Cosmetic Surgery Goes Ethnic

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The advertising slogan is a sly double entendre: Washington’s Cultura Medical Spa bills itself as “a place where it’s appropriate to treat people based on the color of their skin.”

Founded six years ago by two African American physicians — cosmetic dermatologist Eliot F. Battle Jr., an expert in laser treatments, and Monte O. Harris, a board-certified otolaryngologist who specializes in rhinoplasty and other facial plastic surgery — Cultura is one of the first centers in the country to focus on the burgeoning field known as “ethnic plastic surgery.”

Two-thirds of the center’s patients are nonwhite, many of them black women who in increasing numbers are seeking such procedures as nose jobs and laser hair removal that until recently were largely the province of well-heeled white women. Many of these patients, doctors say, are also seeking treatments that seek to enhance — not obscure — their racial or ethnic characteristics.

Although white women continue to dominate the ranks of cosmetic medicine, the number of black, Hispanic and Asian patients has escalated dramatically in the past five years, according to officials at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) and the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Experts say the growth reflects increased acceptance of such procedures within these groups, greater economic clout and larger numbers of minority specialists whom many ethnic patients regard as more attuned to their needs.

In 2002, according to statistics compiled by the ASPS, minorities accounted for 16 percent of plastic surgery patients. Four years later minorities accounted for 23 percent of patients.

The rise in the number of ethnic patients is noticeable in Washington, cosmetic surgeons say, because of its diverse population and high levels of disposable income in some minority groups.

Doctors in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia — places which, like Washington, are not considered hotbeds of plastic surgery — are reporting similar increases. In the past few years, Chicago’s Northwestern University opened a Center for Ethnic Skin, while Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit launched a Multicultural Dermatology Clinic.

Surgeons say that minority women request many of the same procedures as whites, but there are some differences. Surgery to create a crease in the eyelid to give the eye a more open look is popular among Asian American women, while breast reduction, virtually the only cosmetic procedure that may be covered by insurance because it is usually considered functional, is popular among African Americans.

Pioneering Techniques

Some patients say minority physicians are more sensitive to their aesthetic concerns and have greater skill treating darker skin, which is more prone to scarring and pigment changes than white skin.

“I was looking for a doctor with a laser background” who was experienced with African American skin, said Miriam Rudder, 50, a Cultura patient since 2001, when she underwent laser hair removal on her underarms. “I didn’t want to get burned.”

Ten years ago, nonwhite women — and whites with a suntan — were warned that they risked permanent scarring if they underwent laser hair removal as Rudder did, cosmetic dermatologists say.

In those days, Battle said, there were few cosmetic options available to women of color. Mostly “what we could offer was a bleaching cream and Cetaphil,” Battle said, referring to a skin cleanser often recommended by dermatologists to patients of all races. (Bleaching cream is used to even skin tone and minimize the appearance of dark patches.)

Battle, 50, left a career in international marketing at IBM when he was 34 to enter medicine. A graduate of Howard University and its medical school, he completed a laser dermatolog