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A Nation Where Vanity Is Taken at Face Value

A social drive for good looks turns Argentina into a haven for plastic surgeons

SITTING atop Argentina's bestseller list is a book about one of the country's passions. But it's not about one traditionally associated with the country: soccer, steaks, or even tango.

Plastic surgery is the subject of "The Masks of Argentina" (Las Mascaras de la Argentina), the latest penning by Argentine writer and journalist Luis Majul.

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More than 1 million Argentines have gone under the knife in the last 25 years, the book estimates, with plastic surgery becoming as popular here as personal computers and cellular phones.

"In the United States, there's Hollywood. And Brazil has something similar. But here you can't help but notice that plastic surgery is something for politicians," says Mr. Majul in an interview. "There's a saying here: 'When a politician enters office, the first thing he changes is his car. Then his house and his wife. And finally his face.' "

Indeed, Argentine President Carlos Menem typifies the trend, having submitted himself to operations ranging from hair transplants to cosmetic dentistry to having bags under his eyes removed, according to the book.

Looking one's best is important for someone who spends as much time doing photo ops with the likes of supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the Rolling Stones as he does with visiting heads of state.

Majul has yet to find what to him would be a rational explanation. "How can a man, the president of a nation, put his life at risk just so he can have a few more hairs on his head?" he asks.

To some, the answer is simple. Argentina is a superficial society. Looks are more important than words. Aging gracefully is unheard of.

"A pretty face has more power and will get you more than 20 letters of recommendation," says Jose Juri, Argentina's most prominent plastic surgeon, who has performed 30,000 operations in his 30-year career.

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Surgeries come and go here like fashion trends, often with serious medical consequences. A few years ago, it was nose jobs. Today liposuction and breast augmentations are the rage.

Until federal budget trimming began this decade, state teaching hospitals performed plastic surgery for free, bringing it to the masses. Business continues to boom, even amid the current recession. "In times of crisis, people need to look better to have that extra strength," Dr. Juri says.

Plastic surgeons have become the psychiatrists of the 1990s. "In the '70s and '80s, it was about fixing the inside. Now it's about fixing the outside," Majul says.

That means the potential is huge in a country where people constantly talk about their visits to the analista.

But it also means that more than a few unqualified sorts will jump on the lucrative bandwagon. Raul Fernandez Humble, president of the 150-member Argentine Society of Plastic Surgeons, says there are at least another 200 people here practicing plastic surgery who are not members of the society. He is particularly worried about the recent upstarts of clinics that offer cosmetology, massage, hair styling, and kinesiology, "and throw in a bit of plastic surgery on the side."

Licensed doctors continue to expand too. Juri is investing $30 million in an eight-story facility that he claims will be the world's largest plastic-surgery clinic.

None other than President Menem is expected to cut the ribbon when it opens around midyear. Juri says of his project: "It's going to be a watershed - the worldwide center of plastic surgery for the next 50 years."

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