The Brazil Files: Bela or Bust Part 3 – On Race

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Continued from “Bela or Bust Part 2 - On Class” . . .

“We always want what we can’t have,” so the saying goes, a saying that is most fitting to describe the intersection of race and the significance of beauty in Brazil. Though many Americans think of a raven haired, dark-eyed, sun-kissed, bronze “cutie with a booty,” the standard for physical beauty in Brazil is anything but. In fact, when it comes to looks, fair skin, light eyes, and straight, blonde hair spell attractive forwards, backwards, and sideways.

When asked of the women by my male friends, as I mentioned in the introduction of this series, my reply was often what they were not expecting to hear, nor were my descriptions of the food, weather, and my ability to walk around freely, unmolested by criminals. The Brazil so many people were expecting could not be found in the stories I told. But even I was in for some surprises, one of them being how white film, television, magazines, and many other forms of media happened to be.

The surprise was not that whites were all over the television. Brazil has a large white population, made up primarily of several generations of Italians, Germans, and Portuguese, not to mention Spaniards, Syrians, Lebanese, Britons, and a few more recent French stragglers. Yet the concentration of said whites is its highest in the southern region of Brazil which, as a result of having a less slavery-dependent more immigrant labor-dependent economy, happens to be more wealthy, developed, and progressive than most of the states in the northern region, where poverty is at its worst. The surprise for me was that in comparison to Brazil’s diverse population, even diverse in terms of what was deemed white, television did not come close. The majority of people who were protagonists on television programs, at least those set in Brazil and not including foreign-based film or television programs (i.e. imported American or European sitcoms and reality shows) were practically Nordic – light eyes, light skin, and light hair.

While Brazilian tv has become increasingly more diverse over the years, as has the business of product promotion and advertising, it nevertheless continues to rely on whiteness to sell an image of success, wealth, and happiness. When coupled with the reality that whites still hold the majority of the nation’s wealth and political power, this image is all the more unsettling. Not only does the whiteness serve as shorthand for all these things, but with class as a determining factor of general worth, whiteness comes at a special premium. It means you’re automatically beautiful as well.

If I had a dollar for every time someone fawned over olhos claros (light eyes) or loiras (blonde women), I would be a billionaire. Bottle blondes, or in other words, women with dark hair who ended up with that unfortunate orange hue on their heads instead of flaxen, sandy, or gold, could be spotted in high numbers, as could the men who broke their necks with their passing. But most of all, there is the business of hair straightening. If one is not already born into whiteness, and cannot fit into the quintessential beauty associated with those on the lightest end of the spectrum, hair is one way to come infinitely close.

The hair wars are actually alive and well in Brazil, much in the same way as they are here in the United States. Though more than 60% of the population has naturally curly hair, the majority, at least those who are women, pay thousands of reais (Brazilian currency) a year to make it straight. By way of a chemical straightening process called escova progressiva (known in the U.S. as “Brazilian straightening”), millions of Brazilian women can control frizz and relax curls. While other forms of relaxers are used, including those made popular in the United States within the black community (made of lye, hydroxide, and/or other chemicals sold in the form of a cream that is applied and then washed out, yielding straight hair for a month or longer, depending on the hair texture of the recipient) as well as the Japanese straightening technique (which involves the application of the chemical then aggressive heat setting with blow dryers and flat irons, yielding results that last for several months or until the onset of new growth), the escova progressiva and its various derivatives (escovas with special scents and ingredients such as the escova de morango (strawberry) or escova de chocolate (chocolate)) are the most popular and easy to find.

Despite its popularity, the escova progressiva had humble and somewhat suspect beginnings, having been discovered by accident when a funeral home cosmetologist spilled formaldehyde onto the scalp of a dead client, only to watch in awe as her curls went straight. In the early years of its development, attempts to concoct at-home mixes of the chemicals (one of which is formaldehyde in a .02% concentration) resulted in deaths, mainly due to an excess of formaldehyde in conjunction with allergic reactions to the same. But once the Brazilian government became involved and worked to regulate the use of the product (beauticians utilizing the technique should be trained and licensed to do so in addition to wearing a gas mask during the application and supplying a mask and goggles to their clientele), the process* gained widespread acceptance and even celebrity endorsement.

Nevertheless, the process in its various forms (from the most strong and aggressive that leave one’s hair completely straight  to lighter versions that allow for lighter waves and slight curl patterns if left to dry naturally) has its opponents, and not just because of the potential health risks. Hair is political as much as it is an element of pop culture in Brazil. While many women opt to straighten their hair for the sake of manageability in the heat and humidity of some areas, there is also social pressure to straighten because curly hair, much like in the States, particularly if that curl pattern is tighter (Read: more “black”), is considered “messy” and “not professional.” Cabelo duro (a fairly perjorative term that means “hard hair,” aka “nappy”, in English) is considered plain ugly. Short hair, while increasing in popularity, is also sometimes considered too masculine for women, most of whom sport long hair (at least past their shoulders, but often longer), in addition to being seen as nonconformist in some regions. So you can imagine the impact of having a short afro or no hair at all.

