The BBL Effect

Tony Futura

Recently, I visited my cousin Jimmy in Atlanta, and within my first day out at a local shopping center, I became quickly aware of the curvy shape of many of Atlanta’s women. Every so often, I would walk past a woman with a perfect, Coke-shaped body, complete with thick thighs, full round bottom, and flatter than flat stomach. In fact, the more I observed, the more I realized that most of the women around me seemed to have perfect figures, and massive, perfectly shaped behinds that made me glance back at my own with slight concern.

“Wow,” I breathed to Jimmy. “I need to get back in the gym! Everyone here has a perfect body.”

She laughed. “Yeah, it’s the Brazilian butt lift epidemic!”

I was unaware of any such thing. While I did know what a BBL was, the idea of an epidemic simultaneously intrigued and confused me. “A BBL epidemic? You mean all these women have gotten BBLs?”

“Yes, you can’t tell? You’ve got a lot to learn.” She gave me a knowing look to indicate that I didn’t know the half.

I quickly discovered that she was right.

What is a BBL?

A BBL, or a Brazilian Butt Lift, is a cosmetic procedure involving the fat transfer from one area of the body, usually the stomach, hips, lower back, or abdomen, to the buttocks. A BBL is performed in two stages—first, liposuction to remove the fat, and then augmentation, to inject the removed fat to the desired areas of the body. The purpose of the procedure is to enhance the body’s curves, removing stubborn fat from the stomach and waist, while adding fullness and perkiness to the buttocks to give the patient a perfect figure 8 figure.

The surgery has been swiftly increasing in popularity in the United States over the last decade, with the number of butt lifts increasing by 90.3% between 2015 and 2019, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS). While the cost of the procedure can range between $3,000 and $10,000, the average cost in the United States is around $6,500. According to ASAPS, in 2020, plastic surgeons performed 40,000 butt augmentation procedures that generated $140 million worth of revenue.

Celebrity culture also fuels the increase in the butt augmentation procedure, as stars embrace the curve. Kim Kardashian is famously known for the hourglass shape, especially after stunting it in the nude on the cover of Paper Magazine. Even before Kim K. took it to mainstream white pop culture, Nicki Minaj, K. Michelle, and Blac Chyna were already well-known pop culture figures within the Black hip-hop community known for their talents, and voluptuous figure-8 figures.

The United States isn’t the only Western country that has embraced the curvier physique and BBL culture. Plastic surgeons in the United Kingdom have also noticed the increasing popularity of the procedure. Mr. Mayou, a member of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, has noticed a rise in the number of BBLs being performed at his Cadogan Clinic in Chelsea, West London, since 2013. According to the surgeon, “It’s a current fad. Years ago everyone wanted to be smaller and they would be saying ‘can we have liposuction to make [my bottom] smaller?’”

Many BBL patients travel even farther for their surgeries, going as far as Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, where the procedures are done at a reduced price. Standards of care are often unregulated, and health complications are not covered by insurance, since the procedure is cosmetic. Patients who undergo BBLs in non-approved facilities such as homes or garages also face the same risks.

The perfect derrière can come at an even higher price. According to The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, as of 2018, the BBL death rate was 1 in 3,000, making it the cosmetic surgery with the highest death rate. In other words, more people die of BBLs than any other cosmetic surgery. The two common causes of death due to a BBL are fat within and beneath the gluteal muscles, or fat embolisms, which are a disruption to blood supply caused by fat globules in a blood vessel.

Recently, I’ve noticed how much room BBL discourse has begun to occupy on social media apps such as Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok. BBLs are being openly discussed, memefied, and even glorified in circles online. There are niche BBL communities on Instagram, where thousands of young women post their dream surgery results, compare surgeons, raise money for their procedures, and show their progress after surgery. Recently, there was a trend on Tiktok called the #BBLEffect. The trend began in a hilarious video by user Antoni Bumba with a smug, fabulous character who illustrates the confidence that post-BBL patients often find once they can flaunt their new Coke-bottle bodies.

While it started as a joke, the trend quickly morphed into something more. Discourse was sparked, with Tiktok user Roxanne Ramsey alleging that a Miami surgery center she visited with a friend looked like “a trap house for BBLs”, with girls as young as 18 and 19 waiting to be seen, fresh off their plane rides, luggage in tow. In addition, Ramsey claims that Miami pharmacies had run out of Percocet medication for patients due to the rise in BBLs in the city. Some criticize it, others make jokes about it, and other social media users fantasize about it, including girls as young as 14 and 15. I have read posts by young girls who indulge in dreams of getting BBLs once they turn 18, and wearing waist trainers to ensure that their results stick.

I’m not here to criticize women who get BBLs, or any other cosmetic procedure. I believe that anyone of age, as long as they have the means to undergo it safely, has the right to alter their body any way they’d like. Rather, I’m here to explore why women feel the need to. Space and thought should be dedicated to why women and young girls alike feel the need to alter their bodies with such a dangerous and invasive procedure, not defend their right to do so.

