costs? Since that year, cosmetic surgery has seriously infiltrated pop culture. On top of that, in the last decade, media images of women in all genres have morphed into a standard of beauty further from reality than ever before. At the same time, female body hatred has skyrocketed. NO WONDER so many women elect to breast implants, lipo, and every type of beauty product and procedure! Here, we see a direct link to what we perceive as media entertainment and all-too-real effects on the way women are spending their time, money and energy to “fix” every inch of their bodies.

Though so much evidence tells us beauty ideals of extreme thinness and shapely perfection have little to no correlation with actual physical health, we still see evidence demonstrating people believe these myths. Multiple studies demonstrate most females now perceive underweight bodies as being ideally healthy. Even underweight and average weight females are striving for weight loss using dangerous and unhealthy means. As representations of women’s bodies have shrunk to a level of thinness and altered “perfection” never before seen, eating disorders have reached epidemic proportions, with 10 million US women fighting a life-or-death battle with anorexia or bulimia and millions more with a binge eating disorder.

So many of the most popular weight loss tactics have almost nothing to do with improving actual indicators of health and fitness. Unfortunately, they’re still marketed as health-focused, fitness-conscious means to improve peoples’ well-being. Numerous studies show us that body weight often has very little correlation to health or fitness. A huge analysis of medical studies since the ’70s concluded with the little-publicized fact that overweight and active people may be healthier than those who are thin and sedentary (Macias Aguayo et al., 2005; Heimpel, 2009). Therefore, understanding that activity level is a much more reliable indicator of a person’s health than their body weight is key to promoting real, effective health goals that can lead people away from extremes like disordered eating and obesity — and away from misguided attempts to lose weight and improve health through procedures like liposuction.

While many claim they use liposuction as a way to drop pounds and gain health, new research helps us see these fast-fix procedures might do more harm than good. A 2009 study of 31 women who underwent lipo in one or more areas showed that while the women lost weight, their health did not improve and in some cases it worsened. It has been verified that most lipo patients regain their pre-surgery weight and in many cases exceed it, and what is worse, this study and others show that lipo does NOT remove visceral fat (the bad kind of fat that is associated with insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, hypertension, etc.). In fact, lipo often leads to body fat redistribution, which is associated with increases in obesity and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Yikes! It turns out liposuction does NOT lead to greater health (And THAT is reported by the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery).

Based on these facts, we can see how a variety of factors have joined forces to create the “perfect” storm for vanity in one specific city. An affluent, fitness-oriented population that marries young, has more children than the rest of the nation and receives endless appearance-focused messages (on the roadside and otherwise) is primed for this unfortunate distinction as “vainest in the nation.” SLC residents aren’t bad. Having cosmetic surgery in any form is not bad. Purchasing beauty products isn’t bad either.

What IS bad is the pressure too many women feel to undergo procedures, spend exorbitant amounts of money and engage in unhealthy acts to achieve a standard of “beauty” and appearance-focused “health” that benefits industries much more than the women themselves.

It’s time for all of us to re-evaluate what health, happiness and beauty mean to us and how we believe they can be attained. Why are we so willing to sacrifice our time, money and often our health to achieve these ideals? In what ways do we often try to achieve “health” using unhealthy or dangerous measures? Do we believe our happiness is dependent on fixing our “flaws” that are defined by profit-driven industries? Who benefits from us believing those messages? How much are you contributing to the cosmetic surgery industry, the beauty industry and weight loss industries? Are they helping? Have they improved your self-esteem? Have they improved your self-perception as a dynamic, valuable and multi-faceted person? Because you are.

Please know: You are capable of so much more than being looked at.

Beauty Redefined is currently in the process  of purchasing billboard space throughout SLC to promote healthy body image! For more information, read about our campaign HERE. For helpful reminders on how to redefine your perceptions of beauty, health and the role of appearance in your own life, please check out our strategies for men and women.

  1. Tasha

    I am from Southern California and moved to Utah 3 years ago to attend BYU. It has always shocked me to see how many plastic surgery billboards there are in Salt Lake – WAY more than I ever saw back home! I think part of the problem is that our culture tends to equate thinness, wealth, and attractiveness with goodness and righteousness. It makes me so sad that we struggle with loving ourselves and our neighbors just the way we are. Fortunately, our campus is working to fight these unhealthy attitudes ( I really hope we can change.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined04-19-2011

      I think you’re exactly right! The majority of cultures in the U.S. seem to equate thinness and “attractiveness” with success, hard work and goodness. It’s such a distortion! And it’s a very profitable distortion that fuels too many industries. Thank goodness for your hard work! We’re huge fans of the BYU WSR blog. Thanks for your comment!

