Reality TV star Blac Chyna said last year that she had her breasts done four times, along with liposuction, after the birth of her daughter. I’ve never given birth and I’m not a reality TV star, but I’ve also had lipo and other cosmetic procedures, including multiple rhinoplasties, a Brazilian butt lift and labiaplasty. I even traveled to Colombia to undergo cosmetic surgery as a “medical tourist,” which shows just how far I would go to change my appearance when I could afford it.
At 32, I was a scrawny Jewish girl from Queens, New York, with no career to speak of. After an inheritance from my estranged father’s estate, I no longer cared. At least I wasn’t forced to surf Craigslist for odd jobs. I took a hiatus from worrying about next month’s rent or wondering if I would ever go to graduate school. No longer broke, I decided to spend my inheritance on getting hotter.
I saw the way men gawked at beautiful women, and I stood on the sidelines while better-looking girls landed coveted shifts at bars where I worked. I saw how doors opened even for me when a man (or woman) found me attractive. My own boyfriend Matthew told me that he fantasized about curvy blonde women who reminded him of his father’s pornographic magazine collection ― the opposite of me. I couldn’t remember the last time he had complimented my looks.
So I was sure plastic surgery would lead to happiness: more likes on Instagram, a better-paying job, a boyfriend who actually loved me.
My father had been, at best, a wavering presence in my life: encouraging my artistic talents as a child, but then snickering and calling me a prostitute when I stayed out late at concerts during my teens. His attitude toward me switched erratically. I experimented with drugs and alcohol until I no longer noticed. I was also prone to holding grudges against men. When a male acquaintance commented in casual conversation that I wasn’t “hot,” I took revenge years later. When he eventually became interested in me, I never returned his phone calls.
Attractiveness was not prioritized in my family. My mother told me that I was “cute but no beauty” and that I needed to work hard at my studies. I idolized riot girl musician Kathleen Hanna, who championed female empowerment. It wasn’t until junior high that I hated my nose. As my face developed, I felt like my nose was holding me back. I begged my parents to let me get rhinoplasty, arguing that it was the same as the braces they insisted on in high school.
In my early 20s, I researched doctors in Manhattan and settled on one with an (obviously) altered beak. I was left with a thinner nose, but it wasn’t the fantasy that I wanted. I had a revision rhinoplasty a year later. Still, I was hooked. I enjoyed the ritual of sitting in an office and having my bandages unwrapped.
Then my parents got divorced and my father disappeared from my life entirely. I trudged through my 20s continuing to use alcohol and drugs to cope with my feelings of loss. When a guy I was dating cupped my face in his palms and said, “You have such a beautiful face,” I thought, If only he knew what it cost.
When I was 24, an accident had left me in a wheelchair for months while both of my Achilles tendons were reconstructed. My body dysmorphia reached a peak, as I closely scrutinized every part of me. Falling down the rabbit hole of the internet, I joined forums where I stared at celebrities who had enviable physiques thanks to rhinoplasty, liposuction, lasers and fillers. With the rise of social media, what had once seemed excessive no longer seemed that way.
But it was all out of reach ― until my father’s death. I’d use his money to pay for my transformation to get the love I’d lost.
A friend’s mother had heard about people going to Colombia because the cost of surgery and aftercare there was a fraction of what these procedures cost in the states. I was hesitant about traveling to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language to have invasive procedures, but when my friend’s mother returned raving about her experience, I was sold.
I planned to get full body liposuction. Despite always being thin, I believed that my figure could be enhanced in ways I could never achieve by working out.
I made the last-minute purchases of a butt pillow, laxatives and loose-fitting clothing that the facilitator for the recovery house suggested. I would be traveling with my two friends in tow ― Isabel, a Playboy model, and Steph, a sugar baby. Both girls used their bodies as instruments and planned to have cosmetic procedures of their own. Isabel sought to enhance her figure before embarking on an acting career. Steph wanted to correct a previous operation and feel better about her body.
