Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Begging for boob jobs

Crowd-funding site calls itself a charity, but there is a dark side

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When you first log on to My Free Implants, it looks more or less like any other straight dating site. Hundreds of women stare out at you from profile pictures, trying to look alluring or friendly, offering personal information both quirky ("I currently own two dogs, two cats, two mice and a deaf ferret") and inane ("I have a lot of passion for life"). The women's interests vary, but their intent is uniform: They all invite you to chat, to send pictures, to discuss your interests with them. Perhaps you'll strike up a friendship.

And perhaps you'll give them money for breast implants.

That is the goal behind the website: to match up women ("the girls") with benefactors ("the donors") who will cover the cost of breast-augmentation surgery. To start soliciting donations, a woman need merely provide her name, birthday and several pictures. Within seconds, she can start updating her status and chatting with donors. If she's feeling ambitious, she can participate in one of the many "contests" set up by donors. An AIM-like chat function, which limits text and automatically deletes chat history, is free to use, but direct messages cost a donor $1 each. And users can swap pictures and videos of anything they'd like through invitation-only private galleries.

The women of MFI never get direct access to any money that is raised; rather, it goes to an escrow known, inevitably, as the Boob Bank. When a woman reaches her goal, usually around $5,500, the money is paid directly to an MFI-affiliated plastic surgeon who performs her surgery. If all goes well, her before-and-after pictures, along with a Q&A, enter the hallowed MFI Hall of Fame.

MFI's founders claim about 1,100 women have received implants through the website, and a quick glance through its hall of fame seems to confirm that. But $5,500 is a lot of money, and each private message from a donor brings an "MFI girl" only $1. What does a woman have to do on My Free Implants to get enough money for plastic surgery?

To find the answer, I entreated a female friend to become an MFI girl for a day and learn the tricks of the trade. (Don't worry about the donors; their money is returned if the recipient quits the site.) As soon as my friend signed up, she received a message from a soldier serving in Afghanistan. He told her he liked MFI because it allowed him to "chat with real women," and that he "tries to help them out when he can." No solicitations, offers or money were forthcoming.

This pattern continued with the next seven men. A college student echoed the desire to "chat with real women" and wanted to talk to my friend about sports.

"I got the sense," my friend said, "that the guys were a little lonely."

The founders of MFI, Jay Moore and Jason Grunstra, remain largely laissez-faire about users' activities; their online conduct isn't regulated or censored by the site. And the model seems to be working: Today, the site has about 13,500 active users -- 3,500 women and 10,000 men. Moore and Grunstra launched MFI's prototype in 2005 to help a cocktail waitress at Caesars Palace raise money for breast implants. They opened the site to the public the next year. Their vision appeals to social libertarianism, with an undercurrent of sexual empowerment.

It's easy to forget MFI is designed to help women undergo a fairly serious and unnecessary surgery. Moore notes that although MFI can't legally provide medical advice, the website does point out the possibility of implant rejection or revision, in which an implant is replaced or deflated. Moreover, MFI participants must spend months raising money and presumably contemplating their decision, which Moore believes makes them better-informed about the process. And MFI releases Boob Bank funds only to board-certified cosmetic surgeons. (Still, the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons have condemned the site.)

The website's breezy tone masks a disturbing truth: Breast augmentation is one of the riskiest things a woman can do to her body. A sizable portion of breast-augmentation patients experience chronic breast pain, nerve damage and infection. Almost all implants leak at some point, many within about a decade of surgery. A broken saline implant can leak bacteria or mould into the body; a broken silicone implant can leak liquid silicone that is taken up by the patient's liver and lymph nodes. Compounding the danger, many women don't notice a break for months or even years.

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2013 A2

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