Living infomercial

Our intrepid reporter checks out cannulas and after-surgery underwear, and sees a banana tattooed!

By Mary Roach
Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The International Confederation for Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery came to San Francisco last month for a six-day convention at the Hilton Hotel, giving uninformed browsers the chance to attend talks they don't understand and make ignorant generalizations about countries they've never visited. Like this: In Japan they're making each other taller ("Simultaneous Lengthening of Both Lower Legs to Gain More Height"). In the Netherlands, they're making each other women ("Secondary Vulva Revisions in Male-to-Female Transsexuals"). Iran is asserting supremacy ("Advantages of the Tehran Brow Procedure"), while America is thinking big ("Circumferential Body Lift"). Yugoslavia does not go in for jargon ("Reduction of Big Eyes in Persons with Shallow Orbits"), and India is India ("Use of Banana Leaf in Donor Area Dressings").

Growing quickly bored of the talks, this uninformed browser wandered into the Technical Exhibit Hall, where plastic surgery product companies hawk their wares to the surgeons. It's a giant living infomercial of the sort you would never see unless perhaps your cable package included the surgery channel. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a salesman demonstrating a "skin resurfacing" laser skin peel device. The downside of this sort of product demonstration is that it's godawful hard to find a volunteer from the audience. The laser bloke had settled for a tomato. The tomato had firm, smooth unblemished skin and clearly wasn't in need of a peel other than the one it had. Later in the day I saw a man dermabrading an orange. For the first time in my life, it struck me as unfair that fruit could not sue for malpractice.

Since no surgeons were around to listen, the laser man delivered his spiel to me. The older lasers, he said, as wisps of smoke rose from the hapless beefsteak, require "wiping between passes." It sounded like one of those rules of good hygiene, like "front to back." As it turns out, what gets wiped is blood, or in this case, tomato sauce. I left the man to his gratuitous surgery and crossed the aisle to talk to a friendly looking woman holding a puzzling but decidedly less threatening-looking gadget.

"For all your micropigmentation needs!" chirped the brochure. It was a device that tattoos pretend nipples and eyebrows, for those of us who don't, owing to surgery or burns or overzealous laser demonstrators, have them anymore. "It can also do permanent lipstick and eyeliner," said the friendly woman. While I pondered this concept, a surgeon from Argentina appeared. The woman picked up a banana, put on her glasses and began to tattoo it. I hung around for a while to see if the banana was going to get a nipple or an eyebrow, or whether bananas had special micropigmentation needs of their own. It came away with a brand new brown fleck, a little large for my tastes, but quite lovely.

"Gracias," said the surgeon from Argentina.

Out in the hall, a belligerent-sounding man on a pay phone was shouting. "We're gonna have to end up suing him for the money! There's no other way to explain it except that he's an asshole!" It was hard to imagine a man that this man would think was an asshole.

I wandered aimlessly, gawking at the strange and icky goods. More than anything else, I saw cannulas. A liposuction cannula is what a surgeon uses to get at the lipo that is being sucked. The cannulas had names that brought to mind malt liquors or condoms: Cobra, Mercedes, Accelerator III. To quote from the Cannula Catalog, the device is a "shaft" with an "opening at the tip." Some of the shafts are specially designed for "easy penetration." There is a metaphor at work here, and it's not "Love is a rose."

One company was selling a power cannula, which surgeons can use to plunge through fibrous tissue. "This is a real aggressive one," said a salesman named John. He gave me the power cannula to hold and showed me how to rev it. RHEEEE! screamed the cannula, sounding very much like a dentist's drill. Then John handed me a potato. "Stick it into the potato," he urged me. "Stick it in, and feel the resistance! Feel what it feels like. Stick it in."

This is not the sort of thing a lady does to a potato she's just met. I handed it back. "You stick it in."

Growing tired of gadgets, I moved on to the softer, kinder world of plastic surgery underwear. To my great disappointment, no produce had been recruited to serve as models. They were displayed in unflattering heaps: gynecomastia vests for male breast liposuctions, subpectoral implant stabilizer bras, compression girdles. My favorite was a product called Pic-Eze.

Guess what Pic-Eze is. Wrong, and wrong again. It's disposable thong underwear in surgical-blue nylon that patients wear for their Before and After liposuction photos. Why? For it Offers Patient Modesty with Maximum Photographic Exposure, that's why. Pic seemed an unfortunate naming word for a class of product that creates a desire to do just that. The man explained that Pic is short for picture, and has nothing to do with wedgies. Then he gave me a sample, which I need like a banana needs an eyebrow.

The rest of the afternoon was passed pleasantly, perusing the many wondrous and never-before-known-of ways that human beings have found to make a living. Someone, for example, invented Eyelid Weights. These are tiny skin-tone curved metal bars that are glued to an eyelid to create, as they say, gravity-assisted closure. For those with permanent gravity-closure needs, there are solid Gold Eyelid Implants. These are quite beautiful and I found myself wanting one as a souvenir, but what with the panties and a pair of SiliMed breast-implant wrist rests, I knew I shouldn't be greedy.

I continued my tour of little-known plastic-surgery-offshoot industries. Someone is paying the mortgage by manufacturing plastic teaching models of human skin ("relief detail displays acne pustule ..."). Someone else is putting the children through college on the proceeds from pneumatic hair transplanters. Whole worlds exist out there that most of us know nothing of. This is why I love a plastic surgery product exhibition. It is truly eye-opening, though not, thank God, permanently.

Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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