Fashionably Colonized: Hybrid Vigor, Brazilian Models, and Global Ideas of Beauty

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Nancy L sent in an article from the New York Times with an opening that made even this jaded activist do a double take:

RESTINGA SÊCA, Brazil — Before setting out in a pink S.U.V. to comb the schoolyards and shopping malls of southern Brazil, Alisson Chornak studies books, maps and Web sites to understand how the towns were colonized and how European their residents might look today.

The goal, he and other model scouts say, is to find the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in. Such a mix, they say, helps produce the tall, thin girls with straight hair, fair skin and light eyes that Brazil exports to the runways of New York, Milan and Paris with stunning success.

So this is how we’re going now? What is this, the hybrid vigor myth on speed?

The smartly-written article takes an interesting turn – while the models associated with Brazil are overwhelmingly white, the country is beginning to embrace nonwhite women who fit their standards of beauty. And yet…

Despite those shifts, more than half of Brazil’s models continue to be found here among the tiny farms of Rio Grande do Sul, a state that has only one-twentieth of the nation’s population and was colonized predominantly by Germans and Italians.

Brazilians are equally perplexed:

The pattern creates a disconnect between what many Brazilians consider beautiful and the beauty they export overseas. While darker-skinned actresses like Juliana Paes and Camila Pitanga are considered among Brazil’s sexiest, it is Ms. Bündchen and her fellow southerners who win fame abroad.

“I was always perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women,” said Erika Palomino, a fashion consultant in São Paulo. “It is embarrassing.”

The article is interesting, both for its look into the fashion industry and the strange focus on sites of colonization as portals for beauty scouting. But the whole situation does make me wonder who is responsible for upholding white standards of beauty. This article, I believe, makes a strong case for those who control the images of beauty, and how their preferences can dictate the idea of what is sellable. However, they always throw their decision at the feet of consumers – but who conditions what consumers see as beautiful?