The simple answer: a combination of the male gaze and unrealistic body standards of our time—like Mr. Mayou declares, it’s a fad. Like fashion trends, women’s body types go in and out of style with alarming frequency. I’m only 22, yet I’ve lived long enough to watch the gamine, slim-waisted size 2 figure go in and out of style, to usher in the age of invisible waists and voluptuous curves, all before I hit puberty. Unfortunately, the female beauty standard will forever be unattainable, always changing, morphing into something new before you can fully grasp it. Capitalist culture, fashion trends, celebrity culture, and the socialization of women’s bodies determine the desired body type of the decade. As strange as it sounds, the body that is is in today will not be in tomorrow. The only body that will always be in is the body that capitalist culture can sell. For this reason, women should not feel the need to fit into the current beauty standard to feel beautiful or desired.

However, due to the constant inundation of the “perfect” body image on social media and in popular culture, it becomes easy to see why the BBL continues to gain popularity. The “thick” hourglass figure, though often found naturally on the bodies of Black women, can now be manufactured and given to virtually anyone over the age of 18 who has enough cash or credit to buy it. Women young and old are seeking a boost of confidence in a society that places unrealistic body standards on them, and are risking their lives to secure the magic cure.

Women are seeking liberation in this cosmetic procedure, and coming out feeling more confident, more beautiful, and more desirable. As the number of BBLs rises yearly, I wonder what will happen to these women when the thick hourglass figure is no longer “in style” anymore. Dr. Mayou predicts that they’ll return to their plastic surgeons’ offices, asking for liposuction to reverse the look.

BBLs as Women’s Empowerment

Paradoxically enough, for some, BBLs have begun to represent women’s empowerment and the picture of feminism. I cannot deny that women all over the world have undergone this procedure and yielded positive results that gave them happiness and confidence, and that is a great thing — women everywhere deserve to feel their best. I also cannot deny that those coveted feelings of confidence and validation often come due to current mainstream body standards and the male gaze. Every woman has the right to alter her body in any way she wishes, but BBLs specifically correlate to social currency for women, body standards in real life and on social media, and the portrayal of women as inherently sexual objects existing for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.

These things can be simultaneously true, and as the BBL has slowly become a part of our society, it’s important to investigate the motivations behind their popularity, particularly for the young girls who are swamped with media about them daily. We need to do away with the delusion that choices can be made in a vacuum. To admit that women fall prey to societal ideals and the patriarchal influence is to admit the truth. Sometimes, social pressures play a role in the decisions we make, and to admit this is to stare the truth in the face and begin to pave the way to a solution. Instead, BBLs are often framed as women’s empowerment, or simply “letting someone do what makes her happy” as I’ve often heard them described.

Framing the BBL epidemic as liberation is dangerous. Feeding into trends set by patriarchal ideals and repackaging them with glitter as “women’s empowerment” while doing the exact opposite is counterintuitive. Supporters of the BBL often urge, “Let women do what they want with their bodies!” or “Let women do what makes them happy!” However, to assume that whatever makes a woman happy empowers her is to assume that every woman is inherently feminist. Posing feminism as whatever makes the woman happy conveniently disregards the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, and sometimes, what makes the woman happy is catering to the male gaze.

Risking death in a dangerous procedure to rebrand the body as more hyper-sexualized in its natural existence is a choice that should be questioned. The natural female body is not undesirable just for existing. It does not have to be modified to be shinier-looking eye candy for the male gaze, and the lengths that this procedure has extended to in popular culture suggest that the cause has deep roots. Having body dysmorphia, or hating parts of one’s body until they are changed through dangerous means is not empowerment. It is equally dangerous for these ideas to be shared on social media, and it’s worrying that this media may be suggesting to teenage girls that this is the easiest way to feel empowered.

As the creators and shapers of the society that young girls and our daughters, nieces, and mentees will participate in, it’s our responsibility to liberate ourselves. Pretending that the glamorization of plastic surgery liberates women is to suggest that a culture that thrives off women taking risks simply to be desirable can also somehow empower them.

Women’s bodies are not a trend. People should not feel ashamed of how they look because their bodies don’t inherently appeal to societal standards. The human purpose for existing is far larger than being conventionally attractive, something we cannot naturally control. Young girls need to know that we are worth much more than how we appear physically; there is more to each of us than how we look.

Decentering patriarchal ideals and body standards is truly liberating for women, as well as for the girls maturing after us. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful and confident, but our bodies exist to house our thoughts, our ambitions, our memories, our souls, not to be beautiful. We each have more to offer. A person’s wholeness and worthiness does not come from their appearance, and this truth should be where our sense of empowerment comes from.

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