How Far Would You Go to Look Good?

Hispanic women are increasingly turning to cosmetic surgery. But what is it really like to go under the knife? Latina finds out.

By Aviva Patz

In a perfect world, we'd all love the bodies we were born with—buxom or flat, curvy or not so much, J. Lo booty or no booty. But even among proud Latinas, body image issues persist. More of us are getting plastic surgery to achieve our beauty ideal than ever before: According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Hispanics have led all minority groups in the number of procedures performed in recent years. And we're not slowing down—we had 67 percent more surgeries in 2005 than in the year before. Why are so many Latinas having work done?

Money, for one. "Latinas are coming up in the socioeconomic world, so they can afford what used to be a luxury," says John Diaz, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, California. Financing plans make it even more affordable. Most of Dr. Diaz's patients are middle-class—teachers, administrative assistants, real estate agents—proving that you don't need star status to get a nip or a tuck.

Then there's that box in the living room. "Television is making us more comfortable with cosmetic surgery, especially when shows feature Hispanic patients and surgeons," says Onelio Garcia Jr., M.D., a past president of the Florida Society of Plastic Surgeons who estimates that half of the patients in his Hialeah, Florida, practice are Hispanic. In a recent study in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, four out of five cosmetic surgery patients said reality television had a direct impact on their decision to have surgery. The influence was strongest among those who regularly watched plastic surgery-related reality shows—and 75 percent of Hispanics surveyed said they did.

The tube may glamorize perkier breasts, smaller waists and smoother thighs, but the shows only tell half the story. So Latina sent a writer into an OR to see what happened during one Hispanic woman's surgery:

The Preparation

Paul LoVerme, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Verona, New Jersey, let me observe a liposuction, one of the three most popular surgeries among Latinas (the others are breast augmentation and nose reshaping). His patient, Hindira Marrero, a 30-year-old from Elizabeth, New Jersey, is stunning. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and Salvadoran mother, she's 5 feet 8 with thick dark hair, sparkling brown eyes and a ready smile. I can't fathom why she's here. "I've been working out for years, but I still have the same problem areas a lot of Latin women have: my stomach, the backs of my legs and my thighs," says Hindira, who, at 160 pounds, wears a size 10. She decided on surgery because she'd seen it on TV and many of her friends have done it, and it doesn't hurt that her sister is a receptionist in Dr. LoVerme's office, so she knew how it worked and how much it cost. She paid $500 up front and will pay another $225 a month: a new body for just $6,700. After two one-hour consultations with Dr. LoVerme and years of contemplation, she's eager to get started.

Does she want to downplay her Latin looks? No way, she says: "I love my curves. I'm just trying to get them smooth." But some think a Caucasian look may be a powerful motivator for Latinas to seek plastic surgery, even when they don't realize it. One recent study by Rose Weitz, Ph.D., a professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, found that "conventional attractiveness"—looking mainstream or Caucasian—is a realistic way to ascend in society. "Women deemed attractive are more popular, more likely to marry and more likely to marry men of higher socioeconomic status," Weitz writes. Plus, they're more often hired and promoted and are better paid. That's a big reason to have surgery, says Myra Mendible, Ph.D., professor of cultural studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and editor of From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture. "Judgments are made about a person's ability that are directly tied to appearance," she explains. "A heavier woman is more likely to be viewed as lazy or slovenly, and that has real-world consequences."

The Procedure

When I enter the operating room, the anesthesiologist is sedating Hindira. He inserts a tube to give her oxygen—she'll stop breathing for a few seconds when the sleep meds kick in—and tapes her eyes shut to protect them from the bright lights over the table. Dr. LoVerme plans to remove four liters of fat from five areas—abdomen, hips, sides and inner and outer thighs—making this a major operation. Before the surgery, he used a marker to draw lines and circles on Hindira's skin, and he consults them now. With a scalpel, he makes a few quarter-inch cuts in her belly button and a hole the width of a pencil above each hip bone.

Next, he uses a one-millimeter-wide cannula (a foot-long syringe) to inject a saline solution with an added anesthetic into each of the holes, which will decrease bleeding and reduce pain when she wakes. Twenty minutes later, the saline has her abdomen plumped up like a water balloon, and it's time for suction. Dr. LoVerme takes a different cannula, attaches it to a clear tube that's hooked up to a canister and inserts it into the hole in her right hip. The suctioning looks just like vacuuming: back and forth, up and down. He uses his other hand to guide the cannula as he loosens the fat. When he's done with her stomach, he moves on—cutting holes in each area, plumping her up, then suctioning.

At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour procedure, Hindira wakes and is zipped into a white spandex neck-to-knee compression garment that she'll wear for the next four weeks to reduce swelling. Then the two nurses help her make the slow walk to a recliner and hook her up to an IV, to replace lost fluids. Her mom takes her home two hours later, once-a-day prescriptions for Percocet (to ease pain) and arnica (a homeopathic remedy for bruising) in hand.

The Recovery

Hindira's recuperation is far from over. She spends most of the next 48 hours in bed, then returns to Dr. LoVerme's office for her first post-op checkup. She's still swollen and bruised but feeling better than right after the surgery ("It was excruciating! I could hardly move," she tells me now). She can only stand for about five minutes before nausea takes over, but the second week finds her able to take short, painful walks to the living room. By week three, she returns to work. The pain is less than she expected, and Dr. LoVerme says her recovery is right on track.

By week four, Hindira is feeling better and very pleased with the results. "My legs are still nice and thick, but the little fat deposits under my butt went down, my thighs got tighter and my waist is getting smaller," she says. She's a bit swollen and black-and-blue, but her clothes already feel looser. "I am more self-assured," Hindira says. "I can wear short shorts and skirts!" She says she'd do it again in a heartbeat, and wants to get her breasts done soon.

Considering your own elective surgery? While it may be more common than ever, it's not without risks. Get the facts before you sign on the dotted line.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Going Under the Knife:

1. Who am I doing it for? Why spend thousands of dollars on something you don't really want? Steer clear if your boyfriend wants to give you bigger breasts as a gift or your mother's been begging you to fix your nose since you were 13. You won't be satisfied if it's not your decision.

2. What Do I really want to change? If you have unresolved emotional issues, changing your body won't fix them. About 40 percent of women who had cosmetic surgery in 2006 were repeat customers, still unsatisfied after their first surgeries. You'll need inner work for real change.

3. Are my expectations realistic? We can assure you that surgery, no matter how extreme, will never make you Shakira's body double. Aim to look like yourself, only better. If you have loftier ideas, surgery will only leave you disappointed, and stay away from docs who say different.