by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
Continued from “Bela or Bust (Introduction)” . . .
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.