The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 1 – On Gender

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse 

Continued from “Bela or Bust (Introduction)” . . .

Author’s note:
I recognize that to say that the preoccupation with being beautiful for women in Brazil boils down to three separate entities is oversimplifying. Gender, class, and race obviously intersect constantly and are difficult to consider beyond their Venn diagram-like existence. Yet for the sake of clarity and hopefully accessibility, I have decided to discuss this topic in three parts: 1) gender, 2) class, and 3) race.

Despite Brazil being one of the most powerful countries in Latin America, it is still working to develop an image that coincides with the nations with which it frequently interacts for diplomatic purposes and international recognition. While issues surrounding class are certainly a cause for shame to the Brazilian national identity, one of the other issues on its pulse for change is gender. Brazil has undergone rapid change in the last few decades in terms of women’s equality, with women moving from predominately domestic roles to working beyond the home and holding positions of power. Yet even with these achievements, the obsession with physical perfection has not dwindled, though in Brazil’s case, advances in women’s rights and an extensive beauty regimen are not necessarily at odds. In fact, in an ironic twist, what some women in the United States may find as a sign of oppression has become a mark of power and success.

Having grown up in the South, I’m accustomed to seeing women spend hundreds of dollars a month on their appearance and hours on maintaining it, but when I moved to Brazil, I was sincerely shocked to see that in both small towns and big cities, full-service beauty salons were everywhere, including people’s homes. Many Brazilians know someone who knows someone who does waxing, hair straightening, and nails in the back of her house. As Brazil has one of the largest informal labor sectors in the world, beauty certainly makes up a large part of this statistic, mean that many women have additional job opportunities even when they remain in the home. From Avon, Racco, and Mary Kay sales to nail care and lymphatic massage, the opportunities for a supplemental income are endless and easily accessible for women of all walks of life.

An intense focus on beauty has also been a mark of pride for women, especially as they climb socially. With more women each year entering the workforce in Brazil, peer recognition and respect are contingent on appearance. As more women hold positions of power, the pressure to remain beautiful only grows, as it can sometimes guarantee a better position and internal advancement within a company. However, this is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to Brazil, as this situation is often repeated in the United States, yet to a less obvious degree.

At this point, some of you may be asking what exactly I am implying when I say things like “intense focus on beauty” or “extensive beauty regiment.” When I say this, I am talking about what we would consider “high maintenance” in the United States as the accepted norm for women’s appearance. A woman must always be “bem arrumada.” This means that even when one goes grocery shopping, heels, nice clothes, and styled hair is the norm. One of my students once told me that she felt absolutely dirty when her nails were not done, and another informed me she would never leave the house with wet hair because that was super “pobre” (“ghetto”). Sure, some of the beauty norms make total sense, particularly those related to hygiene and personal maintenance (i.e. frequent waxing) considering the heat and beach cultures of some regions of Brazil. There is also a cultural connection in that just as many Americans obsess over cleanliness, Brazilians often obsess about neatness. This desire to be neat and clean goes beyond the household and can be easily observed in people’s overall appearance. But in terms of the daily need to be basically perfect, a pressure that is placed disproportionately on women, there is certainly room for questioning and criticism.

I’ve seen girls as young as 4 and 5 wearing heels and getting their nails and hair done, as if even female children are to be part of the adult beauty pageant I see on a daily basis. A recent article in the Brazilian magazine Veja indicated that more and more each year, young girls are becoming beauty statistics as they frequent salons almost as much if not more so than their mothers. With the expectation for young girls to be well-groomed, there also comes a similar expectation for them to be well-dressed. However, as clothing here tends to be generally more provocative (read: lower cut, worn tighter, more revealing), that expectation is somewhat poorly placed if we’re talking about children. Clothing here that would not be well accepted in the United States, at least not for daily wear (i.e. clothes Americans would wear to a club) make up the every day clothing, even work clothes, in certain regions of Brazil, so there is obviously a cultural difference. But I am not alone in my statement here that clothing for young girls has become increasingly limited to clothing that too closely replicates the clothing of their mothers and older female peers.

Even the clothing for women, at least that which is cheaper and more accessible to the general public, is somewhat troubling in that the focus seems to be to reveal as much of a woman’s form as humanly possible, yet at the same time, to infantilize her. I once remarked that I was tired of seeing clothing made for “baby prostitutes,” as so many of the items available for women would be incredibly revealing yet covered in pastel bows, equipped with tiny pockets, buttons, or additional frou frou that made me feel more like someone who is 5 instead of 25. Of course, style is different everywhere, clothing trends change, etc. But I mention all of this because I think it goes hand in hand with the gender divide and the issue of beauty.

Brazilian men, who certainly are the benefactors of such beauty standards (i.e. economically) are not held to nearly as high expectations when it comes to appearance, and that relates to anything from physical care to clothing choices. It is arguably the same in the United States, though in both countries some men are beginning to become more appearance-focused. What is different, however, is that in general, women in Brazil (appearance-wise) tend to fit into a very specific box and men in another, the divide being so great that determining one’s sexuality (i.e. gay, lesbian, straight) can boil down to the simplest of things like if a woman’s nails are manicured or wears dresses out dancing (or not) or if a man cares about his weight and hair color (or not).

So while from a distance, the idea of Brazilian female beauty being that of heavenly proportions, in actually, women in Brazil just tend to work much harder on average than women in the United States and some other countries in the West. But that beauty certainly does not come without a heavy price, one on which one’s social acceptance and class mobility can depend far more so than elsewhere.

Next: On Class (Part 2)