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined04-19-2011

      Thanks for your thoughts, Tasha! BYU’s WSR is fighting this hard, as well. I’m so glad powerful women are coming together to help counteract the confusing, often harmful messages we get with empowering, uplifting ones. We’d love to team up with you for a presentation at BYU in the fall! Ours last month at the Wilk went really well. Have a good day!

      • Beauty Redefined
        Beauty Redefined04-19-2011

        Oh wow, this is what you get when twins run a website! The first comment is from Lindsay, the second from Lexie :) We’ll try not to let it happen again!

    • BYU Women's Services
      BYU Women's Services04-26-2011

      Thanks for your support! We would LOVE to have you two come in the fall! We’ll have to talk details soon. :)

    • Cameron Holtoe
      Cameron Holtoe07-14-2016

      You’d be flabbergasted in Miami then.. a LOT more billboards for boobs and butts

  2. Sabra Van Leuven
    Sabra Van Leuven04-19-2011

    Wow! I had no idea it was like that in Salt Lake City. When I was in California i noticed tv & radio commercials constantly advertising for weight loss & plastic surgery etc.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined05-03-2011

      So true. Ugh, radio commercials are absolutely terrible lately! They’re almost entirely dominated by weight loss pills, hair products, liposuction and other female-targeted appearance fixers.

  3. Terri

    Whoa, I had somehow missed this bit of news on Forbes. As I read, I found myself wondering what kinds of messages that the church might give on such procedures. My own reading of scripture would suggest that it is unnecessary. I know as I watch the cultural messages I take in about aging, I am always gauging the truth value by thinking about women 100 years ago would have done. That’s how I check the tendency to indulge cultural pressure. Hence, no hair dye, no plastic surgery, no tanning salons, etc.

    Living in the west might contribute to a higher number of relatively minor procedures for potential skin cancer.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined05-03-2011

      I love that strategy for gauging truth value! We need all the strategies we can get to see past all the unnecessary, profit-driven lies we’re sold about our perpetually “flawed” bodies. 100 years ago, people would have thought a little differently about undergoing voluntary surgeries for thse reasons! And regarding the skin cancer procedures, those were taken into account in the study under non-cosmetic or medical procedures. Unfortunately, those only accounted for about 1/3 of all procedures. Yikes.

  4. Rebekah

    SUCH a good post!

    “And why the use of padded bras? Why the unquestioned, unchallenged pressure to visually enhance the parts that have likely been instrumental in nourishing the babies they’re so proud of? Why is the appearance of breasts such a dominant concern?”

    Utah’s said to have the highest porn usage in the US, and that could easily rip holes in women’s body image and self-esteem.

    Also, I wonder if competition for mates is a factor. When I was in a singles ward (in NM, not Utah), I was KEENLY aware of which girls in the ward were considered most or least attractive. With so many attractive potential mates around in SLC, women might feel afraid of not being noticed.

    Or perhaps it’s a snowball effect; once a few women in your ward or on your block have gotten a “mommy makeover,” perhaps you might start feeling left behind or inferior and worry about your mate’s eyes straying.

    Maybe a small part of it is a desire to fit in with the larger culture, to show the world that Mormons aren’t necessarily frumpy or stodgy.

    Whatever the reasons, thank you for addressing this.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined05-03-2011

      Thanks Rebekah! I think all of your points are valid. There are so many contributing factors to this unfortunate distinction, and cultural pressures are certainly involved. When we can recognize the issues and address them in our own lives and where we live, we gain power over them. Thanks for your comment and for your support!

  5. Mckella

    I live in Orem, Utah and I often drive through SLC to visit my hometown, Ogden. The amount of billboards for plastic surgery, laser hair removal, beauty schools, etc. On that entire stretch of freeway never ceases to amaze me. In Orem, I see girls out running in the middle of the night. In Utah, there’s a lot of pressure on girls to get married and have families, and go to school, and pursue church callings and look good doing it. It’s not the church’s fault, it’s just the culture. I think women use plastic surgery and diets to keep up and cope.

