The story goes like this:
Pablo Escobar, and other drug lords of Colombia’s recent past, liked their women to look a certain way – large fake breasts, skinny waists, and enhanced butts – and they set the tone for popular notions of female beauty for modern Colombians. This special preference for “narco-beauty” survived the twilight of the drug lord era (Escobar was killed in 1993) and persists today as “Colombia’s passion for implants is almost unmatched,” and sadly, “Colombians have managed to skew their own perception of normalcy and beauty.”
Does Colombia have a higher per capita rate of surgical implants than other countries with less pronounced history of narcotics trafficking?
Does the history of high-frequency implant use date back to the heydays of the drug cartels (the mid 1990s)?
We are pretty close on the first question. Colombia does have a lot of surgical cosmetic procedures per capita. In 2011 among major national consumers of plastic surgery, Colombia was fourth in breast implants, trailing (by a good margin) Greece and Italy, and lagging behind the United States. Of course Greece and Italy being on this list doesn’t really help the “narco-beauty” narrative as their presence suggests that a variety of cultural factors might make plastic surgery an attractive option for women, even in the absence of all-powerful drug lords.
Still, there are other implants in the “narco-beauty” story and here it gets a little more interesting. In 2011, Colombia dominated the world in butt implants, but that was a very recent development. In 2010 (the first year for which I have found reliable data), Brazil was the clear leader in per capita butt implants.
This at least sheds some doubt on the Escobar connection, and raises the possibility that the “narco-beauty” butt-implant craze actually came from Brazil, and rather recently (say the last 10 years). By 2006, in the United States, the process of suctioning fat from around the butt and then injecting it under the gluteal muscle – as a sort of natural implant – was simply known as “the Brazilian Butt Lift.” By reputation at least, it was Brazil that was known as the mecca of buttock implants in the mid 2000s.
Furthermore, the “passion for implants” – mentioned above in the 2006 article about Colombia – is entirely about breast augmentation. There was a real expansion in cosmetic surgery capacity in Colombia in the mid-2000s, attracting value seekers from around the world. Butt implants, however, are not mentioned in these contemporary accounts, again raising doubts that they were common even 6-7 years ago.
Why the sudden interest in butt implants? The doubling of the Colombian middle class in the last 10 years – along with the rapid expansion of consumer debt – may have something to do with an overall increase in demand for cosmetic procedures, though why Colombians are so into butt implants right now (and not, say, in 2006) is unclear. The little evidence we have, however, does suggest that cultural reasons for surgical procedures are diverse, and that current Colombian fashions don’t clearly connect to the days when outlaw cartels brazenly ruled over every element of Colombian life.
By the way, on a per capita basis, including all forms of cosmetic surgery, South Koreans get way more than anyone else.