Long before Janet Jackson revealed a little too much of her body, Tanisha Rollins was obsessed with having one just like it. After watching the singer strut in a 1993 video, Rollins embarked on a quest for washboard abs. For the next decade she stuck to a rigorous regimen. But her abs pretty much stayed the same. Then a friend skipped all the hard work and got a tummy tuck. "I was just like, 'What magazines have you been reading?!' says Rollins, 29, an administrative assistant in Dayton, Ohio. She thought nipping and tucking was only for "rich white people and Michael Jackson," not African-American women like her, making $30,000 a year.
Last year Rollins shelled out $5,000 for a tummy tuck of her own, joining the small but growing ranks of African-Americans opting for cosmetic surgery. The number of blacks seeking facial or reconstructive surgery more than tripled between 1997 and 2002, reflecting both the growing affluence of African-Americans and the subtle easing of some long-held cultural taboos against such procedures. Except for the Jacksons (or perhaps because of them), even black celebrities, whose looks are essential to their livelihood, have been loath to go under the knife. "I was just so worried about looking crazy or looking like Jennifer Grey, who no one recognized after she had her nose job," says one 40-year-old black actress, who decided last year to have her nose and breasts done after being inspired by singer Patti LaBelle. (Though LaBelle, 60, talks about her nose job, the actress requested anonymity.)
In an age when plastic surgeons advertise their services on the subway, it may come as a surprise that cosmetic surgery is frowned upon in the black community. "People want to look good," says Dr. Karen Low, who is African-American and a plastic surgeon in Greensboro, N.C., "but they also want to avoid any criticism that might come from the community, which has for years supported larger frames, wider noses and not-so-perfect features. Changing those things is sometimes seen as an insult to our ancestors and to the culture." Rollins experienced that backlash when she told her family she was having a tummy tuck. Not only did they think it was risky and expensive, they couldn't understand why she wanted to tinker with "God's work." "It's hard telling your mother that you don't want to look like her when you're 50," Rollins says. "I think my mother resented that and felt hurt, but I had to be honest."
There's a lot more at work here than simple vanity. "I think African-American women have finally just decided that it's time to love ourselves," says Essence magazine beauty editor Miki Taylor. African-Americans have become the biggest consumers of beauty products in the United States, spending at least $20 billion a year, as companies like L'Oreal, which opened its Institute for Ethnic Hair and Skin Research in 2003, are well aware. The increase in plastic surgery is in many ways an extension of that trend.
Blacks accounted for nearly 5 percent of the 8.7 million cosmetic-surgery procedures done last year. As the numbers have grown, doctors have had to adapt to their clientele. For starters, black women and white women tend to want to tune up different areas of their bodies (chart). While the nose is Job No. 1 for whites, black women's top request is the tummy tuck. Breast enhancement? More black women want reductions. "Let's be clear that I did it for my health," says rapper-actress Queen Latifah, who went from a double-E bra cup to a D. Face-lifts are not as popular as they are among white women, a testament, perhaps, to a long-held belief in the African-American community: "Black don't crack."
But black skin does scar, much more easily than white skin, and that has been a big deterrent to African-Americans considering elective surgery. Doctors try to be as minimally invasive as possible, using lasers and making smaller incisions, hiding scars in inconspicuous places, and using electron-beam radiation to diminish the appearance of scars. Dermatologist Marcia Glenn, who opened Odyssey Medispa in Marina del Rey, Calif., with an eye toward African-American women like herself, encourages patients to try less-invasive procedures like Botox before choosing surgery.
Like many women who have cosmetic surgery, Patti LaBelle was hoping to cut away at her insecurities in the process. Looking at childhood pictures, "I realized I wasn't a very good-looking girl," says the singer, who was teased mercilessly about her broad nose. "I didn't like the way that made me feel." As middle age sank in, she hoped surgery would make her feel better about herself. Rather than go for a button nose, LaBelle was sensitive about keeping her features looking African-American. "Nothing drastic, just enough to make me feel and look as good as I could," she says. "If, in a few years, I want to get some more work done on my chin or my neck, I will."