Sin Tetas no Hay Paraíso. Image via formulatv.com

Fluorescent light flickered from above as I looked around at the other patients. Men and women of all ages each had a different body part either bruised or bandaged. Some sat in relief, others stood or limped with the assistance of a partner. They all had something sliced back, sewed on, pumped out, or lasered-off. The waiting room seemed more like a triage facility than a clinic. Judging from the number of surgeries they had collectively undergone, I felt I could have spent all day running from ward to ward to seek out any change to my body that a dollar could buy.

I was focused on the teenage girl across from me when the nurse called my name. It was evidently several days after her rhinoplasty — she had two black eyes and swollen cheeks; the joy of her new nose seemed yet to kick in. At her side was her mother, undoubtedly in full support of the operation. I could almost see the girl’s future in the history of her mother’s surgeries. With a Grand Canyon of cleavage, a face held up by botox, and lips built from silicon, she clearly had a passion for “corrections.”

This is Colombia, where cosmetic surgery is a part of the nation’s culture. I had come here for a friend’s wedding, but I’d also made the decision to opt in and get some work done myself.

Life in plastic

By the time I reached Colombia, I was two months into my journey along the Pan-American Highway. Every day, a different part of the 48,000km network of roads across the Americas was a place I called home. Along the section that also makes up the South American backpacker trail, from Tierra Del Fuego to the Panama Canal, all the guys I met had one thing in common — a love for Colombian women.

As soon as I hit the streets in Bogotá and Medellín to go suit shopping for the wedding, I too fell head over heels. Everywhere, low-cut tops revealed perfect boobs, and skinny black jeans showed off J-Lo designed bums. From my first day, I couldn’t wait for a chance to hit the clubs and dance some reggaeton.

In Colombia, there are zero qualms attached to cosmetic surgery. It’s a place founded on an industry of perfection. There are over 500 clinics in Colombia, making it the fifth highest nation of people going under the knife per capita. This huge stat even ranks it above the United States. In his song “International Love,” Pitbull raps: “In Colombia women got everything done, but they some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.

It’s 2014 — Google a doctor.

It’s not just Colombians that are having work done. Tens of thousands of gringos flock to the Latin American nation each year as a part of a package deal. Medical tourism is not a new idea, but what draws tourists to Colombia is that the surgeons are actually world-renowned, especially in body sculpture.

I began my own search for a doctor with Google. On the fourth link down, he was there waiting for me in my browser window. He stood proud and confident in an image from the early ’90s on the cover of Time’s magazine. Yes, Time’s, not Time. He was supposedly an expert in LASIK eye surgery. I had been wanting to get my vision corrected ever since I heard it was possible. I know it’s not peck implants, but it’s about as close as I was willing to go to body modification. I called, and within an hour I was in the waiting room.

Kids and scalpels

A friend of mine told me she had her ears pinned back at the age of 12. It’s a tough time for anyone when puberty begins, but she told me in Colombia it’s far worse. Social pressure is placed on those little imperfections which, in another culture, might be considered a cute feature. It’s a place where growing sexual tension is met with an even greater need for a sexual image. And all this comes with full parental support.

But what makes colombianas want a breast augmentation for their 15th birthday instead of a date with One Direction goes deeper, and into the darker part of Colombia’s past.

Narco beauty

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel ruled over Colombia. At the height of his power, it’s estimated he controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine market, and was listed as one of Forbes magazine’s 227 billionaires. The lifestyle was glamorous, and so were his women, the “Narco Novias”. Escobar and his henchmen were obsessed with a body image of a woman that puts Barbie to shame.

His all-encompassing influence sifted down to the “ordinary” people, so that his tastes came to define beauty in Colombia. For the women who wanted in, cosmetic surgery became less about fixing what your mama gave you and more about buying social status. Being a Narco Novia was a way to climb out of poverty.

Today in Colombia the cartels have lost their power, but this idea of beauty, and what it can get you, remains. In Escobar’s hometown of Medellín there’s even a free cosmetic surgery program on offer to the city’s poorest. The medical students are able to practice their skills, and the community can get the breasts and bums immortalized in Colombian pop culture. One of the most popular telenovellas (TV soap operas) from the past few years was Sin Tetas no Hay Paraíso — “Without Tits There Is No Paradise.”

The obsession with perfection

Just prior to having my corneas detached and a laser sent through my eyes, I had a moment to talk to my doctor about the Colombian obsession with perfection. I asked him why it is that Colombians have such a desire for cosmetic surgery. His response: “I think because they can do it cheaply and easily, and they all want to follow what their image of beauty is.”

Back home in Australia, more than half the kids I went to school with had braces on their teeth. When cosmetic surgery is used to enhance sexual image, there’s a certain stigma attached to it. In Colombia this doesn’t exist — if anything it’s encouraged. But it’s with the greatest irony that two of Colombia’s most famous women, Shakira and Sofia Vergara, have never had any work done, at all.

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