A nonprofit in New York has an admirable mission: to provide free plastic surgery for low-income children who have facial deformities. Some of the kids who apply to the Little Baby Face Foundation do so because they are being teased over their looks. But is plastic surgery a smart way to help bullying victims?
For 15-year-old Renata and her mother, the answer was yes. Renata had been taunted so cruelly over her appearance that she stopped attending school altogether; she's been home-schooled for the last three years.
"They were just calling me 'that girl with the big nose,'" Renata told NBC News. "It just really hurts. And you can't get over it."
Last year, Renata and her mom Michelle, who asked that their last name not be used, read about another girl around Renata's age, named Nadia Ilse. Bullied over her looks, Nadia transformed her appearance through free plastic surgery provided by the Little Baby Face Foundation. After that story hit the media, the Little Baby Face Foundation received hundreds more calls and applications than usual. Renata's mom was one of them — she called the foundation and she and her daughter worked on the application. "I tried convincing myself that I am fine the way I am, but I just don't believe it anymore," Renata wrote in her application letter.
The idea of using plastic surgery to stop a child from being bullied has some experts very concerned, including New York psychologist Vivian Diller, who has written extensively about the issue.
"Are we saying that the responsibility falls on the kid who's bullied, to alter themselves surgically?" Diller asked in an interview with NBC News. "We really have to address the idea that there should be zero tolerance of bullying, and maybe we even have to encourage the acceptance of differences."
Renata's mom disagrees. To her it's similar to correcting any other sort of medical problem a child might have. "Parents correct kids' teeth with braces to make their teeth straighter," the teen's mother said. "They're still the same kid on the inside, but, unfortunately, people are judged on how they look."
The Little Baby Face Foundation got a huge amount of media attention over the Nadia Ilse story, but doctors at the nonprofit insist they are not running an anti-bullying organization. Dr. Thomas Romo, the director of facial, plastic and reconstructive surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, runs the foundation, which was started in 2002. Romo has treated children with deformities all around the world and wanted to bring that idea home to the U.S.
Image: Teen covering face, via Shutterstock