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The price of beauty

Caramie Schnell
Dominique Taylor/The Vail TrailPlastic surgeon Jeffrey Thaxton gives a feeling for what it's like to go under his surgical knife.
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A quick look at Kristina Ellison and you’d never know.

The half-Spanish, half-Irish woman is slender and attractive, with dark hair and eyes and olive-colored skin. Her nose is, well, normal. Two years ago, Ellison, now 31, would have told you, and showed you just how not-so-normal it was. It used to have a bump on the ridge – a result of a fall she took when she was 10 years old.

“I will never forget when I had my X-Ray done, the tech said ‘don’t worry, when you turn 18, you can get your nose fixed.’ Imagine that at 10 years old. I was like ‘oh my gosh, what’s wrong with me?'”

Besides the unsightly bump, Ellison said she suffered from a deviated septum as well, something that made it hard for her to breathe. Local plastic surgeon Jeffrey Thaxton preformed a combination rhinoplasty and septoplasty, fixing both Ellison’s bump and septum, just over two years ago.

Ellison is one example of the growing number of people who are seeking out plastic surgery to fix what ails or irritates them. By all reports, Americans are falling in love with beauty and are increasingly getting sucked, nipped and tucked to meet their own standards.

In 2005, nearly 11.5 million surgical and non-surgical procedures were performed in the U.S., at a cost of nearly $12.4 billion dollars, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS). That’s a 444-percent increase from 1997. Liposuction and eyelid surgery top the surgical procedures list, while Botox and laser hair removal reign when it comes to non-surgical options.

Only 6 percent of the population has had cosmetic plastic surgery, according to a 2006 American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery survey, but almost 20 percent of Americans plan to have some sort of “work” done during their lifetime.

Cosmetic procedures make up the lion’s share of local plastic surgeon Jeffrey Thaxton’s practice. But he gets the most satisfaction from helping those who really need the surgery.

The plastic surgery specialty was originally born for its reconstructive value, Thaxton said, so it’s unfortunate that its perception is mainly cosmetic – “that’s the first thing people think of when you say plastic surgery.”

“I get the most satisfaction when I’m helping somebody who really has a deformity either from cancer or trauma or born with something wrong.”

But it’s simple economics – Thaxton makes his bread and butter performing the cosmetic procedures. And they are valuable in other ways too, he said. The experience he gets performing the nose, breast, and tummy jobs makes him better at repairing the hit-a-tree-while-skiing victim’s mangled nose.

Dr. Thaxton is currently the only full-time plastic surgeon in town and has been since he opened his practice two years ago. He first came to Vail for a conference on plastic surgery when he was still in school at Columbia University in New York. He opened a phone book while he was here and saw there were no full-time plastic surgeons practicing in the valley. The other draw, he said, was the Shaw Regional Cancer Center, located in Edwards. His “thing,” he said, is breast reconstruction surgery, even though it only makes up about 15 percent of his practice at the moment. “I’m trying to grow that part of my practice right now,” he said.

The most common procedure Thaxton performs is breast augmentation, he said. Tummy tucks are second. Eighty percent of his patients are female, he guessed, though more of his trauma patients – people who have suffered mountain biking or skiing accidents – tend to be male. On average, Thaxton performs three surgeries a week at the Vail Valley Medical Center, along with six or seven in-office non-surgical procedures – things like Botox and wrinkle-filler injections, along with something that Thaxton says he’s been doing more and more often called fat grafting. Basically a tiny incision is made in your stomach, or some place where you have “extra” fat, and the doctor sucks out a small amount of the fat and uses that, instead of a synthetic injectable, to fill in wrinkles or lines on your face. The procedure is more involved than Botox injections and also more expensive, at around a $1,000 a pop.

Over the past few years, especially, society’s overall view of cosmetic surgery has changed – “rather than trying to hide it, they’re wanting to show it off,” Thaxton said, though that’s more likely the case in some of the bigger cities, he said – like New York and Los Angeles. Here in the Vail Valley people tend to want more subtle procedures and aren’t very showy about it, he added.

“Maybe it’s the healthy lifestyle, people just don’t want something that people are going to say, ‘that person has clearly had work done,’ which I greatly prefer. I think it’s a whole lot easier to get a good result when you’re not trying to make drastic changes.

“Most of my patients aren’t out bragging about their results. I don’t have autographed pictures of my patients on my wall like the orthopedists do.”

