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As More Latinos Seek Plastic Surgery, Science Is Slow to Keep Up

Hispanic Business, News Report, Rob Kuznia Posted: Oct 03, 2009

It's not that Petra Bonilla, a young stay-at-home mom in Queens, N.Y., had a huge problem with her nose. She just thought the tip hung down a little too far.
Petra BonillaPetra Bonilla, before and after
Late last year, after saving up a little money, the 32-year-old Hispanic mother of four went to the plastic surgeon.

When the moment of truth came -- that is, when the doctor removed the bandage -- she was horrified.

"He didn't even work on my tip," Bonilla, whose husband owns a nightclub, told HispanicBusiness.com. "It was just chopped off."

After several months of seclusion, Bonilla decided to try another doctor. This time, she did some research.

She found a plastic surgeon who specializes in ethnic surgery -- who, in fact, had designed an implant specifically for African Americans and Hispanics.

This time, the moment of truth led to a relieved smile: It was exactly what she wanted.

Recession notwithstanding, plastic surgery is on the rise among Hispanics, African Americans and other people of color -- even as the number of surgeries among Caucasians has dipped.

But because this uptick among minorities is a relatively new phenomenon -- and because cosmetic surgery on darker-skinned patients is generally more difficult -- many ethnic patients walk away from surgery dissatisfied, experts say.

"If a bad surgery does happen, it's because the surgeon might not be well-versed in ethnic skin," said Dr. Tripti Burt, a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, who is herself of East Indian descent. "They might have a cookie-cutter approach about how to do rhinoplasty."

Ethnic cosmetic procedures increased 11 percent in 2008 over 2007, with more than 3 million performed, while procedures among Caucasians dropped 2 percent, to around 8.8 million, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Burt, who sees many ethnic patients at her practice in the Chicago area, has an explanation for the phenomenon. She theorizes that the Caucasian patient-base peaked in recent years -- and therefore was susceptible to slipping during the recession -- while the ethnic patient-base is exploding so rapidly that the numbers continue to defy the recession.

"I feel like I'm having more and more Hispanic patients than ever before, even despite the economy," she said.

Indeed, from 2004 to 2008 the number of Hispanic plastic-surgery patients more than doubled, to 1.2 million, according to ASPS. The share of Hispanic patients rose in kind, to 10 percent from 6 percent.

This trend is partly the result of how plastic surgery is becoming less taboo in America -- a phenomenon that no doubt has something to do with popular reality TV shows such as the now-canceled "Extreme Makeover."

The United States isn't the only place where plastic surgery is becoming more acceptable; in Brazil, it's so mainstream that wearing a nasal cast after a surgery is downright trendy.

But changes in professional standards in many cases have lagged behind the shift in social mores.

As the famously botched job of Michael Jackson perhaps exemplifies, the difference between performing plastic surgery on ethnic patients and Caucasian patients is significant. For one thing, darker skin is more prone to scarring, or to rejuvenating in a color either too dark or too light. Also, the noses of Hispanics and African Americans tend to be wider and flatter than those of Caucasians.

Because plastic surgery was once performed primarily on Caucasians, many doctors continue to treat ethnic features as if they were Caucasian, said Dr. Oleh Slupchynskyj, the doctor who righted the bad nose job of Petra Bonilla.

"I'm based in New York, where there are a lot of ethnic patients," he told HispanicBusiness.com. "I started seeing more and more (ethnic) patients who were not satisfied" with the work of other physicians.

In 2000, he consulted with a Hispanic woman who wanted a refined tip and narrower nostrils.

"With the techniques used in Caucasian rhinoplasty, you certainly can't get those results," he said. "I had to sort of invent what would work for her."

Dr. Slupchynskyj, who was named one of America's Top Surgeons by the Consumers' Research Council of America in both 2007 and 2009, developed the SLUP Implant, which is specifically designed to treat the noses of ethnic patients.

In many ways, though, medical technology has been slow to catch up to the trend -- the industry is just beginning to address it at conferences, Dr. Slupchynskyj said.

Also relatively new are lasers custom-designed to treat ethnic skin. A year and a half ago, Dr. Burt purchased a Pearl Fractional Laser, which was developed with ethnic patients in mind. Dr. Burt says she was first surgeon to do so in all of Illinois.

Meanwhile, despite the technological advancements and changing attitudes, there remains an elephant in the room: Today's beauty standard, by many accounts, is characterized by features that are Caucasian.

Consequently, some fear that more and more ethnic people -- mainly women -- are attempting to fit in by looking whiter.

"We went through a period in this country in the 1960s and 70s in which there was a full-scale embracing of ethnic diversity," Professor Janie Ward, chair of Africana studies at Simmons College in Boston, told HispanicBusiness.com. "When that diversity was put out there, there were, in my opinion, a wider array of nose shapes, lip thickness, and hair textures (depicted in popular culture). Then, slowly, in the 90s and in the new Millenium, we have sort of moved to a new space. Some people would argue that right now the beauty ideal may incorporate some color -- but not too much. ... We don't see a lot of wide noses. We don't see a tremendous difference in body shape."

Both doctors Slupchynskyj and Burt admit that they see some patients who flat out ask for features that make them look whiter.

"I don't think it's necessarily conscious -- I think it's a sub-conscious emulation," Dr. Burt said. "I see that in my African American patients and in my Hispanic patients. We know we see it in many Asian patients, in westernizing the eye."

Dr. Burt, who says rhinoplasty generally costs a patient between $5,000 and $8,000, suspects pop culture is a major driver of this phenomenon. Indeed, celebrities such as Beyonce and Lil Kim are widely rumored to have undergone plastic surgery procedures that de-emphasized their ethnic features.

Dr. Slupchynskyj acknowledges that African Americans and Hispanics seem less wary than they used to about changing their features. But he sees it as a matter of personal choice, not a societal problem.

"My viewpoint is, if you have realistic expectations and a good mental outlook on it, it's a good thing," he said. "If you think having your nose done will get you a better job or improve your love life, those are the wrong reasons."

On this, Professor Ward agrees.

"I think a distinction has to be made -- and it's not an easy distinction -- between a woman who thinks that with a little bit of cosmetic surgery, a particular aspect of my body considered problematic can be changed in a way I no longer think of as problematic," she said. "I make a distinction between that and women who feel there is a beauty ideal, and I'm going under the knife because I'm striving for it."

As for Bonilla, the mother of four in Queens, she says it was never about anything more than making a minor change to her nose.

"I'm very proud to be a Latina," she said. "I like to look good, and work for it. I eat what I want, but work hard in the gym."

Related Articles:

Asian Men Lead in Cosmetic Surgery Increase

Plastic Surgery As Racial Surgery

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