    • Beauty Redefined
      Beauty Redefined05-03-2011

      There’s definitely a distortion of religious and cultural values going on here. It’s so unfortunate that strategies to “keep up” are so harmful, expensive and appearance-oriented. Those types of surfacey strategies will never be enough – there will ALWAYS be a way to look better and “keep up,” but we know those don’t actually make people feel better or feel good enough. Thanks for your comment, McKella!

  6. caridad

    I wonder if the cosmetic surgery/breast enhancements are in correlation with the high instance of pornography in Utah – the men trying to turn their women into something closer to a porn star – OR the women trying to satisfy their men as a sort of last resort preferable to the cultural shame of divorce. Dunno, but I wonder. …

    • Sabrina

      You don’t need to know anything about porn to know that women have breasts and that men like them. Even a thirteen year old girl is looking forward to getting her breasts, to becoming a women. How do you think she feels when they don’t develop? That doesn’t come from advertisements and culture telling her she isn’t good enough because she doesn’t have big enough breasts. Compare that to maybe I finger that didn’t keep growing with the rest of them or if your ears didn’t grow. You don’t need a sign or some commercial to let you know about it, you know. Sometimes you just want to have your body.

  7. Annalea

    I went to college in Provo, and moved away just over ten years ago. I’ll never forget the drastic difference I feel when I visit the Provo/SLC area now. At home (in a rural, relatively non-affluent area), people smile at me when I smile at them . . . and even if I go to the store in grubby gardening clothes, I’m usually better dressed than about half of the folks there (folks here aren’t slobs–they just work hard for a living).

    But when I’m in Utah, almost nobody will meet my eye at the grocery store (where I’m usually in the lower 15% of the best-dressed echelon). If they do, 9 times out of 10 it seems like they’ll look away, pretending they never saw my cheerful face and smiling greeting. Walking on BYU campus odds are a little better . . . but only by 10% or so. I have a personal theory that the incredible focus on physical perfection is a symptom of this incredible low-grade hostility and insecurity. Confident, loving people are not that closed and cold.

    I’ve just found this site, and I think it’s marvelous. Keep up the good work!

  8. Carlita

    I live in Salt Lake, and I can attest to this. I avoid watching local tv as much as I can, because, especially during talk shows like “Good Things Utah” (whose subject matter certainly adds to the problem), every commercial has something to do with looking better – spas, plastic surgery, trendy boutiques, etc. It’s sickening, and it makes it really hard NOT to judge women by their perfect hair, perfect tans, perfect clothing, perfect children (who seem to be treated like accessories!).
    It is sad to me, as a member of the LDS church, which believes in its members being charitable, loving, friendly, and especially not vain or worldly, to see this disease creeping through this dominantly-LDS area.

  9. Sabrina

    Wow, such negativity! Sounds a bit bias. I am from Utah and have definatly noticed the change in advertising over the past several years. I live in Colorado now. What is so wrong about wanting to look good? Isn’t it a part of a healthy marriage and family life. I certainly want to keep my husband looking at me. I didn’t notice anything about the lower divorce rates in these areas, perhaps that is partly due with the women staying Hot for their husbands. Everything ofcourse needs to be balanced and perhaps that is where “Utah” is falling short. Personally I am all for getting a boob job, I would love to just be able to buy a bra that was in my size since they dont’ make a women’s AAA. And who knows maybe I won’t feel so lesbian if I have my own pair….

  10. Becks

    If people followed the word of wisdom (the food part, not the alcohol and tobacco part) they wouldn’t create the obesity issues that create their perceived need for liposuction. And as for cosmetic surgery, how is that any different than getting a haircut? OK it cost more up front but it lasts for years so on a monthly basis probably costs no more. Cosmetic surgery is no more vain than wearing lipstick, coloring your hair, shaving under your arms (or anywhere else), or wearing nice clothing. I’ve never figured why some people have such a bug up their rear about it. If people want to look better, good for them. If they want to save money (if that’s the objection most of you have) then eat better quality food (but not in gluttonous amounts), exercise more, get more sleep, and bank all that saved money for a nice vacation somewhere. Or spend it on more cosmetic surgery, because quite frankly, I like seeing nice looking people who actually care about their presentation to the public.

