No cosmetic surgery is risk-free, but some operations are more dangerous than others, and the "Brazilian butt lift" (BBL) has been labelled the most dangerous procedure. So much so that the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) is now urging surgeons not to perform it until more data has been collected.
One in every 3,000 procedures proves fatal, the organization warned recently. This year alone, two British women are known to have died from the surgery, during which fat is removed from one part of the body, such as the stomach or back, and then injected into the buttocks.
Twenty-nine-year-old Leah Cambridge, from Leeds, died in August after traveling to Turkey for the procedure, while another unnamed woman, also in her late 20s, suffered the same fate, BBC Two's Victoria Derbyshire programme reported last year. An inquest into her death is due within 12 months.
I wanted the hourglass span I'd seen all over Instagram
Jane Park, 22, from Edinburgh, travelled to Turkey for the butt lift procedure in June 2017 when she was 21 years old. Her interest was piqued by the fact that "you can lose weight from different parts of the body and get a bigger bum all in one go," she told Refinery29. But she was left fearing for her life and regretting her decision.
"I wanted the hourglass figure I'd seen all the celebs getting and had seen all over Instagram. Celebrities were promoting this procedure and the process, including recovery, was made to look easy. The pain was very uncomfortable, I couldn't even sit on a BBL cushion because of the pain, but I was told this was normal and to keep taking painkillers, I'd be fine."
It wasn't until she returned to the UK and saw her GP, only to be transferred by ambulance to another hospital, that she realized how badly wrong the operation had gone. Park describes having a "red blotched mark" on her leg that became enlarged and eventually burst weeks later, leaving a scar that exists to this day.
It could literally end your life and I feel upset that folk have already lost theirs. I feel lucky.
"I've recently seen that it's [BBL] been named the most dangerous cosmetic surgery and if I'd known that beforehand I'd never ever had gone through with it," she continued. "It's good that people are now listening and seeing how dangerous it can be. It could literally end your life and I feel upset that folk have already lost theirs. I feel lucky."
If it hadn't been for a friend traveling with Park to Turkey, she would have been left alone and fearing for her life in a foreign country, she added. "I was absolutely petrified of the risks. I kept thinking it was all going to go wrong and when I woke up and saw myself, I thought my life was going to end."
Park says she "wasn't really made aware" of the medical dangers the procedure can entail, and blames herself for going through with it. "Companies are never going to tell you about the risks and things that can go wrong. It's my own fault for not looking into it as much as I should've. I'm just glad it's out there and girls thinking about having this surgery will maybe think twice about it now."
What explains the rise?
Cosmetic surgeons have attributed the rise in BBL procedures to "aggressive marketing campaigns" targeting vulnerable people on social media (where clinics have also marketed a labiaplasty as "Barbie pussy" surgery in the past), and celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B posting photos of their assets on Instagram, which give the impression that "surgery is just like make-up".
But it's a far larger financial commitment than buying a new contouring palette. In the UK, a Brazilian butt lift generally costs between £2,000 and £7,000 depending on the clinic, and it's common for women to travel abroad, where the procedure is cheaper.
Leah Cambridge was reported to have paid around £3,000 in Turkey, which a study cited by BAAPS found was the most popular destination, followed by Belgium (15%), France, Cyprus, Tunisia and Colombia.
The danger comes from the injection of fat into large veins which can then travel to the heart or brain, bringing with it a serious risk of severe illness and death. Other complications from Brazilian butt lifts, as highlighted by BAAPS, include:
• Severe bacterial infections including MRSA and pseudomonas
• Tissue dying
• Wound ruptures
• Tissue dying
• Wound ruptures
One 23-year-old woman from Wales, speaking to the BBC anonymously, reported leaking from her buttocks for three months and not being able to walk properly "for ages" after undergoing the procedure in Turkey in February. "It smelled. I had to bandage it up every day," she said. "I honestly wish I could go back. I was happy with my body before. And now I paid a stupid amount of money to look like this."
The cost to the NHS
Not only are unsafe butt lift procedures abroad costing lives, they are also costing the NHS thousands of pounds. Many women have required treatment after experiencing serious complications, including pulmonary embolus, fat necrosis and abscess, BAAPS said.
One study cited by BAAPS found that a single NHS hospital reported a six-fold rise in cases needing urgent follow-up care from procedures abroad since 2013, with patients requiring an average of 20 days on the ward and costing the hospital £32,500.