Teen faces clearer than ever

Saturday, September 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Some trademarks of the teenage face are eternal: the scowl, the eye-roll, the smirk. Whether they grow up listening to vinyl records or CDs, the adolescent's appearance has always had a certain rebellious sameness.

But look closely at the current crop of teenagers, and one indisputable fact becomes clear: They have better-looking faces than their parents did at the same age several decades ago.

New treatments for acne, crooked teeth and vision problems give today's teens more options, even cures of sorts, for these scourges of adolescence. The nicknames Pizza Face, Metal Mouth and Four Eyes aren't entirely things of the past, but new medical devices and drugs give these young people far more control over how they look – even more than they can get from hair gels, blow dryers and designer clothes.

"They don't have to suffer the same kind of growing pains as we did," said Robert Doyle, a child psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

Rick Howe, 16, is virtually cured of his severe acne after taking a drug called Accutane, whereas his mother suffered from serious acne for years as a teen.

"Now when I look in the mirror, there's nothing to remind me of how bad it was," he said.

Tom Lopez, 53, a Massachusetts high school football coach, said teens today, including his son, look better than he did at the same age. He recalls his awkwardness as a gangling 6-foot-4-inch teen, with silver bulky braces and thick glasses.

Now, standard braces are on for shorter periods of time and come off usually by high school, and contact lenses are a popular option as early as middle school. At least in the facial looks department, "teens today have a smoother run through adolescence," Mr. Lopez said.

Some psychologists and physicians worry, however, that these cosmetic improvements may only heighten the standards of good looks for an age group already preoccupied with looks.

"We're shortening the time from childhood to adulthood," said Dr. Lynda Young, a Worcester, Mass., pediatrician in practice for more than 20 years. "We've also raised the bar. Now, if a teenager has a few pimples, people say, 'Why don't you do something about it?' It's not, 'Don't worry. It will be better in a few years.'"

Some psychologists say even if teens today have some advantages over past generations, it's a drop in the mammoth self-esteem bucket. In this celebrity culture, many teens strive to look like TV stars such as Jennifer Love Hewitt of Party of Five or James Van Der Beek of Dawson's Creek, or compare themselves to photos of glamorous models – where blemishes are often air-brushed out of the picture.

Attaining a certain look can also be costly. A standard set of braces, for instance, costs $4,000 to $5,000, with only some part potentially covered by insurance. If patients seek the novel invisible braces, the cost goes up by the thousands.

Some physicians worry, though, that treatments for braces or acne are beginning too early or too aggressively.

And with surgery to enhance beauty on the rise among teens – with 175,000 teens choosing some kind of aesthetic plastic surgery last year, a tripling of the number from 1997 – some fear the long-term consequences.

As part of a more aggressive can-do attitude about physical woes, Dr. Young has listened to numerous teenage girls inquire about costly breast augmentation or mole-removals. Entertainment publications have speculated that teen pop star Britney Spears has had breast-enlarging surgery, but she has not confirmed this.

In the last two years, the greatest rise in teenage cosmetic surgery cases is in the areas of chemical peels, laser hair removal and breast augmentation, according to statistics from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

While surgery on noses and ears remain the most common cosmetic procedures, there's evidence that teens are exposing themselves to novel ones, too. Some physicians report that some teenage boys are asking about calf implants to increase the shape of that part of the leg.

Leida Snow, spokeswoman for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, said while teen cosmetic surgery has grown, it's far from common: Teenage cosmetic surgery cases last year represent fewer than 1 percent of U.S. teens. She added that such procedures, particularly when they alleviate a disfiguring problem, gives a psychological boost to many teens.

While teen cosmetic surgery remains controversial – so much so that federal regulators recently set 18 as the minimum age for cosmetic breast augmentation – today's new treatments have indisputable advantages for teens like Rick Howe, a Medfield, Mass., football player.

"I feel so much better about myself," said Rick, who took Accutane for six months last year. "I don't have to avoid getting my picture taken or feel embarrassed and disgusting."

And the hideous bulky metal braces of decades past have been replaced by less obtrusive devices. Some teens go so far as to say they are "fashion statements" in middle school.

Instead of thick metal bands that go around each tooth, orthodontists now use thinner brackets that are glued on to each tooth. Dr. Barton Tayer, a Brookline, Mass., orthodontist, said the nickel titanium wire, which has a memory for the shape it wants to create, has helped abbreviate the length of treatment.

Psychologists say if today's teens don't fully appreciate their cosmetic advantages, it's because they compare themselves to each other, not teens of past generations. The size of the pimple, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder.

If teens are spared thick glasses or bad acne, they are still wrestling with surging hormones, new body shapes, voice changes and body hair growth.

"If they're not worried about zits, it's something else," said Dr. Gregory Fritz, a psychiatrist who is editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. "There's a certain awkwardness that is just in the minds of teens."

Some parents say anything that helps teens through this turbulent time is a good thing, but they also hope they develop a more tolerant attitude about any perceived blemishes.

"They want a magical cure for everything," said Anita Cote, 42, of Salem, Mass., mother of two teens. "With us, we just had to live with it. It was an accepted part of growing up."

Distributed by New York Times News Service.