“I don’t have the willpower to go on a diet, so this was the only way,” says Yomaira Jaspe, a Venezuelan woman whose eating decisions are currently dictated by a plastic patch sewn onto her tongue. A new form of extreme diet, the supposed “miracle” tongue patch has become popular amongst Venezuelans since it became available in Caracas clinics last year. The fad is the latest weight-loss technique in a country where female physical appearance is so prized that breast implants are commonly proffered as 15th birthday presents.
Launched in 2009 by Nikolas Chugay, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, the patch is an abrasive piece of marlex—a material typically used in hernia repair—about the size of a postage stamp. Secured to the top of the tongue by six stitches, the patch renders the consumption of solid food very painful, forcing patients who have trouble controlling their calorie-intake onto liquid diets.
“We found a niche,” says Paul Chugay, who works with his father Nikolas in their Los Angeles practice, the only place in the United States where this diet is available. “We wanted to offer patients something effective without resorting to the risks of invasive surgery.”
While the patch is certainly effective (patients can drop up to thirty pounds in a month), the securing of an abrasive foreign object to the tongue comes with plenty of side-effects. Patients can experience speech difficulties, while others have trouble sleeping. “At the start you can’t even move your tongue for the pain. I’ve tried to eat solid food but it’s impossible,” says Yomaira, speaking from her family home in Charallave, an industrial conurbation on the outskirts of the Caracas. “It’s a huge inconvenience, but I’m doing it to feel better about myself. I was very fat.”
“It’s a good solution, I don’t see it as extreme,” says Alicia Zamora, Yomaira’s mother. “It teaches you to eat differently and proves that there are alternatives.”
The patch can be worn for the maximum period of one month, after which patients consult with nutritionists on how to continue pursuing their weight-loss goals. “The material has pores which allow for in-growth of tissue,” says Chugay. “If you leave it in for more than a month it starts to become incorporated into the tongue.”
Chugay says his patients view the tongue patch as a “last resort”—he has consulted with under 100 patients since 2009. But Ana Maria Parra of Obesiesbel in Caracas, one of the first clinics to offer this new weight-loss method, has seen around 900 clients a month since she began offering the procedure two years ago. And with Venezuelan clinics charging around $150 for the procedure, compared to the $2,000 it costs in Los Angeles, Caracas, already on the map as an aesthetic-surgery tourism destination, could become something of global “tongue patch” hotspot.
“Venezuelans are very beauty-conscious,” says Giovanni Sosa of the Caracas-based Sosa-Reyes practice, which has been offering the tongue patch to its patients for the past nine months. “So when we offer something that shows concrete results, people will put that before its extreme-nature.”
Brian Evans, who runs a Beverly Hills plastic surgery practice, has his doubts about a procedure which has yet to receive FDA approval. “Adding a foreign substance to the body comes with the risk of infection or rejection, which means swelling, pain and discomfort,” he says. “A procedure like this would have to pass the rigors of testing before I would consider it.”
“It’s the latest fad,” says Robert Rey, who also runs a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgery practice. “No matter how creative we get with these insane mechanical barriers, nothing replaces discipline.”
Venezuelans are no strangers to extreme diets. Common weight-loss methods in the South American country include the abuse of insulin injections, syrups which induce vomiting and fasting-pacts among friends.
Venezuelan women, expected to be sexy yet chaste by their machista culture, experience fierce competition from contemporaries, and are expected to rely on looks in order to get ahead in their professional careers. The average Venezuelan woman spends 20 percent of her annual salary on cosmetics and beauty treatments, while four-thousand patients go under the knife every month in the name of self-improvement, many funded by banks which offer plastic surgery loans. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry is per capita the world’s largest. The country boasts more beauty queens than any other: a Venezuelan has made the “honor-list” (the final cut of ten contestants) in 84% of all international beauty pageants over the last twenty years. Young girls attend myriad beauty schools – institutions which produce professional beauty queens – from as early as age five.
“The man-market is shrinking as I get older,” says 27 year-old Vanesa Vargas, two days before becoming one of the 35,000 Venezuelan women who annually undergo breast-enhancement surgery. “There are women my age who are married or having kids. I don’t have a partner, so what other alternative do I have?”
“It seems extreme, but Venezuelan society can be amazingly cruel about one’s looks,” says Vilmaris Ojeda, Yomaira’s 40 year-old aunt who also went through with the tongue patch procedure in solidarity with her niece. “But the real challenge is going to come once they take it out. Not eating is easy when you physically can’t.”