Latinas accounted for 920,000 cosmetic procedures last year in the US, the most of any ethnic minority. Are they trying to become more beautiful, or erase their heritage?
Ivannia Munoz knows she’s never going to look like Scarlett Johansson.
“I know I’m never going to be a small girl,” Munoz said. “I was born almost 10 pounds. I’m big boned. So that’s really not the look I’m trying to achieve, because I know that’s impossible.”
But after two liposuctions and a breast augmentation procedure at the New York City plastic surgery clinic where she works, the once-paunchy Munoz has a 28-inch waist and 36D breasts—and says she’s never felt more confident about the way she looks.
Munoz is one of a growing number of Americans of Latino descent who have undergone plastic surgery. Of the more than 10 million cosmetic procedures last year in the United States, Latinos accounted for more than 930,000, the most of any ethnic minority, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
The number of Latinos who underwent such procedures has skyrocketed in the last two years, increasing by nearly 380,000, or 68.7 percent, from about 553,000 in 2004.
Experts said that massive increase can largely be attributed to improved awareness and access. With primetime television shows such as “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan,” loads of potential patients are passively learning about plastic surgery procedures that were once the “domain of mostly rich white women,” according to Julie Albright, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, who’s producing a documentary about plastic surgery.
“Education is up,” Albright said. “People are becoming more aware of what’s possible. They’re seeing the transformations on television.”
Albright said newspaper ads touting plastic surgery procedures are also becoming more common. She said promises such as “$1,900 for a liposuction, any section! $3,000 for boob jobs!” are popping up in all sorts of publications. Such prices aren’t uncommon, and plastic surgery increasingly has an image of affordability because financing packages are becoming more widespread.
“This is something that is not out of reach and is not inappropriate and is not necessarily terribly expensive,” said Dr. Michael McGuire, a plastic surgeon who practices in Los Angeles. “I think most people can find a way to pay for it.”
“Now with the advent of financing and credit cards accepted, it becomes attainable to the working class,” agreed Albright. “And that’s a big change.”
At Yager Plastic Surgery in Washington Heights, a working-class neighborhood in New York City, a patient with good credit can put little to no money down and pay off a procedure over several years. That’s been a huge boon to the 9-year-old clinic, which caters largely to working-class clientele, said owner Dr. Jeffrey Yager.
He said that about 80 percent of his patients speak Spanish. Many hold jobs that aren’t often associated with cosmetic procedures once viewed as a sign of wealth or fame. “They’re not doctors and lawyers and actresses,” Yager said. “Most of them are teachers, secretaries. They are working-class people. …They’re the people you see everyday.”
In order to reach out to Latino patients, all of Yager’s employees speak Spanish. Yager, a Jew who was raised in an affluent New York City suburb, said his fluency in Spanish makes many Latino patients feel more comfortable with him. When Yager was a resident at Columbia University Medical Center, he said he came across many Spanish-speaking New Yorkers who traveled to small and sometimes dangerous clinics in Mexico, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic to undergo cosmetic surgery with a doctor who spoke their language.
“They felt unwanted or out of place” at clinics in New York, Yager said. He said he decided then that working-class Latinos were an untapped and underserved market.
Similarly, McGuire, the LA doctor who’s also secretary of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said that a few years ago he started aggressively marketing toward Latinos. He hired a full-time, bilingual “Hispanic patient care coordinator,” started printing a newsletter in Spanish and began pitching stories to Spanish-language magazines.
“Hispanic patients in general are very oriented toward appearance,” McGuire said. “Certainly in South America and Mexico cosmetic surgery is a very big activity.”
And now that the economic and social positions of many second- and third-generation Latinos are rising, McGuire said that “they have the money, they have the wherewithal and they have the interest.”
But there’s disagreement on which culture’s beauty ideal Latina patients are trying to achieve when they undergo plastic surgery. Albright said that many members of ethnic minorities are seeing the beauty ideals of their cultural heritage wiped away by the American media’s incessant idolization of “very, very thin, white women, typically with big breasts and perfect skin and face and nose.”
That American beauty ideal is causing many members of ethnic minorities to undergo procedures to make them look more like European WASPs, Albright said. Asians get the bridge of their noses lifted, or their eyes made rounder; African Americans get liposuction; and Latinas get tummy tucks or breast augmentation, she said.
“It’s an erasing of ethnicity,” Albright said. “It’s a blending in. It’s an erasing of difference.”
McGuire disagrees. He said that his Latina patients are “not trying to look like European Caucasians. They’re trying to look like beautiful Hispanics.” McGuire said he does a lot of tummy tucks for Latinas, but also a lot of buttock implants and breast reductions. The latter two procedures, he said, reflect the Latina beauty ideal that holds up “a more voluptuous look” as desirable.
“They like larger buttocks,” McGuire said. “They don’t necessarily want to have huge breasts. They like to have a more fullness in their trunk. They’re not looking to be so skinny…It’s not really trying to make them look Western.”
But regardless of which culture’s beauty ideal the newest customers of the cosmetic surgery industry are trying to achieve, Albright said the American media is largely at fault for promoting “impossible bodies” that most women can never realistically achieve. “It sets up these impossible standards for women,” Albright said.
McGuire and Yager disagreed, saying that plastic surgery isn’t a vehicle for women to chase unattainable beauty targets, but instead a way for them to become more comfortable in their own bodies. “It’s not about vanity. It’s about making you feel the best you can,” McGuire said.
“If anybody has a feature that they are unhappy about and somehow limits their self confidence, there’s no reason not to have something done to improve it.”
Or as Julissa Faust, Yager’s administrative coordinator, said, “If happiness is pinned to body image, someone’s willing to go in the hole $6,200 if it means that (she) can wear a bikini.”