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