By Jennifer Morales Special to Published Aug 16, 2007 at 4:25 PM

Hey, buddy. Got $14 billion on ya?

Apparently people in the U.S. have more disposable income than I thought, because an article in the New York Times this week reports that Americans spent that much on "cosmetic medical procedures (from liposuction to laser skin treatments)." The article also notes that more people of modest means are getting nipped and tucked. A 2004 survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that about a third of those considering plastic surgery had household incomes below $30,000.

In true U.S. style, more people are going into debt to get their breasts lifted and their ears pinned. Of that $14 billion, one billion was financed by credit companies. With hundreds of dollars up front for loan processing fees and years of double-digit interest payments, your little $5,000 abdominoplasty can nearly double in price over the course of a loan. 

New credit companies, some of them bragging that they won't turn any borrower down, are springing up to meet the growing interest in cosmetic surgery loans. When loans aren't enough, some surgery-seekers are putting their plastic on plastic, meaning they might be paying as much as 25 percent interest on their newly toned arms and legs.

This kind of debt-wish behavior makes me wonder about what these creditors will do if the borrowers can't keep up with the payments. I mean, Ford won't bat an eyelid before repossessing the minivan if we don't get that check in before the 5th of the month, but what if the debt was for new eyelids?  The remake of "Repo Man" is going to be pretty creepy.

For some people, cosmetic surgery can make real improvements in their appearance and consequently in their self-confidence. For most of us, though, it's just miserable striving. In fact, a longitudinal study of over 3,500 Swedish women, published this month in the Annals of Plastic Surgery, found that women who got breast implants were three times more likely to kill themselves or to die from drug or alcohol abuse than the rest of the population. It's not that breast implants lead to suicide, but that women who seek this surgery are more likely to have underlying mental illness such as depression.

Just to put this trend in perspective, $14 billion a year could pay the salary and benefits of nearly additional 200,000 teachers for U.S. schools. Or think what that money could do if it were invested each year in small business development? Or mental health care?

Our culture's love of surface over substantive improvements in quality of life represents a curious set of priorities that really should be raising more eyebrows.

Jennifer Morales Special to

Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.

Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.

In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.