Image: Gift giving
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Season’s greetings! I hope you enjoy this gift certificate for breast augmentation as much as I hope to.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/18/2009 8:10:46 AM ET 2009-12-18T13:10:46

Some holiday gifts are forgotten even before the wrapping paper’s been recycled. Others, like the one Heather Ryan-Sigler received years ago, tend to stick in your craw.

“One Christmas, I received a tub of Porcelana Fade Cream from my husband’s great aunt,” says Ryan-Sigler, a 46-year-old teacher from Lynchburg, Va. “I was at the tender age of 36 and the cream was supposed to ‘fade brown spots.’ I have to say that was the worst Christmas gift I’ve ever received.”

From body shapers to Botox, nose hair trimmers to the dreaded Thigh Toner, there are some gifts it’s better to neither give nor receive. Out-of-the-blue self-improvement gifts often relay a not-so-merry message. Happy holidays — you look old!  Merry Christmas, you’re getting fat!Or season’s greetings, isn’t it about time you took care of that lady ’stache?

That’s the message Calla Nelson says she took away when a friend gave her a gift certificate for an upper lip waxing last December.

“When I opened it, there was a gift card with a salon brochure and the upper lip wax treatment was highlighted,” says Nelson, a 21-year-old college student from Minneapolis. “I was insulted. I hadn’t considered waxing my upper lip and I didn’t really see a need to.”

Nelson went ahead and used the service — she valued the friendship and didn’t know how to get out of it without feeling rude — but other self-improvement surprises haven’t gone as smoothly.

Gifts that blow up in your face
Dr. Patrick Hudson, a plastic surgeon and psychotherapist from Albuquerque, N.M., says a few years ago, he provided a holiday gift certificate to a husband who claimed his wife was “very interested” in a breast augmentation.

Come Christmas morning, however, the gift didn’t go over too well.

“His wife was not happy, not at all happy,” says Hudson, who says the couple divorced soon thereafter. “I don’t know if the gift caused the divorce but it certainly was ammunition. I tell this story as a cautionary tale now. When people talk about defects in their body, they’re often not asking for an operation. They’re asking for a hug and a kiss and reassurance they’re OK.”

Washington, D.C.-area dermatologist and cosmetic surgeonDr. Hema Sundaram saysshe’s received many requests for cosmetic procedure gift certificates over the years (usually with the patient’s blessings) but has at times wondered whether the person discussed the idea with their loved one beforehand.

“Two years ago, a man came in and got a gift certificate for his wife for liposuction,” she says. “You can get a general gift certificate, but he specifically got it for liposuction. And we never saw his wife. I always kind of wondered if this was something she didn’t actually want. Or if she was insulted.”

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Sundaram says open-ended gift certificates are usually a much better — and much safer — option for people thinking about getting a loved one “work” for the holidays since the person can use it for anything from a facial to eyelash extensions to Botox without feeling like they’re being nudged in any particular direction.

This unnecessary nudging is exactly why the American Society of Plastic Surgeons expressly forbids members from selling gift certificates for plastic surgery, says Dr. Anthony Youn, a plastic surgeon in Troy, Mich.

“They want to make sure that a patient doesn’t feel obligated or pressured to have a procedure performed on them,” he says.  As a result, Youn doesn’t offer holiday nose jobs or yuletide eye lifts; however, he will sit down and discuss the idea of a cosmetic Christmas with both parties.

“If the recipient is a good candidate for the surgery, and wants it for himself or herself without external pressure, then we go ahead,” he says. “I once had a patient whose husband bought her a tummy tuck for Christmas. And she got him a treadmill. She knew about the tummy tuck, but he didn’t know about the treadmill until after her surgery.”

Passive-aggressive Santa
Etiquette guru Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute of Burlington, Vt., says self-improvement gifts can be tricky since there can be different motivations behind them.       

“Unfortunately, there are some people who give passive-aggressive gifts, who intentionally buy a gift that says something about a person’s weight, like a dress that’s too small,” she says. “The best thing you can do is ignore it.”

But since even the best of intentions can sometimes go awry, Post recommends people not read too much into a gift that seems to relay a critical message.

“It’s not worth making a bit stink about,” she advises. “Just take the high road and thank them for the European wax removal kit.”

Kristi Widmar, public relations manager for Weight Watchers, says it’s one thing to give a gift membership to a loved one who has asked for it, but she doesn't recommend springing it on someone.       

“A weight-loss program is a really personal thing,” she says. “It’s a gift that someone needs to buy for themselves or ask for. If a friend or loved one has it on their holiday list, it’s OK, but if you just present it to them out of the blue, they could be unhappily surprised.”

The socks and underwear of adulthood
Kira Detko, a 23-year-old financial analyst from San Francisco, says she’s currently debating whether or not she should give her Mom gut-busting Spanx for Christmas.

“My mom’s not very big but she occasionally complains about being a size six instead of a size four,” she says. “I see Spanx as a fun shortcut — ‘Voila! Here’s an instant size four!’ — but then I get nervous about the connotation of the gift.”

Post says it’s OK to check with the person beforehand — “tell them you’re thinking about getting them a particular gift but didn’t know if they were interested or ready for it” — and also suggests giving iffy gifts one-on-one, instead of in front of a gathered Christmas crowd.

Detko, who has other gifts set aside for her mom, says if she does get the Spanx, she’ll most likely slip them to her mom on the sly.

“You don’t want to take the joy out of Christmas in order to give someone a practical gift.”

Luke McGuff, who got a nose hair trimmer from his wife last year, would agree.

“My nose and ears are getting hairier, it’s true,” says the 52-year-old Seattle photographer. “And my eyebrows are starting to sproing out, as well. But I wasn’t particularly happy to get a nose hair trimmer for Christmas. It wasn’t even a gag gift; she was serious. I laughed good-naturedly, but it’s like getting underwear and socks when you’re a kid.  It’s utilitarian. It wasn’t the worst gift ever, but, let’s just say I was a bit underwhelmed.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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