RealSelf Is Taking The Shame Out of Plastic Surgery

RealSelf Is Taking The Shame Out of Plastic Surgery

Last month, RealSelf, an online community around cosmetic treatments, announced that it has raised a $40 million investment.

For the ten years that the Seattle-based startup has been active, it has raised a total funding of $42 million and hundreds of thousands of reviews. Over 28,000 of those are on breast augmentation with 98% women calling the treatment ‘worth it’. The desire for fuller breasts is closely followed by the tummy tuck procedure (>24k reviews, 96% worth it) and the Brazilian butt lift (>22k reviews, 90% worth it).

RealSelf is where women gather to learn and review plastic surgery and other cosmetic treatments, rate the best doctors in the business, and share their experiences. With doctors ready to answer questions and dispense advice, RealSelf is that undeniable intermediary between women who think about getting nips and tucks and women who do.

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Picture Courtesy: The RealSelf Website

From rhinoplasty, botox to microneedling – one can skim through the pages and pages of comments and the before & after photos (be warned – it’s not safe for work) users willingly share to keep the community abreast, pun intended, with their post-operation progress. To newer users, it probably takes as long to get over the irony that a startup about plastic surgery is called RealSelf.

But, hey, there’s no place here for judgment. Tennessee Williams, the famous American playwright, once said, “There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.” The natural conclusion of that sentence today would be ‘or you get a plastic surgery’, and people do.

Expedia for Plastic Surgery

Tom Seery was working at Expedia and was fully conscious of how information changed a business. While thinking of launching his own startup, he thought about the industry with the most opaque nature of information: the medical industry. As he mulled over this idea, his wife told him how difficult it was for her to find authentic information and reviews about aesthetic procedures. Soon, Seery quit his job and started RealSelf utilising the same community-driven format popular with booking hotel rooms at Expedia. “RealSelf,” he says, “was born with a very strong focus on cosmetic procedures and empowering consumers to share their real experiences through reviews and ratings.”

His boss, Rich Barton, founder of Expedia, was RealSelf’s first investor who helped raise $2 million in 2008. After bootstrapping for 10 years, RealSelf added another $40 million to its coffers in April 2018.  The investment was led by Elephant, a venture capital firm. Seery’s plan is to use that money to expand RealSelf globally and in multiple languages.

Benefited From A Lawsuit

In January 2008, a company called Lifestyle Lift Holdings filed a complaint against RealSelf in the US District Court asserting trademark infringement. RealSelf answered the complaint and filed its own counter-complaint alleging that Lifestyle Lift violated its terms of use by hiring employees to post fake reviews. RealSelf won and Lifestyle Lift was fined $300,000.

Seery later stated that being sued was great for RealSelf.

The company “received unprecedented media coverage from high profile bloggers… (which) cascaded into driving-up our presence on Google”. However, a few weeks ago, a new Northwestern Medicine study that analysed reviews on RealSelf, Yelp and other portals found that reviews on such online sites are polarised, as “people who write these reviews are either very happy or unhappy, so it’s difficult for the consumer to get balanced information.” 


PC: RealSelf Blog

But even a cursory scroll through the numerous reviews on RealSelf reveals how useful prospective consumers find the portal and how they open up, quite literally, and tell their stories of transformation or disappointment.

To Do Or Not To Do

According to a report commissioned by the startup, one in every five American women said they are actively planning or considering plastic surgery. Although more than half of these women do not seek help, CEO, Tom Seery believes that “As cosmetic procedures continue to become mainstream, millions of women are overcoming social stigma to pursue cosmetic changes they have been researching, often for years.” The study finds validation at the site itself. User after user has used this forum to express discontentment over their bodies and has elucidated – as if whispering in a close friend’s ear – a long-held desire for change.

There are as many 21-year-olds wanting implants as 50-year-olds tired of saggy, drooping breasts after years of breastfeeding. The “I want an ass like JLo, Beyonce, or Kim Kardashian” type exist too.

The site lists about 20,000 doctors and 450 treatments that women (predominantly from the U.S.) discuss and review. While the platform is free for the users, it has become profitable, growing by 209 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to Geekwire, by charging doctors $200 to $5,000 a month to advertise on the site.


The plastic surgery industry is seeing continued growth, too. Of the nearly 1.8 million cosmetic surgical procedures performed in 2017, the top five were breast augmentation, liposuction, nose reshaping, eyelid surgery, and tummy tuck. These are the most discussed treatments at RealSelf as well, but there’s also room for discussions on breast implant removal with users complaining about back pain along with facing depression, fatigue, weight gain, digestive issues, and hair loss.

RealSelf’s biggest achievement is its creation of this community – rewarding both users and doctors – which celebrates remarkable improvements and acknowledges the caveats in the treatments.  

The righteous are dismissive of plastic surgery just as they’re dismissive of say, women wearing hijab. They think of it as an act conforming to a patriarchal standard of beauty. Political activist and feminist Gloria Steinem when asked about cosmetic surgery, said, “I can understand..if you’re in the public eye.., I’ve known women whose public life has been extended by 20 years by plastic surgery. But I think we ought to think carefully… about a society that makes us change ourselves.”

It is true that while a certain level of empathy exists for public figures going under the knife, the others are not as lucky. In expecting women to grow a spine and not a new nose, we ignore that they’ve been subjected to generations of conditioning and cannot be wholly immune to societal standards of beauty.


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