A country known for its natural beauty — tropical beaches and vast rain forest — Brazil recently surpassed the U.S. as the nation with the most cosmetic surgeries performed in the world. That’s despite the fact that it has fewer people and less collective disposable income per capita than the U.S. In Brazil, it’s not just the upper class getting lipo. And it’s not just middle-aged women, either.
Last year, 1.5 million cosmetic surgeries were carried out in Brazil — 13 percent of all elective plastic surgeries done in the world, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Erileide Barbosa da Rocha turned to plastic surgery when, after pregnancy, she had a flaccid stomach.
"I put on an item of clothing, looked in the mirror and it was horrible. I cried because I couldn’t get what I wanted. So for me, I think my surgery was necessary. For my own good, for my self-esteem.
"Beauty, for me, is fundamental. It’s the door. It’s the entry to many things — for work, for everything. If you’re single and ugly, you won’t get a boyfriend. If you’re fat, overweight at a party, they’re only going to look at the skinny, pretty, perfect women. Not the chubby one. She’s gonna be all alone, and is going to go home alone.
"Beauty isn’t everything, but if you have money to do surgery and you can do it, it’s really a right of yours, to be well. … Today I can say I’m happy, I’m really well.
"I intend to do more surgery. Because women are never satisfied. Women always want perfection."
While Americans may hide that they have had plastic surgery like it’s something shameful, Brazilians flaunt it.
Gisele Silva Geronimo talks openly about her nose job.
"Beauty is feeling comfortable and looking in the mirror and liking what you see. It’s loving yourself.
"I wanted a nose that’s proportional to my face. So I did the surgery to correct a little defect that I thought I had.
"I feel happier looking at myself in the mirror. It’s something that changes our life and social relations a lot. For now, people compliment me a lot. I feel more comfortable having my picture taken."
Cosmetic surgery is expensive everywhere. But in Brazil, certain hospitals give subsized or free surgeries to those with lower incomes. The Ivo Pitanguy Institute in Rio de Janeiro is named after a famous Brazilian plastic surgeon who said, “The poor have the right to be beautiful, too.”
During a pregnancy, Mariza Chaves was diagnosed with gestational diabetes and nearly doubled in weight. She lost weight after giving birth, but it left extra skin around her abdomen and back.
"Beauty is feeling good about yourself. I wasn’t satisfied with my abdomen. When I saw it [after surgery], I felt like the most beautiful woman in the world. I feel privileged.
"Unfortunately our society has some people who want to do this kind of operation but can’t. There are public hospitals."
Despite Brazil’s general health care crisis, there is a surfeit of plastic surgeons to meet the demand — or perhaps contributing to its increase — more per capita than in the U.S. One reason for the trend could be women’s increasing financial power.
Maria da Gloria de Sousa has had seven procedures. She has another one planned for November.
"Plastic surgery starts to become an addiction. You’re born perfect, but then you have children, and you know what having children does. And then suddenly comes the rebirth: plastic surgery. You can be beautiful, even more beautiful than you were before.
"The mirror starts talking with you. Society really demands a lot. I think it’s horrible. If you’re fat, you need to own it. If you’re skinny, you need to own it. Maybe I’ve felt this way and that has led me to do so many surgeries. It’s complicated.
"First off, I do this for me. And second, there’s nothing better than getting a compliment, right? That you’re good, that you’re sexy, it’s really good. I like it.
"Now, I plan to work on my face. On my body, there’s nothing left to do. I wanted to do Beyonce’s nose, but my doctor said I didn’t need to do that."
Thuanny Suckow Custodio lived for a while in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. She doesn’t have any children yet, but already anticipates getting cosmetic surgery after giving birth.
"In Los Angeles, everyone is really skinny, with a big chest. And I thought that body type, of the girls from there, was beautiful. So since then I decided I want a huge chest too.
"I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy, saying that beauty is on the inside, that kind of thing. I agree, in part. But I think that no one likes to see ugly people, people that don’t take care of themselves.
"I think everyone has this right to search for, try to improve, try to satisfy what you don’t like about yourself. You have a right, maybe even the duty. Because if not, you’re limited to accepting yourself the way you are.
"I wouldn’t change anything on my face, but my body — I don’t know when enough is enough. I’m never satisfied."
Janet da Silva Timal de Araujo had plastic surgery after having children. She and her sister, Jaqueline, have a shared plastic surgery fund.
"The ideal is to be able to put something on, to sit down and not have your belly jumping out. That is, here in Brazil it gets hot, and the less clothes, the better. So, if you wear less clothes, your body will show more. So if you have a big belly, it will show. That, for me, made me really sad.
"In my head, being beautiful is having the body I had when I was younger. When I was younger I was really skinny, like a model. I don’t have that ideal of beauty of being really fit. I just want a skinny belly and a good chest, that’s the ideal of beauty for me.
"I don’t want to do any more surgeries, but of course later, we start to think, ‘Well … Thairine [her niece] did lipo, Jaqueline [her sister] did lipo, why don’t I?’
"Us women, we’re born with the desire to be a mother. But we’re also born with the desire to be beautiful. So, we really deserve it."
Thairine Timal Barbosa is Janet’s niece. She works at a funeral home where she makes minimum wage. Her mother helped pay for her liposuction.
"For me, being beautiful is being skinny.
"Even when I was little, I was never skinny. My skinny friends’ clothes fit well, and I didn’t feel good about my body. I worked out and everything, but I couldn’t lose weight. So I opted for the faster option, and I’m happier this way."
She would next like to have breast augmentation. "I think bigger is cuter."
A few centuries ago, Brazil imported more slaves — some 4 million — than anywhere else. Today, it is a primarily a mixed-race country, but you wouldn’t know that if you look at TV and in magazines, which rarely feature people of color.
"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," says Marcelo Silva Ramos, anthropologist and social scientist.
What’s sold as beautiful here today, Ramos says, is someone like Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen: a woman who is tall, thin, blond, with straight hair, bigger breasts and fewer curves. People who don’t look the right way — and by this Ramos means the white way — are often excluded. "In our culture, the view is women who look acceptable get money, social mobility, power," he says.
The related radio story by NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro:
Reporting: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro/NPR, Jimmy Chalk for NPR
Photography: Portraits by Jimmy Chalk for NPR; Rio de Janiero beach scene by Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Design and Development: Wes Lindamood
Art and Editing: Claire O’Neill
Supervising Producer: Kainaz Amaria
Published October 9, 2014