  11. Jamie

    I am LDS and have lived in Utah County for a long time. I have been really vocal with friends and family about my irritation with the huge increase in plastic surgery billboards targeting women. ( I’ve even considered moving away from here because it’s so obviously hypocritical.) The question of why it’s happening here of all places is perplexing; I do not believe that the LDS church wants women to feel insecure, but I can see how a belief system that places such a prominent emphasis on marriage could easily (and inadvertently) make women more conscious of their looks- let’s face it, looks are the first thing that many men consider when choosing a mate, and women know this. As for pornography, I wonder if some LDS men choose this as an outlet because they are more reluctant (due to their beliefs) to physically cheat on their wives, and therefore consider porn to be the lesser of two evils? It’s possible that their wives might feel compelled to have surgery in order to keep their husbands away from the porn. Whatever the case, this stuff is completely unhealthy, and the fact that it’s going on in a state that culturally prides itself on moral behavior, good character, and family values is just very, very sad. The LDS church is aggressively addressing the problem of pornography. I would like to see it do the same thing with the equally destructive problem of female objectification, because the two are clearly linked.

  12. Amy

    I grew up in Utah, and moved to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago. I am shocked how much it has changed and how much women look just like other women. There is definitely a “look” people aspire to. Out of five girls, I am the only one who has not has her appearance altered at all. In fact, my older sister who is only 43, just told me she got a second breast enhancement, her eyes done, some kind of filler, a chemical peel and something else done. She is already a stunningly beautiful woman, but she and my other sisters have always had hair extensions, fake eyelashes, fake tans, etc. I am perplexed!

    I don’t know of any of my friends here in Los Angeles that have ever had any work done, besides a little botox. It makes me a little sad to see my sisters becoming one kind of woman…it’s weird, freaky and I just don’t get it. There is so much beauty in “imperfections” and difference. That Housewives of Orange County look to me is just gross.

    Signed….perplexed and disturbed…???

  13. Renae

    Okay, so I have to weigh in on this. After a recent trip to Disneyland and back here to Utah, I was shocked by the billboards. One thing really stood out to me. Utah billboards are getting after the huge amount of disposable income that Utah offers. And that’s without seeing any billboards targeted at plastic surgery. In California, having two kids I was treated by those around me as if I had seven kids! I’m thinking, dang, I only have two. This was evident in our beach trip in Huntington, where it’s all locals. People would mention the children, police officers stopped to give the children stickers and I heard a fellow make note from a distance, “two kids”. A woman felt compelled to assist me on whatever way possible. Basically, it was just how I’d act with a family of seven kids. I have these experiences (billboards and beach) some pondering and can explain this all very well. It’s too expensive in California to afford to live somewhere with sufficient bedrooms for a large family. And pretty much all the money brought in goes to bare necessities. Out in Utah, you can get a home with 5 bedrooms for under $500k and you can earn almost as much as you can in California. Utahn’s have insane amounts of disposable income and spend it one way or another.

  14. quantumlepa42

    I’m calling BS on some of those numbers, specifically the number of plastic surgeons per 100,000 adults. The original Forbes article from 2007 (referenced in the link) found 45 surgeons “in Salt Lake City”, or 6 surgeons/ 100,000 people. According to those numbers Salt Lake City had a population of 750,000, which is not true. Salt Lake *County* had 750,000 in 2007, but not Salt Lake *City*. The Forbes article also claims that they only used the population over 18. In Salt Lake County 30% of the population is under 18, so that means in 2007 they were assuming Salt Lake *City* had a population of 1,000,000 (current pop ~190,000).

    A quick check on the American Society of Plastic Surgeons website currently shows 51 plastic surgeons in Utah. There are 3 in St. George (which puts St. George at 5.3 surgeons/100,000 adults), 2 in Logan, and the rest are along the Wasatch Front from Ogden to Provo with 26 in Salt Lake *County*. Using the current estimate of 1.1 million people in Salt Lake County, or rather the 770,000 adults that gives us 3.4 surgeons/100,000 adults. For the entire Wasatch Front there are 3 surgeons/100,000 adults.

    If we run the numbers for the second city on Forbes’s list (San Francisco) there are 50 surgeons for a population of 850,000. 13.4% are under 18, which gives us 6.8 surgeons/100,000 adults. Double the number for Salt Lake *County*.

    Always check the numbers. Journalists can’t do math.

  15. Rachel Rasmussen
    Rachel Rasmussen02-08-2017

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, might, mind and strength”. That’s the first great commandment. We are made in his image. The hubris of reinventing a god whose image we will be remade into borders on idolatry. Forget borders- I think it’s safe to say we have arrived at idolatry. There is a pretty clear distinction between “looking your best” and “surgically changing your body” (or the idolatry of non-sexual changes, such as excessive piercing or tattoos.). Trust in the Lord. It’s okay to look your age.

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