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Brazil's Plastic Surgery Culture In 8 Photos

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    Photographed by Luisa Dorr/VII Mentor Program.

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    Rio de Janeiro is not for the faint of heart. In a city with some of the world’s most famous beaches (think Ipanema and Copacabana), summer is year-round, and a cult of the body is displayed at parks, beaches, and boardwalks. Cariocas (a.k.a. Rio natives) of all ages run, exercise in the sand, swim, and practice all kinds of sports to stay fit. Constantly exposed, the bodies of the Cariocas appear in the collective imagination as tanned and toned, with pert bottoms, thin waists, and large, firm breasts. But the vast majority of residents don’t actually (at least not naturally) look like this. With the enormous pressure to look a certain way, an otherwise-idyllic day at the beach can feel more like a nightmare.

    Brazil, a country where the beauty industry has been extremely resilient despite the economic crisis, ranks second in the world — after the United States — in the number of aesthetics-focused plastic surgeries performed. In 2014, more than two million procedures were performed here, or 10% of the world's total. Women are the main customers, but men are starting to go under the knife as well. The largest numbers of procedures take place in São Paulo, the large business capital of the country, and in Rio. The requests in Brazil are not very different from those in other parts of the world. The most demanded procedure is a classic worldwide: larger breasts.

    Of course, in an ideal world, no one would feel such pressure to change their look that they'd put themselves through something as drastic, expensive, and potentially dangerous as surgery — but according to the women with whom we spoke for this story, plastic surgery was the right way to express themselves and open themselves up to a new, more confident life. After all, unconditional self-love is a beautiful thing, but choices — and the freedom to decide what's right for you — are beautiful, too. Ahead, we speak to several Cariocas about their plastic surgeries.

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    Artemis Ahmadi, 30, Costume Designer
    For years, Artemis tried all sorts of tricks to conceal her small breasts. Today, she laughingly recalls when, at age 18, a piece of silicone that looked like a chicken cutlet came unglued from her breasts in the heat and fell off in front of everyone. However, at the time, it was no laughing matter.

    "I was the only one in my family who had no breasts. I also had no butt, no legs, and my body was not much different than a boy’s. My body was finally developed, but my breasts never grew, and they were a huge frustration," she recalls. "I couldn't take off my blouse in front of men, and showing my breasts immediately killed the mood."

    Still, plastic surgery wasn't an easy solution. Beyond the cost of the surgery, there was Artemis' father's opposition. He was from Iran and saw his daughter's desire for surgery as a means of sexualizing her body. At 21, she managed to save up the money and get silicone implants. Artemis could now loosen her bikini ties, which she wore extremely tight to try to raise the small breasts she had, but she is still not comfortable wearing a plunging neckline. Otherwise, she relates how her life has changed: "Only after the surgery, I realized how big my complex was. I was living with this trauma without doing much about it. Today, thank god, I can't imagine life without the operation."

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    Roberta De Paula Azevedo, 29, Veterinarian
    Roberta spent years hearing two phrases that marked her forever, from schoolmates, from men on the street, and even from her friends: "air-bag" and "busty." Having large breasts was a trauma that haunted her for 15 years. "I'm very shy, and I had a huge complex, but I couldn't do the surgery, first because of my age, and then because I had no money," she recalls. When Roberta was 24, her mother, a teacher with a modest salary, gave her the money for surgery to reduce her breasts and insert implants.

    She smiles widely when asked about how her life has changed: "For the first time, I could go to a store and buy a bikini. [I] started to wear low-cut tops, went out bra-less for the first time, and stopped feeling ashamed of taking my clothes off.” Roberta says she finally likes herself. "Like any woman, I look at myself in the mirror and complain about a few things. I'd like to have a smaller belly, for example. But there are also some days in which I look at myself, touch my breasts, and think: I love them. I feel good; I accept myself.”

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    Luciana Vargas De Oliveira, 43, Aesthetician
    The arrival of Luciana's second child led to one of the most difficult moments in her life. During her pregnancy, Luciana gained 66 pounds. "I felt as round as a ball; I was stretched out," she recalls three years later. Depressed and unable to take care of herself, she suffered a heart attack. Luciana hired a nutritionist, started to run every day, and decided on breast reduction and liposuction. Surgeons removed more than 6.6 pounds of fat, tissue, and mammary glands. Luciana lost more than 44 pounds in less than one year.

    Today, she likes what she sees, although she rarely takes a selfie. "My body is not perfect, of course — you go to the beach and see many beautiful male and female bodies, but for my age, I feel that I look great," she says. Her insecurity has evaporated. "The pressure that society exerts in order to be perfect will only fail to take effect when women understand that their beauty is in the experience in the inner self they cultivate."

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    Michelle Feller, 45, Businesswoman
    Five years ago, Michelle started a potent hormone-based treatment and underwent five surgeries to have two implants in her buttocks and breasts. She also had a rhinoplasty and hair implants. "That greatly improved my self-esteem, and I found my identity. The surgery for transsexuals is not a cosmetic issue, for us it is to be seen as we really are," she explains.

    Michelle now feels complete, but after deciding to become who she really was, she was fired. In the eyes of her colleagues at the multinational company where she had worked for 16 years, she was a man. But, almost overnight, she reappeared as Michelle. Her boss couldn't understand the long hair and the painted nails, so he claimed she had low performance in order to fire her. She filed a complaint against him. Today, she is the condominium manager of her building, also manages a student apartment, and faces the biggest challenge of her life: "Being a woman is like going to college; I had to learn to walk and to sit, and society has a permanent eye on me. But it has given me attitude, something you cannot find in any operating room."

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    Lorraine Barros, 29, Entrepreneur
    Lorraine spent her whole childhood obsessed with being an adult and seeing her breasts grow. When she was 17, she had no money but started to think about undergoing surgery. Her father called her crazy. Finally, at age 24, she accompanied her stepmother to a consultation for a rhinoplasty and liposuction. That was when she took off her shirt, showed her breasts, and asked the doctor, "What could they be like?”

    She had waited for so long and she was so determined, her father finally acquiesced. "I did not get implants because of fashion. When I was a child, in my head, being a woman was associated with having breasts. When I was 15, I looked like a 10-year-old girl. I felt less womanly and did not like it,” she explains. Lorraine's post-op experience included a month of complications due to an infection. She was even hospitalised. The doctor recommended removing the silicone implants, but Lorraine refused, she recalls as she holds her breasts.

    "I told him, 'Doctor, do whatever you want, but you are not going to take this from me.' Today, I would do everything again 20 times over," she says. Lorraine, the daughter of an African-Brazilian man and a Brazilian indigenous woman, deplores the stigma suffered by women in Brazil, who are often judged by what she calls the "Brazilian standard of beauty." "We are turned into objects, right? I did not want to put in too much silicone because I did not want to draw more attention to myself. As a mixed-race woman with big buttocks, I felt very sexualised; people whistled at me on the street, women asked me to cover myself. All that is big in us is seen as vulgar, as sexual. But I really needed to feel more womanly."