The New York Times Magazine
December 15, 2002

Umbilicoplasty – Breast implants and liposuction are the traditional ways to create a new you. But this year a new body part went under the knife: the navel. Last spring plastic surgeons began reporting a curious spike in the number of women requesting navel reconstruction – or “umbilicoplasty,” as the pros call it. Sometimes it was part of a tummy tuck; sometimes the tummy was fine, but the navel rankled. “I get about three or five inquiries a week now.” Says Jim Romano, a San Francisco surgeon who performs the outpatient procedure for about $3,500. Calls have “gone way up, with all the midriffs showing.”

Ah, yes — the midriff. In umbilicoplasty, we have final proof of the midriff’s total cultural triumph. Hidden for decades, the navel is now the center of what’s considered sexy, flaunted in a wave of stomach-bring outfits and above-the-fold news articles pondering Britney Spear’s bellybutton. Acco0rding to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in January, about a third of college women now have pierced navels.

We’ve even developed a navel aesthetic. Charles L. Puckett of the University of Missouri, determined to find out exactly what it is, conducted an experiment that he published in a journal article, “In Search of the Ideal Female Umbilicus.” (“To reconstruct or improve the umbilical appearance,” Puckett intoned, “the ideal must be known.”) He showed photos of 147 female bellybuttons to a group of judges, including 15 men and 6 women.

The verdict? Attractive navels are small and vertical in orientation, or have a T shape — a thin vertical hollow capped by “a superior hood or shelf.” Ugly navels are horizontal, a shape that often comes — what do you know — from age, pregnancy or weight gain. And there are the unlucky few (10 percent of women) who have a “distorted” or irregular navel. As for you “outies” — well, keep your shirts on.

Medical journals have already begun to respond eagerly to this aesthetic research, and this year Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery published an article specifically devoted to the craft, “Simplified Technique for Creating a Youthful Umbilicus in Abdominoplasty.” Consider what’s going on here: a style of clothing is driving a style of surgery. But with umbilicoplasty, the body has become as plastic as fashion — to be nipped and tucked along with trends that themselves might last only a matter of months. – CLIVE THOMPSON

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