The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 2 – On Class

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Continued from “Bela or Bust: Part 1: On Gender” . . .

Author’s note: My apologies for the delay between part one and part two! I have recently moved back to the United States and in between re-adjusting and job hunting, I had not had the chance or the mental clarity to sit down and actually write!

The popular anecdote goes “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” If I were to rephrase this expression to fit Brazil, I’d say “Beauty is next to Wealth.” Though Brazil has grown considerably with tourism, natural resources, and factory-based goods as its largest sectors of revenue, on the ground, the class divide is evident and going strong. One ironic way to overcome class and bridge the class divide, at least superficially, is through a well-kept appearance. I say ironic here because in order to appear a social or economic equal, one must continue to consume, thus depleting one’s income, even if it is far from disposable.

Luckily for many Brazilian women, maintaining one’s physical appearance is not so heavy a financial task. Even in large cities, one can get an amazing manicure/pedicure for less than $20 reais ($10 USD), a facial for $50 reais ($25 USD), a “Brazilian” wax for $15 reais (known there as “depilação de virilha”; $7 USD) and multiple sessions of lymphatic massage for $100 reais a month ($50 USD). In comparison to the cost of aesthetic maintenance in the United States, Brazilian women are the fortunate ones. In some ways, the cheap costs, even for the average Brazilian, allow for a democratization of access to beauty, whereas in the U.S., this is not so much the case. And when one can find cheap beauty related services in the U.S., the question of service, quality, and even employee rights follows the far too reasonable price tag.

With relatively equal access to stellar services, many women have access to maintaining an image that puts them physically on par with their wealthier counterparts. In other words, she may not be rich, but at least her looks are equal to if not superior to someone with greater material wealth. In the United States, this “phenomenon” of sorts, democratization and equality by way of the physical, can be witnessed in the purchase of clothing and vehicles by those of a lower income. As quality attire is not nearly as expensive in the States as it is in Brazil (due mainly to import taxation and trade issues) and the intellectual property rights of high end designers are often violated by chain stores like H&M and Forever 21, people of the working and lower middle classes have greater access to some of the same clothing styles worn by the rich. As wealth, at least in the past, seemed less of a precarious state in the U.S., the preoccupation with “looking rich” was not evident. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that in many cases, the wealthy in the States can be indistinguishable from the general public (look at stores like Urban Outfitters, which peddles the image of tattered, vintage, and reconstructed clothing at a high price). This is not the case in Brazil, where the wealthy can be spotted from miles away.

Beauty can also mean an escape for some Brazilian women living in poverty, hence the idea of being good looking and well-groomed being given such high cultural value. There are frequent favela (slum)-based beauty pageants, model searches, and even the same video model industry seen in the states, one of them being the ever-present competitions for the next “it” girl in funk carioca (known as baile funk in the U.S.). Named for the most abundant parts of their bodies, the Mulheres Fruta (“Fruit Women”) are famous for their physical beauty. Take Mulher Melancia (“Watermelon Woman”). Famous for her backup dancing for MC Creu’s “Dança do Créu” (NSFW) and her more than generous backside, Andressa Soares (pictured above, right, with Mulher Melão (Melon Woman), left) has been in Brazilian Playboy and even a European tour all as a result of her bottom. Amazing. But it sure beats poverty any day, I suppose.

While beauty may not involve a direct translation into fortune and fame, it nevertheless serves as a surrogate for wealth in the social realm, calling for positive attention that would otherwise be absent in the face of poverty. It also can become an exportable currency, a stereotype for which Brazil is famous (beautiful women), but one that has also led to destructive and exploitive relationships between women who use their beauty as a source of income and the tourists who flock there to consume it.

Even novelas, Brazilian soap operas, repeatedly regurgitate the same Cinderella stories, creating the framework for the myth that beauty is a ticket out of the slums (or at least can allow for a temporary vacation with a wealthy benefactor). But this dream, just as many other rags-to-riches narratives often do, falls flat when translated to reality. Class mobility, while a possibility, is a rare occurrence in Brazil. So even though beauty could be considered a temporary equalizer, the end result of glaring poverty and a large percentage of the wealth staying within a small percentage of the population is what continues.

Next: On Race (Part 3)