CARACAS (Reuters) - Unfazed by a recession and rampant inflation, image-conscious Venezuelans show no signs of cutting back on the facelifts, liposuction, and breast augmentation that have become de rigueur beauty treatments.
"There is never a question of not doing it, but of how you can do it. We all want to get everything done," said Helen Patino, a 37-year-old former model who had her first breast augmentation when she was 21 and her third about three months ago.
Venezuela's inflation is the highest in Latin America, up more than 20 percent in the first 10 months of this year and the South American nation is in recession after a five year boom.
Hard times may even encourage cosmetic procedures as people look for ways to lift their spirits, with many dipping into savings or taking on debt to get operations, surgeons say.
"The financial crisis has spurred people to spend more on themselves ... to console themselves in this crisis. I have not seen demand diminishing," said Peter Romer, a plastic surgeon in Caracas.
For Iris Delgado, a 57-year-old dental technician, a lack of funds was not an obstacle to getting a recent eyelid tuck.
"With the economy, one has to make sacrifices, because you don't have the money. So, you get it from credit cards, from family and you pay for it," said Delgado, who borrowed 7,000 bolivares -- about $3,250 -- for the procedure, a move she saw as a hedge against inflation in plastic surgery prices.
Like Delgado, many go into debt to finance cosmetic surgery, according to those in the industry.
"It's an investment that people make and they look for money everywhere," said Romer, adding that one of his patients moved into a smaller apartment to get a makeover and another traded her car for a facelift.
Leoncio Barrios, a social psychologist at the Central University of Venezuela, said such stories are the exception. "The majority of middle and lower-income women do not have property to sell or the capacity to save," he said.
"What is clear is that in the subway you can see ads for clinics that offer credit for this type of surgery, and that women who work use their vacation bonuses and borrow from their work savings accounts," he added.
The industry will make sure that cosmetic work remains within reach to ensure a steady flow of income, Barrios said.
"NEED TO BE BEAUTIFUL"
Despite the hefty price tag, the choice to get cosmetic surgery is not considered a luxury for some Venezuelans.
"We need to be beautiful," said Patino.
Competition among women, by far the biggest consumers of plastic surgery in Venezuela, to look their best is fierce, and social pressure to get work done is high.
"Socially, there is a lot of demand, especially from men, to have a good body," said Prem Pratita, a 27-year-old who had a breast augmentation a few weeks ago.
In this image-conscious country, famous for beauty queens who win record numbers of international pageant titles, the idea of getting cosmetic surgery is instilled at a young age.
Patino recalls how, as a child, her mother and aunt dreamt of surgery to get rid of wrinkles. Now, with a child of her own, the subject is already on the table.
"I told my husband, 'Look honey, if she has your nose, she's going to get surgery,'" said Patino.
Some young women even describe moving up a few cup sizes as a rite of passage.
"It's a transformation from being a girl to being a woman," said Pratita, who said she was one of the last in her circle of friends to have the procedure.
"Everybody has a breast augmentation. Three or four of every seven women have one," said plastic surgeon Angel Pena, who likens his surgery to body decoration practiced for centuries.
"By nature, human beings have the desire to look better ... this desire is timeless and it's a desire that doesn't depend on your economic situation ... it's not that frivolous."