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Surgery Safaris: Looking for the Perfect Body

In this 2011 file photo, a Chinese woman undergoes a double eyelid surgery. (REUTERS)

In this 2011 file photo, a Chinese woman undergoes a double eyelid surgery. (REUTERS)

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health Report.

How far would you go for a perfect body?

Many people these days are going as far as South Africa to get their version of perfection. People from across Africa and the world come for so-called “surgery safaris.” There are no animals to see on these safaris. The visitors instead look for smaller stomachs, firmer bottoms or perhaps new eye, nose or chin shapes.

Businesses that provide medical safaris say they have seen a large increase in African customers. VOA’s Gillian Parker spoke with several cosmetic surgeons in Johannesburg for her report.

South Africa is becoming the leading country in Africa for people seeking cosmetic surgery.

For years, South Africa has appealed to medical tourists from Europe and the United States. But local cosmetic surgeons say now more clients from Africa’s growing economies are interested in such operations.

Lorraine Melvill is a doctor with Surgeon and Safari. She has been performing cosmetic surgeries for nearly 16 years in Johannesburg. She says that more than 80 percent of her clients now come from sub-Saharan Africa. She says this is because Africa did not experience the economic problems that hit other parts of the world.

“When the West started having its economic downturn, it was almost a symbiotic change and the scales just tilted. And we know Africa wasn't as affected by the economic downturn. There is also a huge emerging African middle class that has come to the fore. But for us, the growing market is the sub-Saharan African market. Africa is where we are looking to the future.”

Her clients are treated like movie stars. Assistants take them from the airport to a luxurious guesthouse. They explain in detail the medical operation to be done. Doctors operate the next day. And then clients have a week or two to enjoy a shopping safari for new clothes and handbags while their bodies heal.

Clients can spend anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 on a cosmetic treatment. They might spend an additional $2,000 on the cost of the hotel while they heal.

For many African women, less is more. Ms. Melvill says the most popular forms of cosmetic surgeries for African women are breast reductions and liposuction. Liposuction removes fat from the body. So-called tummy tucks are also common. This treatment removes fat from a person’s middle.

“A lot of Africans have a huge need for breast reduction. And also in terms of the African market, I would certainly say breast reductions, liposuctions and tummy tucks would be their main.”

​South Korea is also a popular spot for cosmetic surgery. But the leading treatments there are operations to create larger eyes, thinner noses and pointy chins.

A 2009 report from the research company Trend Monitor said one in five South Korean women has had plastic surgery.

But South Africa is catching up.

“We are seeing a massive influx of patients from sub-Saharan Africa.”

Dr. Chris Snijman is the national secretary for the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa (APRSSA). He says that there are several reasons for the increase in cosmetic treatments in South Africa. These include a favorable exchange rate and better and safer surgical methods.

Mr. Snijman says there is also less of a stigma attached to plastic surgery in South Africa.

“Obviously they are becoming more socially aware, the social boundaries and stigma attached to cosmetic surgery are now far less than they were before.”

And, he says a growing number of people in sub-Saharan Africa have more disposable income than in the past.

"... not to mention our own emerging upper middle class group of patients in this country… and in addition, they now have a disposable income.”

Dr. Julie Sinclair performs many non-surgical treatments every week. She says most of her customers are women. But she says this is slowly changing.

“Over the last few years a lot more male patients are coming. So in terms of gender, that has changed quite a lot. In terms of race perhaps, a lot of Asian, Indian, Thai, Chinese as well as black patients are realizing that they can do something about something that is bothering them. And, I suppose, to some extent, they are more able to do it as the economical climate changes as well.”

A lack of rules on the cosmetic surgery industry has led to a growing number of rogue surgeons. South Africa’s medical professionals say as the industry continues to grow there must be stronger laws to govern it.

I’m Anna Matteo.

VOA correspondent Gillian Parker reported this story from Johannesburg. Anna Matteo wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

cosmetic surgery (also “plastic surgery”) – n. surgery that improves or repairs the form or appearance of body parts

safari - n. a journey to see or hunt animals especially in Africa

luxuriousadj. very comfortable and expensive; richly appealing

client – n. a person who pays a professional person or organization for services

stigma - n. a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something

disposable income - n. the personal income that is left after the deduction of personal taxes and that is available for consumption and savings

rogue - adj. used to describe something or someone that is different from others in usually a dangerous or harmful way

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