Vicky Faint had always been proud of her physique. Years of competitive body building left the mother of four fit and toned. But it also left her flat chested.
"Guys at the gym would tell me I had a 'mean chest' and that, for a woman, is not a good thing to hear,” she told her local newspaper near Wellington, New Zealand, in 2010.
The year before, Vicky had travelled to Thailand to have her breasts enlarged. The cost was a major drawcard – cosmetic surgery in Thailand can be at least half the cost of the same procedures in Australia or New Zealand. Thailand’s reputation for having some of the best cosmetic surgeons in the world and the lure of exotic Asia played a strong part in her decision, too. She recovered from her surgery at one of Thailand’s luxury beach resorts.
She was so impressed with the experience she now works for a company that arranges overseas cosmetic surgery trips for Australians and New Zealanders.
Vicky is at the junction of two global trends – a growing acceptance of cosmetic surgery for people who aren’t in Hollywood or modelling, and medical tourism, where westerners travel overseas for cheap hip replacements, heart surgery and dental work.
What’s changed in the past three years, says University of Technology, Sydney ethnographer, Dr Meredith Jones, is that the emphasis is now almost as much on the tourism as it is on the surgery.
Dr Jones, who is part of the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, conservatively estimates that about 15,000 Australians seek cosmetic surgery overseas, every year. She says patients spend a lot of time researching the risks and benefits of such operations before going ahead.
The fastest growing segment of the market is young women travelling in groups to Thailand and Malaysia.
Dr Jones, who is part of a multi-site, multi-disciplinary international team examining cosmetic surgery tourism, says the increase in group bookings has been so dramatic that agents claim tourism surgery packages make up about 80 per cent of the market.
“I have heard of no men being involved in these groups and nearly no one over 30 and the vast majority [of the surgery] is for breast augmentation,” she says.
Cosmetic surgery has become a consumer item and a lifestyle choice, says Dr Jones, but the travel component of the surgery packages is about something else: transformation.
“These are not generally people who are absolutely desperate to get that surgery. They haven’t thought about it for 10 years, ‘Oh, I need a tummy tuck’ or ‘I hate my nose’. They think ‘Gee. It would be nice to have breast implants’ … and then they hear about it from their friends or see something on Facebook or they do a Google search and they find it doesn’t cost that much overseas and it’s packaged in a culturally safe way when you go with a group of people like you.”
For many young women, the breast implants – often an unnatural shape – are a staging post in their life. “They want people to know they are fake because they are a status symbol ... It is a purchase,” says Dr Jones.
Experiencing the pain of surgery and post-surgery recovery with girlfriends or other young women is part of this new ritual.
“I think these groups are doing far more than changing their bodies at cheap prices. They are performing ritual bonding of a type that has been observed by anthropologists across many cultures and in many time periods. That is, they travel away from home, in a group, often with an older and more experienced guide, in order to undergo physical and emotional change.
“They do this at an age of transition, when they are moving from being children to being adults, and the surgery they choose – breast augmentation – is a physical marker of this.
“In other words, cosmetic surgery tourism for these young women is an initiation or a rite of passage: a demonstration of maturity and independence.”
Travelling in a group of peers is reassuring and affirming and it’s not surprising new friendships are made.
“These women actually call themselves booby sisters and booby buddies and they call the agents booby mothers. The bosom is where your heart is.”
* This story written and produced by the University of Technology, Sydney, for Brink, a publication distributed monthly in The Sydney Morning Herald.