The night I left town, Matthew came over to my apartment to see me off. We waited for my friends to pick me up outside, but then he ran off while I got soaked from the rain. When I arrived in Colombia, he’d texted an apology for his quick exit, blaming it on stress. After a few texts telling me about his day, Matthew said, “You should get your boobs done! LOL.”
I felt myself shrink. “Maybe we can transfer the fat from your head to my chest?” I joked back.
My friends and I had each paid $6,000 for our liposuction packages. In the pre-surgical consultations, the doctor pinched and grabbed fat on my friends’ abdomens and thighs. When it was my turn, he found it difficult to grasp much ― I was 5’7’’ and just 112 pounds. For an additional $2,000, I decided to get a butt augmentation; fat injected into my cheeks, temples and chin; and a labiaplasty as well.
I envisioned my new perfect pussy and contoured body reattracting Matthew.
We were ushered into a modest home in a residential neighborhood in Cali, Colombia. A maid cooked while I streamed episodes of “Botched Up Bodies” on Netflix in my bedroom. The house hummed with women joking loudly in Spanish. What cost upward of $14,000 for an aftercare facility in New York was included in our surgery rate in Colombia.
It felt like we were staying at some kind of retreat, though we were warned not to walk outside with our iPhones and the windows had iron bars. Before our procedures were scheduled, we were driven to get blood panels, cardiograms and X-rays. Evaluations with a psychologist were not on the agenda.
“You will look like Barbie,” the surgeon said in his Spanish-inflected English. The evening before my surgery, as I lay in bed with Steph watching television and trying to quell jitters, we listed our respective procedures. I hated how my eyes looked tired and how thin my face had become at 32. I scrolled through images of aesthetic surgery results on my phone.
During postoperative recovery, I spent two weeks in pain, which was managed with Tramadol and over-the-counter medications. The nurse jammed my black-and-blue body into a nude bodysuit called a faja, which I was told to wear all day for the next six months. I could barely pee through the slit. I subsisted on Ensure drinks that tasted chalky and Gatorade. Twice a day we were ushered into a car to receive body massages. Sessions concluded when Isabel or I screamed as the masseuse cooed, “Tranquila, tranquila.”
Back home, I was temporarily pleased with my slim thighs and abdomen. But I was left with permanent indentations that became visible once the swelling subsided. And I continued to find new flaws with my body and face.
Shortly after I returned from Colombia, Matthew broke up with me. I blew the rest of my inheritance in two years on exotic vacations and a brand-new wardrobe, symbolically releasing any hold my father had on me. Yet I remained unsatisfied.
I was always finding new procedures to undergo or body parts that I wanted to diminish, enhance or obliterate. I couldn’t recall a time when I experienced real lasting joy after any procedure. Instead, I felt anxious as I made neverending mental wish lists.
I began to notice that it was only when I helped my sister with a college assignment or participated in an art class that my racing thoughts subsided. I realized that I was actually happy when I was of service to others or truly participating in my own life instead of waiting for a better life to come along. I slowly recognized that my feelings of inadequacy had more to do with my lack of direction than my looks and that they would continue to plague me unless I worked on my head.
I invested in a therapist and begrudgingly agreed to a moratorium on cosmetic surgery. While my palms still began to sweat when I found a good deal for Botox in my inbox, I stopped acting on those urges. I embraced work as a freelance writer.
I still have off days where I feel unattractive no matter what I do. Most of the time I’m in a much better headspace and genuinely happy with my appearance. I still struggle with bouts of dysthymia and anxiety, but engaging in talk therapy and occupying my time with things outside myself have made me feel better. Volunteer work, a consistent gym routine and participation in a 12-step program have given me the tools to fill the void.
My shrink pointed out that altering my body never truly brought me bliss anyway. By tweaking my outer self, I was trying to make up for my feelings of abandonment. Spending money on making myself feel better from the inside was a much better investment.