With January first marking the start of many people's self-improvement projects, Lourdes Garcia Navarro shares a story she reported earlier this year about plastic surgery in Brazil.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
You may beat taking this slogan to heart today - a new year, a new you. It could mean today, for example, on January 1, you're starting a diet or new workout or maybe you're simply vowing to use more sunscreen or to stop drinking. Well, these new year's resolutions to feel and look better remind me of a story I reported earlier this year about plastic surgery in Brazil.
Brazil is now the world leader in plastic surgery. It has surpassed the United States in the number of procedures, even though the U.S. has more people with more disposable income than Brazil. As I found out, many Brazilian women see surgical beautification as a right and not a privilege, and that includes Janet and Jaqueline Timal. They are 40-something-year-old sisters, and they have what they call a plastic surgery fund.
JAQUELINE TIMAL: (Through translator) I'm always saving money. When I see I've gotten enough money for another surgery, I do it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jaqueline. She's had breast implants put in and also a tummy tuck. She's here today to do the famed Brazilian butt lift, which is the same as a boob job, but on your backside. Janet has had a tummy tuck, too, and she's also doing her breasts. That'll be five surgeries between them when this round is done. They both say this isn't about bankrupting themselves for beauty, but rather the opposite. Jaqueline says she sees the procedures as an investment.
TIMAL: (Through translator) I think we invest in beauty because it's very important for women here. You can get a better job because here, they want a good appearance, a better marriage because men care about the way you look.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Janet and Jaqueline aren't rich - far from it. Even with the surgery fund, they wouldn't be able to afford to pay for all those cosmetic procedures, they say, unless they did it here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Janet.
JANET TIMAL: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here is the Ivo Pitanguy Institute in Rio de Janeiro, named after the famed Brazilian plastic surgeon who is renowned here for saying the poor have the right to be beautiful, too. The institute's lobby is packed as attendants call out the names of women and a few men who are waiting to be evaluated for cosmetic surgeries. This is a charity and a teaching hospital, and the surgeries given are either free of charge or heavily subsidized.
TIMAL: (Speaking Portuguese).
TIMAL: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The sisters tell me the price they are paying for the butt lift, for example, is 3,800 reals, about $1,600. At a private hospital, it could run over three times that.
Hello. How are you? It's great to see you.
FRANCESCO MAZZARONE: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We meet with Francesco Mazzarone, who now heads the institute. I ask him why it's important to provide cosmetic surgeries to the disadvantaged.
MAZZARONE: (Through translator) This is about equality, which is the philosophy Pitanguy created - equal rights to everyone. The patients come here to get back something they lost in time. We give to them the right to dream.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why should only the wealthy have access to something that will increase self-esteem, he asks. What we do here is altruism, he says. So here are the numbers. Last year, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there were one and a half million cosmetic surgeries carried out in Brazil. That's 13 percent of all elective plastic surgeries done all over the world.
Part of the boom can be explained by women's increasing financial power. In the last 10 years, Brazil has grown economically. Salaries have gone up, as has disposable income. Women, like the Timal sisters, have overwhelmingly chosen to use that money on their appearance. That's the thing. While in the U.S., people may hide that they've had plastic surgery like it's something shameful, here, they flaunt it. The attitude is that having work done shows you care about yourself, and it's a status symbol. But the women we speak with also acknowledge there is a lot of pressure in Brazil to conform to a physical ideal.
Some here, though, balk at the idea that happiness can be achieved at the end of a scalpel. They say the image people chase is being defined by marketers and, in Brazil, it has a racial component. Marcelo Silva Ramos is an anthropologist and social scientist. Brazil imported more slaves - some 4 million - than anywhere else in the world. Today, it's a primarily a mixed-race country, but you wouldn't know it if you look on TV and in the magazines here, he says.
MARCELO SILVA RAMOS: (Through translator) If you look at the traditional body type of a Brazilian, you would see a woman with dark skin, curly hair, small breasts and a larger bottom - a body that is very different from the body marketed as desirable, which is a skinnier, taller blonde with straight hair with bigger breasts and with not many curves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is meant that today people who don't look the right way - and by this, he means the white way - are often excluded.
MARCELO SILVA RAMOS: (Through translator) In our culture, the view is women who look acceptable get money, social mobility, power.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Take, for example, the crazy popular annual contest, Miss Bumbum. All of this year's contestants are lighter skinned.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm at a gym in Sao Paulo, and in front of me are several scantily clad women in full makeup, many photographers. This is a press event. And they're working what you and I would call politely our glutes, but what is called in Brazil bumbum. The women here are contestants in the yearly Miss Bumbum contest, which, as you can probably figure out, crowns Brazil's best butt.
CLAUDIA ALENDE: I'm Claudia Alende.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That the 22-year-old front runner who looks like actress Megan Fox. I mean, almost exactly, right down to the blue contact lenses she has over her naturally brown eyes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me, why are you doing the Miss Bumbum contest?
CLAUDIA ALENDE: Because the contest is famous around the world, and I want to be recognized around the world and become famous, too. (Laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the contest is a way for her to become a TV presenter or an actress. The rules of the contest allow for plastic surgery anywhere but on the backside. She openly admits she's had work done.
ALENDE: Because was, like, moda.
ALENDE: Fashion - was like - was like everybody is doing, and I do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Previous Miss Bumbum contestants have indeed gone on to arguably bigger and better things. One became a TV presenter. Others have become actors, professional dancers on TV. But for most of the women I speak with, their dreams - the ones the Pitanguy Institute say they are giving them the right to - are much smaller. We meet Maria da Gloria de Sousa on a beach in Rio, on a chilly blustery day. She's unemployed but has had six surgeries at the Pitanguy Institute and speaks about her procedures with that characteristic Brazilian humor and openness.
MARIA DA GLORIA DE SOUSA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm almost an android, she tells. I've done my breasts three times. I didn't stop there. I did a tummy tuck, and then I did lipo, and, lastly, I did my bottom, she says proudly. She says she spent the equivalent of the cost of three cars on her operations.
DE SOUSA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm much happier. There's no doubt about it, she tells me. My bottom will never sag. My breasts will never sag. They will always be there - hard. It's very good to look into the mirror and feel fine, she says. She waves goodbye and, smiling, sashays down the beach, and nothing jiggles.
I recorded that story back in October for our series The Changing Lives of Women. Whatever your aspirations for the new year, thank you for joining us today. Happy new year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.