Dr. Devinder Mangat, a plastic surgeon who’s been practicing part-time in the area for 15 years, agreed. Mangat specializes in neck and facial plastic surgery and says that the typical Vail patient is someone who is “healthy, very active, feel energetic and youthful, but when they look at their face it doesn’t necessarily match. Within reason, most patients want to have things done that make them look better but not look as if they’ve been operated on.”

The number of people having plastic surgery done is rising, and that may be because the social stigma attached has steadily declined over the past five years, said Cos Bar sales associate Shannon Elkins. She referenced a friend of hers who lives in Denver.

“She got $300 worth of Botox,” Elkins said. “She’s only 27 – no, you can’t see wrinkles on her face, she looks fine. But it’s almost like a badge of honor for her.”

The bottom line, Elkins said, is people who don’t need it are now getting it.

“Too much, too soon. When she finally needs it, it won’t do anything for her.”

Elkins guessed cosmetic surgery has become more popular in part because of the rise in reality television shows that highlight dramatic plastic surgery before-and-after stories.

“Shows like ‘Dr. 90210’ have helped change things. (Cosmetic surgery) is more prevalent, out there and talked about.”

Ellison subscribes to “the sooner the better way” of thinking. The only surgical procedure she’s had done is the nose job, but she’s had a number of non-surgical procedures like Botox, and “wrinkle fillers” like Restylane and Radiesse to take care of “deep furrows” between her eyes and the crow feet-type wrinkles she’d gotten from squinting.

“I am in the maintenance process,” she said. “I figure if I start now, the older I get the less I’ll have to do because I kept up with it.”

Ellison works as the surgical coordinator at Dr. Thaxton’s office in Avon; that makes it even more important that she present herself well, she said.

“I like having things done, it makes me feel better about myself. I want to make sure when (clients) come in, I look nice. I don’t want to be all wrinkly and pruney up at the front. Sitting behind a desk also relays an image to the people coming in. Everything I’ve had done, I’ve had done by (Dr. Thaxton).”

Most valley residents we talked to for this story said if they didn’t have to pay for it, they’d almost certainly have some sort of plastic surgery procedure done. Annah Scully, director of the Vail Performing Arts Academy, said she’s all for cosmetic surgery and that she wished it weren’t so expensive.

“I want it bad, but I can’t afford it. I think after a certain age, it’s good but you don’t want to turn into Nancy Sinatra … She looks like a frickin’ Muppet.

“I would just like everything lifted and nipped and tucked. When you get older everything sags, it’s a drag because you feel young inside. I still feel 19 and I certainly behave like I am. Aging is mandatory, growing up is optional, that’s the quote. I’m all for (plastic surgery), it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But you should be as natural as possible. If you’re walking around with two Cool Whip bowls in your chest, then that’s a bit over the top.”

If Nanami Matsui could have one plastic surgery procedure pro bono, it would definitely be liposuction on her stomach, she said without hesitation. The Edwards resident has had two children and now has what is referred to as the after-pregnancy pouch.

“My ex-husband would tell me to go the gym. But I work out two to three times a week and there are certain things that just won’t go away,” Matsui said.

If she had the extra money she’d have no problem getting plastic surgery, Matsui said, especially since she’s tried the normal exercise-and-eat-right avenues for losing the weight.

“I wouldn’t do it to be lazy, but if you’ve done everything, then why not? I think it’s important people feel good about themselves and if it makes them feel good or helps with self-confidence, then there’s nothing wrong with it.”

The one thing local Tony Castle, 19, learned after living in New York City over the past six months is that plastic surgery, in all its forms, is quite popular in the city. His roommate in N.Y. worked at a plastic surgeon’s office helping with Botox and the surgeries, he said. She’d come home and regal him with stories of the people who would come in nearly weekly.

“It’s so nonchalant – it’s like going to get your nails done, but this time it’s getting lips and boobs and your fat sucked,” Castle said.

Alexandra Henderson agreed that cosmetic procedures are not only more prevalent, but also more acceptable. But she’s not sure that’s such a good thing.

At a recent fashion show she overheard a group of women talking about Botox parties – “and they were all really beautiful women.”

“I think plastic surgery is great if it’s reconstruction. But when you do 20 surgeries to try and become your perfect self, it doesn’t work. You’re not going to find it. You get addicted to that ideal and it can be dangerous – it’s a fine line.”

In her home country of Chile, Hendersen said plastic surgery in general is not nearly as acceptable or prevalent. “People aren’t having Botox parties. You embrace that older part of beauty there. I wouldn’t change myself for 15 years younger. My skin is not as firm but I’ve become a stronger woman, more assured of who I am. You can’t get that with plastic surgery.”

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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