Kurt Hollander takes to the streets of Cali to capture the city’s cosmetic architecture and physical manifestations of plastic surgery’s influence on culture
Cali, the state capital of Valle del Cauca, Colombia, is home to hundreds of plastic surgeons. More people trip to Colombia for operations than anywhere else in the world, with the majority going to Cali, and with annual profits of millions of dollars, the city has become known as Colombia’s “Silicone Valley.” And it’s not just foreigners that keep the industry going. Colombia ranks third in the world for the most surgeries per capita, and women in Cali spend a significant portion of their income on treatments and procedures to modify and reshape their bodies.
The vast majority of women in Colombia – and especially in Cali, the third largest and most mixed city – have black or indigenous blood running through their veins. Despite this, the images of female beauty promoted in television programs, advertisements, and in the pages of glossy magazines tend to be tall, slim, fine-featured, fair-skinned blonde women. It is precisely this distance between real women and ideals of beauty that allows the industry to rake in millions of dollars each year by providing the opportunity for extreme cultural makeovers.
In Cali, almost all major hospitals offer plastic and cosmetic surgery, and many operations are covered by insurance. Cosmetic surgery is all the rage among young women for their quinceañera night out, with their parents gifting them with bigger butts or breasts or a new nose. The winning contestants of reality shows and beauty pageants often receive prizes that include surgeries donated by the cosmetic surgery clinics that sponsor the shows. Famous actresses, celebrities and influencers often broadcast their surgeries live on social media, attracting large audiences. Model Andrea Valdiri gave her 7.3 million Instagram followers $20 tickets to attend her surgery. The ticketing website crashed after receiving over 500,000 visits in the first 10 minutes.
“In Cali, the best cosmetic surgeons are considered scalpel sculptors, aesthetic masters whose specialized work can beautify a woman”
Cosmetic surgery, like magickals or religion, is consumed in the belief that it will help women find husbands, solve marital problems, cure depression, or get better paying jobs. In the sex industry, cam girls and sex workers with surgically altered bodies earn more money and may charge extra fees to customers in high-end brothels or as escorts.
Internationally, Colombia presents itself worldwide as a destination for medical tourism. In 2014, a valued 41,000 foreigners visited the country for medical reasons, spending $216 million, thanks to the relatively low cost of procedures available. Breast augmentation can cost around $4,000, while a combo package of liposculpture, breast lift, and buttock fat grafting can cost $7,000, both of which include two days in a hotel and city tours before and after recovering from surgery.
In Cali, the pharmaceutical and medical associations are currently working with the local government to brand the beauty industry Estetica Cali and the city has more than 50 cosmetic surgery clinics. With their extravagant and eye-catching design and architecture, these clinics are easily identifiable. Some display classic beauty salon-style architecture with fancy lettering on their signs, while many newer ones look like pop-ups, with alluring, oversized facades made of flat, shiny surfaces.
Several cosmetic surgery clinics are named after prominent European artists, such as Picasso, Matisse and Dali. In Cali, the best cosmetic surgeons are considered scalpel sculptors, aesthetic masters whose specialized work can beautify a woman and who charge accordingly. Like the paintings of international master painters, the facades of the best clinics proudly display the signature of the local artist, in this case the main surgeon of the clinic.
It has not always been so. In the 1950s, when the first cosmetic procedures were performed in Colombia, cosmetic surgery was considered a sin by the powerful Catholic Church, which meant that few women dared try to improve God’s work. Meanwhile, however, Pope Pius XII gave a lecture at an international medical congress in Rome where he said: “If the body is a receptacle of the soul, it is true that the body tries to be as perfect as the soul itself,” which was taken by Cali women as giving direct permission to enjoy the benefits of cosmetic surgery.
It was in the 1980s that the industry really took off, just as the Cali Cartel began raking in billions of tax-free dollars a year from cocaine sales. Drug dealers have been a boon to the industry as their wives and girlfriends have become some of the biggest consumers of cosmetic surgery without the high price tag. Cali Cartel Bosses finance their wives become beauty queens or centerfolds, by paying for narco-muñecas (narco-dolls) to take advantage of all the wonders cosmetic surgery has to offer.
The exaggerated body curves of these women not only gave rise to the high concentration of cosmetic surgery clinics in Tequendama, a residential area where many powerful narcos have homes, but also reshaped the fashion industry in the city. . Traditionally, mannequins were designed to be hangers for displaying clothes and therefore slim like mannequins. In Cali, however, models are blessed with huge breasts, reflecting one of the most important aspects of the city’s idealized image of female beauty and sensuality.
“Even when the surgery is successful and there are no medical fallouts afterwards, cosmetic surgery can leave deep emotional scars in a woman.”
It’s not just silicone implants that are inserted into these women’s bodies. In 2020, 10 people from a drug trafficking gang known as “Los Cirujanos” (“The Surgeons”) were sent to jail after discovering that they were surgically inserting breast and leg implants, which mimicked the silicone, liquid cocaine-filled versions in women. A Colombian woman has been arrested at a European airport for how her buttocks were deformed after the long flight.
Women unable to afford expensive surgery at fashionable clinics in Tequendama put their bodies at additional risk. Besides the board-certified surgeons in the city, there are thousands of unlicensed and untrained doctors who offer procedures. In a recent undercover operation, four dozen plastic surgeons in Colombia were discovered using fake degrees allegedly obtained in Brazil, Peru or Argentina. A valued 20-30% of plastic surgeries performed in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, are performed by doctors with no training in cosmetic surgery or performed in unlicensed clinics by non-medical personnel.
To keep costs affordable, these informal clinics, some of which are located in the garages of single-family homes, use pirated products, such as breast implants illegally imported from China. The most common liquids injected into women’s buttocks are paraffin and silicone, but even cheaper liquids such as baby, vegetable and car oils are often used. Many of those who inject these chemicals into women’s bodies are not doctors, licensed or not, but rather housewives or neighbors looking to supplement their incomes.
Even when performed in the fanciest and most expensive clinics, these procedures can be dangerous with complications such as lumps, thickening of the skin, hyperpigmentation, venous and arterial malformations, inflammation and inflammation. Arthritis often become chronic, and the accumulation of these substances in the body. over time can cause blood poisoning. Cheap materials increase the risk of infection and disease, as well as the likelihood of the woman’s body rejecting these foreign bodies. Every week in Cali there are reports of women losing their lives or body parts after a botched operation or injections of toxic chemicals. In Colombia, 14 women died during cosmetic surgery procedures in 2015, 30 in 2016, with by far most of these deaths in Cali, and most in clinical garages.
Even when the surgery is successful and there are no medical fallouts afterwards, cosmetic surgery can leave deep emotional scars on a woman. Many women who have had surgery become nervous about having their surgically enlarged body parts manipulated by a man, and sex becomes complicated and potentially dangerous for women because the implants are delicate and can explode when they are subjected to physical activity or extreme heat. Not only that, but certain parts of the body can tend to lose sensitivity after surgery. Breast implants require slicing through the delicate skin and destroying the capillaries that supply the nipples, thereby decreasing their sensitivity while increasing irritation.
Cosmetic surgery often alienates women from their own bodies, leaving them sexy but asexual, mere models for men. The designer storefronts of Tequendama’s cosmetic surgery clinics that allude to the promise of ideal beauty (or at least ideal booty) are to architecture what the mannequins of Cali are to real women.