Creepy Crowdfunding: Pay for My Plastic Surgery

Health and medicine explained.
Sept. 2 2013 8:30 AM

The Creepiest Crowdfunding Ever

My Free Implants solicits donations for plastic surgery. But implants are never really free.

MyFreeImplants.com
Crowdfunding meets cosmetic surgery.

Screenshot

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.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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 costs 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 that 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.

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This pattern continued with the next seven men. One was middle-aged and admitted to having dated MFI women in real life—a strictly forbidden practice. Another, a college student, echoed the desire to “chat with real women” and wanted to talk to my friend about sports. When my friend asked the donors how they disbursed their funds, they were a little vague.

“Some women go on and are like, I’ll show you a video of me masturbating for $200,” said the college student. “And that’s actually really annoying. But I’m a dude. If girls want to send me a naked picture, I’m not going to say no.”

Women are free to request any amount of money for any kind of image or video, and donors are often happy to oblige. The most ambitious women participate in the aforementioned donor-generated contents. When my friend signed up, one open contest promised $100 to the woman who could prove she had “the best ass on MFI.” One offered $50 for the most delicious-looking picture of a hamburger (that’s not some arcane slang term—really, just a hamburger). And one offered $2 for a photograph of a vagina.

“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. (The only rule is that users not meet up in real life, purportedly out of concern of the women’s safety—although real-world encounters would presumably also negate the need to use 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, a hybrid between a social network and crowdsourced funding, appeals to social libertarianism, with an undercurrent of sexual empowerment.

It’s easy to forget that 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, unlike women who have their own money for an implant, 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.)

These disclaimers aside, 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 mold 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.

Even though donors pay for the initial surgery, breast implants can raise a woman’s health care costs for the rest of her life. According to FDA guidelines, women with silicone implants should receive a breast MRI three years after the initial surgery and every two years thereafter, to ensure they’re free of leaks or other complications. These MRIs, which are rarely covered by insurance, can cost between $2,000 and $5,000, surely an impossible sum for a woman unable to afford the implants herself. Mammograms are a basic preventive health measure once women reach middle age, but implants render them less accurate at detecting tumors. Mammograms can rupture implants, dissuading many women with breast augmentation from seeking the tests.

My Free Implants pitches its services as a kind of charity to help women gain confidence and allow good-hearted men to have a little fun. But it has a darker side. Breast implants are high-cost, high-maintenance, and high-risk. If a woman understands the perils they pose and still proceeds with the surgery, that’s her decision. But despite My Free Implant’s promise, implants are never really free. They always come at a cost—one many women simply can’t afford to pay.    

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