Fortunately, cabelo afro (black hair, super curly hair, afro hair (the term can be used in several ways)), cabelo crespo (tight curls, super curly hair), black power (the term sometimes used for afros), rastafari (dreads), tranças (braids), and other natural styles of black African origin have become very popular in recent years (ironically, due mainly to and increased exposure to and the influence of black American films, tv shows, music, and other media). While there are still fewer natural options in the standard corporate workplace and these types of hairstyles are viewed as faddish and trendy, one can find people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds seeking and rocking these styles.

Special salons appeal to the demand and many natural stylists hold seminars and training sessions on how to create these looks, spreading the techniques throughout various cities and communities, a big step considering that natural styles and braiding techniques were at one time relegated solely to the North, where the majority of the African descendants of Brazil live. Now that natural hairstyles are en vogue at times beyond vacation season in Salvador (capital city of Bahia, a state with a high concentration of Brazilians of black African descent and the preservation of various African traditions and history), salons that specialize in such styles are becoming easier to find. There is even a national chain of salons that began in Rio called Beleza Natural (“Natural Beauty”) that specializes in curly hair and works to “reclaim” curls for women who have spent years chemically straightening them away (profile here in Revista TPM (in Portuguese)) by making the curls more manageable and defined (much in the same vein of Brooklyn’s Miss Jessie’s curl salon). Zica (pictured above on the left) the owner of Beleza Natural and former domestic worker  recalls being ridiculed and teased for having wearing her hair naturally as a child, only to have the last word with her popular and quite lucrative products and salon.

But Zica’s story is not uncommon as natural (black) hair (along with blackness in general) carryies a certain stigma of being asociated with all things lower class, uneducated, and unrefined. While few will actually come right out and make said association, the fact that dark-skinned black women are relatively absent from popular media and that natural hair is rarely seen as more than an interesting fad, a stylistic experimental alternative, or simply a case of limited means to do anything else with it (read: straighten) is telling. The widely spoken praise of whiteness and unspoken denigration of blackness (using “black” in the Brazilian context here, not the U.S. American one) leaves few options to think otherwise.

Obviously the issue of race as it intersects with beauty in Brazil goes beyond simple black and white. Other racial and ethnic groups (Brazilians of Asian and/or indigenous descent in particular) have been attempting to gain more media visibility and access to and proper recognition in the fashion and media industries. But in terms of the most obvious intersection of the two subjects, hair is a battleground (beyond the tension on the catwalks, which are now subject to racial quotas as a result of the discrimination limiting models of color from gracing the shows), as is television, most notably novelas and reality shows, both of which tend to have predominately white casts, even if the setting is somewhere outside of Brazil or a diverse section of the country itself.

While Brazil is actively working to increase diversity in the media, the not-so-subtle signs that whiteness is a symbol of power, wealth, and beauty remain the most visible and unsettling for many groups of the population within the “pais de todos.”

*As one who has undergone the process, I can speak a little bit about how it works. First, your hair is washed and deep conditioned (usually with a product rich in queratina (keratin), which strengthens the hair follicle and strands). Following this process, the chemical is then applied and the hair is blow-dried and straightened (in several passes) with a flat iron on a high setting. After the process, one is not to wash (or wet) his/her hair for 3 days (although there are other, newer forms of the process that allow one to wash his/her hair immediately following the session). During these days, one cannot use hairpins, barrettes, headbands, and/or anything that would restrict hair movement (including tucking hair behind one’s ears) as one then risks leaving an imprint and/or a bend in the hair until the next application of the product. In general, the results can last up to three months, depending on one’s hair texture (i.e. tightness of the curls, volume, thickness, etc). Clients are encouraged to use flat irons and/or blow-dryers / heat setting in order to prolong the results in addition to doing frequent deep conditioning sessions in order to maintain the structure of the hair and to seal in moisture. The process is also better for longer hair simply because it is easier to maintain and to straighten in the first place (with very short hair, you obviously risk scalp burns, etc via the flat iron).

In my case, I decided to have it done to control frizz. I had pixie cut short hair at the time and would end up going from Halle Berry to Sideshow Bob in a matter of minutes after I left the house with my hair wet. The process itself was a bit strange and reminded me of the infamous and slightly painful “Dominican Blow Dry” (anyone who lives in New York and has ever been to a Dominican-run beauty salon will know what I am talking about…ask if you don’t) plus a mask and goggles which, of course, made the process all the more…strange. Nevertheless, the results were great, though only for a short while as the process on shorter hair was not strong enough to withstand the 100+ degree weather. Frizz won in the end but I’d recommend it for people looking for a permanent straightening solution only if they happen to have long hair. However, as there has been little time for observing clients’ health, in the long run, there may be unknown risks that the gas mask and goggles won’t prevent. The other issue that has come up is the stress that it may have on one’s hair over time. Because the process itself and the upkeep involve heat (which is never exactly great for the hair) and chemicals, the hair itself is technically being damaged.