Category Archives: The Brazil Files

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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Paper, Plastic, or Racist Caricatures?

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I go grocery shopping almost every day here in Brazil, but I rarely really study the packaging of the products I buy beyond checking out the price and the contents. However, a few weeks ago, while sitting down to remove my nail polish, I noticed that a grocery store purchase yielded a little more than I had bargained for: racist caricatures! Yes, ladies and gentelemen, racist caricatures, even on something as simple as nail polish remover!

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After noticing this, I decided to take note of other products. Another one I found by accident happened to be on a small bag of rosemary I picked up to use at my friend’s house:

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…little Chinese man (chinezinho) rosemary, that is.

In almost every country, racist caricatures have been used to sell every day products, but to still see such images in circulation is a bit troubling. It’s of little concern here in Brazil, but usually in the United States, these logos would bring forth quite a bit of criticism.

Have any of you seen any racist caricatures on grocery items in the States or abroad? How do they make you feel?

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.

Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Colossal Ewwww: Playing Brazil an Insult to…Everyone?

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

I hate to even give this guy web time, but here goes…

While doing some research on beauty industry revenue and plastic surgery in Brazil, I stumbled upon a little gem called Playing Brazil. At this point, I started holding back the bile coming up in my throat. It was hard, so I decided to channel my disgust in writing this piece, which basically wrote itself, meaning I just threw up in my mouth a little instead of puking up the contents of my entire stomach.

Check out the site introduction:

This website is a comprehensive guide to picking up brazilian women, for you the tourist. I’ve spent a long time figuring this out, so if you follow this advice you are seriously going to increase your chances of getting with a beautiful brazilian girl! There is also an easy to use phonetic Portuguese section, which is key for pick up. You will only need a few!

Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Bela* or Bust (Introduction)

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

“So, are the girls hot?”

This is the most common question I receive from American men when I explain that I have been living in Brazil. These men come from all walks of life, are of various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and of varying levels of education, exposure to other countries, etc. Long story short, this question seems to be on the minds of many men. It is, for better or for worse, a universal curiosity.

But in my response, I quickly put things in perspective.

“Well, for one, Ugly travels. I see just as many unattractive people in Brazil as I do in the States, and equally as many beautiful people on both sides as well. But I can safely say that the majority of women in Brazil work really hard to be beautiful, more so than the majority of American women.”

There are usually follow-up questions about body types (butts being the primary focus, of course) and clothing styles (are the clothes all skimpy?) and I handle those accordingly. The preoccupation with appearance in Brazil-related questions is to be expected considering that one of the primary portrayals of Brazil in the United States relates to beach culture, scantily-clad women, and sex. But when one takes the time to consider the reasons behind the high standards of beauty in Brazil, it is obvious that there is more to being beautiful and participating in the process of achieving that than just a bikini wax or the perfect nails. Beauty in Brazil is a complex matter involving gender, race and, most certainly, class. Continue reading

The Brazil Files: Race & the Runway – São Paulo Fashion Week Dabbles in Color

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

models Joseph Ackon, Samira Carvalho and Ronaldo Martins for Osklen

Yesterday afternoon, I was talking to one of my colleagues when I noticed one of the most beautiful black women I had ever seen in my life walk through the door. Despite the young students running around at her feet, she remained calm. She stood out among all the other parents awaiting their children as she was the youngest, the one with the most poise, and the darkest. Amid all the other white parents, this young woman, despite the simplicity of her white canvas jacket and jeans, called for the most attention. She was simply arresting. My first thought was, “wow, she could be a model.”

Yet this moment of wandering imagination was quickly squelched by the loud voices of two young and rambunctious pupils approaching from behind. I continued to watch as the two pale, fair-haired children ran to join hands with the woman who could give Iman and Naomi Campbell a serious run for their money, the contrast of their skin colors and body language putting everything in perspective. She was the children’s caretaker, their nanny, possibly the family maid. And that is exactly the social order in which she would most likely remain, for no matter the intensity of her beauty, in Brazil, her color would be a disadvantage –  the mark of Cain, if you will. She was the color that I had heard some pray their children would not be. She was the color that stood as shorthand for crime and poverty. But in my eyes, she possessed a color that I quite frankly missed. Continue reading