CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan businesses are battening down the hatches in anticipation of a tough 2009.
Not plastic surgeons such as Dr. Peter Romer.
He has a full schedule through March and expects little decline during the rest of the year even if Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffers a sharp fall as expected.
"I've lived through one or two crises here, so I know how it goes," Romer said, sitting behind a desk laden with round silicone-gel implants of varying sizes. "In Venezuela, a woman may not have enough money for her home, but she will spend to keep up her appearance with plastic surgery and new clothes. It's seen as a priority."
Plastic surgery has boomed, ironically, while President Hugo Chavez has attempted to remake Venezuela as a socialist nation. With the economy awash in money thanks to record-high oil prices, plastic surgeons report that business has doubled in the past five years. And they expect little slowdown next year, thanks to a culture that puts exceptional emphasis on a woman's physical attributes.
The Miss Venezuela contest is one of the country's highest-rated shows every year. When a Venezuelan wins an international beauty contest — Dayana Mendoza became the latest in July when she was selected Miss Universe — the country celebrates it as a national triumph.
Women go to work in short skirts and revealing tops that would raise eyebrows in the United States. At parties, women brag about the big-name plastic surgeons such as Romer who enlarged their breasts.
An estimated 30 percent of Venezuelan women ages 18 to 40 have had breast implants, said Dr. Jesus Pereira, the secretary of the Venezuelan Society of Plastic Surgeons. He said that 30,000 to 40,000 women a year have been getting the implants.
Venezuelan men also are getting into the act, having more and more nose jobs, liposuction and shots of Botox. Men now account for 10 to 20 percent of plastic surgeries in Venezuela, according to plastic surgeons.
Elizabeth Facchinei openly discusses her recent surgery.
"My breasts began to sag after I had my baby" two years ago, said Facchinei, a 27-year-old preschool teacher who was visiting Romer for a checkup. "Now I feel more secure. It's been a spiritual and physical transformation."
Facchinei spent 25,000 bolivares, about $10,000 at the official exchange rate, and she considers it money well spent even though she expects the economy to decline next year.
Romer interrupted Facchinei to examine his handiwork.
"They're beautiful!" he exclaimed.
"I love them," Facchinei responded.
It seems as if the only Venezuelan women who won't discuss whether they went under the knife are the Miss Venezuela contestants.
"Asking me that is like asking a woman her age," Mendoza told reporters after winning the Miss Universe contest.
She was the fifth Venezuelan to be selected Miss Universe.
Romer, who serves as the plastic surgeon for the Miss Venezuela pageant, pointed out a photograph of Mendoza with him behind his desk but declined to say whether he'd enlarged her breasts.
Dr. Antonio Goncalves, who'd just returned from an international conference in New York, said that the warm weather and the macho culture in Venezuela contributed to the spread of plastic surgery.
"Venezuelan women like to show themselves off," Goncalves said. "They like to be stared at. You don't see that in the United States."
Plastic surgery has become so widespread in Venezuela that banks offer credit for it.
Margherita Esposito borrowed about half of the $12,000 it cost to have Goncalves give her a face-lift, enlarge her breasts and staple her stomach to lose weight.
"I weighed about 250 pounds and was very depressed after getting divorced," said Esposito, a 50-year-old mother of three who sells lingerie from her home. "I wouldn't sell my home or car for the surgeries, but if you have the possibility to feel better, why not do it? I felt ugly before. Now I feel happy."
Esposito said she'd lost 100 pounds. With her renewed self-worth, she's planning to start another home business, selling tape that lifts women's breasts.
Margarita de Perri, 62, had Goncalves replace the breast implant that she'd received 20 years ago.
"Doesn't it look great?" she asked, lifting up her sweater but not her T-shirt.
De Perri is so pleased with the result that she's planning a face-lift next year.
Her 44-year-old daughter wants Goncalves to enlarge her breasts.
"She said she'll do what it takes to better herself," de Perri said.
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