Everyone wants to be beautiful. Or let me rephrase that: no one wants to be ugly. That is a fact. Even though we are all different, inside and outside, it seems that there is a standard, one formula of actually being beautiful. Thus, everyone (or everything) is measured against this standard to decide whether they are beautiful or not.
About six years ago, I participated in a workshop that by one simple exercise tried to demonstrate the differences in personal values of each individual and how hard it was to compromise. This is roughly, what the exercise was like:
We all received 15 slips of paper. Each of those slips had a different word written on them representing a value. We had to use the slips to list all of the given values from the most important to the least important. Each spot in the ranking could only represent one value, which meant that inevitably there would be a value that was highlighted as number one, and another that would end up being ranked as the least important one. Then we were just told to follow our own instincts and list away.
Once everyone was done with their lists, we had to compare them to those of other people in the group. The results were amazingly baffling. I remember being utterly surprised about how someone could have listed “beauty” as their second most important value. From what I can remember, I had ranked first things that seemed like an obvious choice -“self-development”, “health”, “family”, “freedom”, “security”, etc. – whereas beauty had space left only at the very bottom of the list. It just did not seem as relevant, nor did I think that it was right to list such a superficial thing as important. However, the fact that someone indeed had listed it as their second most important value amazed me and continued to do so for a very long time.
Now, I think I can finally say that I understand. First of all, I think we have to be a bit more poetical about the meaning of the word “beauty”. It just cannot be as literal as one would immediately assume. It is definitely not just about how a person looks, or even what our surroundings are like. It encompasses all of our senses, feelings, appreciation for love and our very own existence. By now, I have learnt to adore beauty in this broader meaning and I am aware that I would definitely not want to live without it anymore. I look for beauty every day in moments, people, sounds, design and art, feelings, places etc. Just to witness, to gain esthetical pleasure, to learn, to enhance my senses and to simply enjoy being alive.
Could the person doing the exercise with me six years ago have thought about it the same way? I will probably never know, but I love it how that brief moment all those years ago consequently made me expand my horizons.
Despite of the, let’s call it “newly found understanding”, I was not prepared for the cult of beauty that Brazil has introduced me to and I cannot agree with even now that I am able to admit that beauty is an important value in my life.
The Concept of Beautiful People
The first time that I understood that something quite different was going on here, was during my first months in Brazil when I decided to go to a salsa club with a few friends. One of my Brazilian friends from dance class had not arrived yet and I was texting her to find out whether she was coming or not. She responded with a question: “Are there any beautiful people there? I heard from a friend that beautiful people do not go there.”
I was perplexed. What did she mean by “beautiful people”? And why was that a criteria for deciding whether to go or not? She had not mentioned anything about whether the music was bad, if there was lousy service or dirty bathrooms. Because in those departments, the place was definitely at least an 8. Therefore, I honestly had no idea how to respond to her question.
I was out of my comfort zone, freshly arrived in Brazil, which made it difficult to judge anything, as I just did not know what the norm for anything was. I was also fixated on keeping an open mind (as all travelers would, right?). Furthermore, the concept of measuring the quality of an activity or a place by how beautiful the other participants or visitors (that we would mostly likely have nothing to do with) were, had never even crossed my mind before. After all, everyone is different and appreciates different things, so how would I even begin to understand what she had meant by “beautiful people”.
Since then, I have become a bit more knowledgeable. The concept of “beautiful people” in Brazil has mostly to do with how much money people have and how well they have invested this money in fixing and maintaining their physical appearance according to the prevalent social norms and ideals.
So basically, it has nothing to do with natural beauty (which would have been my first guess). Nor does it refer to the talent, manners, kindness or intelligence of the individual or any other virtues of the soul. It all just comes down to “keeping up appearances”.
So What is Beauty for Brazilians?
Once I happened to watch a footage of a Brazilian TV show that took place in a studio and included the presence of an audience that was almost exclusively made up of women. These women were then told where they should sit taking into account the camera angles and their individual appearance (read: attractiveness). I will never forget the words of the TV host while the women were ushered to their seats: “Remember, girls, there are no ugly women, there’s just the wrong kind of make up.”
This quote basically sums up the whole idea of what beauty here in Brazil is considered to be: it does not matter what you were born like, who you are, you have all the means available to “fix” yourself and become what the society/media thinks beautiful should look like. According to how well you make use of those means decides whether you will be seen as a beautiful person or not.
Furthermore, often it comes down to money. While there all kinds of establishments in all possible price ranges for all the beauty-fashion-fitness treatments you could ever imagine, the actual results of the services are usually in correlation with the size of the investment.
Therefore, directly depending on your financial capabilities you can either look effortlessly fit, bold and beautiful with the earned right to lie that you actually got it from your momma or you can look like someone that is trying hard to be what they definitely are not.
In the latter case or even if you have decided to go aux naturelle, you will most likely not be relevant in the running for the title of a beautiful Brazilian person. Unless you are a foreigner, of course. For a reason unknown to me, most gringos (preferably blond and with light eyes), are put on a pedestal, no questions (or investments) asked.
The Boom of “Corrective Procedures”
The latter is also a hint of what the general beauty standard is like. The influence comes from international media and celebrities but the final outcome is tweaked with a few Brazilian peculiarities. The prestigious private university where I did my exchange year when I first arrived here was a perfect example of that. It was amazing how most girls dressed the same, used the exact same accessories, haircut & hair color (long straightened blond hair) and make up. All of it to look as European (or Northern American) as possible. Where is the fun and individuality in that? – I used to ask myself.
Body wise, it is of utmost importance to be as fit as possible. The ideal female body is the one with toned muscles, firm breasts, flat tummy and a tiny waist, thick thighs with a large round butt. When dieting and working out is not enough or is just not your thing, or you do not agree with the aspects of your body you cannot shape yourself, plastic surgery comes to aid. Therefore, even if you were not born perfect, you can become so.
Aesthetic surgery is widely spread and is much more freely talked about here than in Europe. Brazil is one of the countries with the highest number of corrective procedure in the world. It is amazing how many people freely admit they have undergone a nose job, face lift, liposuction or a breast augmentation. Cosmetic surgery is generally accepted as a common procedure. Moreover, it is even considered a status symbol, showing that what you look like is important to you but also that you can afford to pay for a new look. If I think about my own contacts here in Brazil, I can say that I know more women that have undergone plastic surgery than those who have not.
Production is the Road to Perfection
Still, all that is not enough. If you have got it, you flaunt it! Image is everything here in Brazil, and you cannot make the first impression twice. Which brings us to something that they call “production”. The hair, the make up, the nails, the tan, the outfit – all of those details make up the look, your image and less is not necessarily more here. Without all those details, in comparison to everyone else people might not even notice that you actually are quite good looking.
If you have got a nice body, then it is your duty to show it off wearing tight mini dresses, high heels, and full make up, of course. Again, if too conservative, minimalist or under-dressed, do not expect to form part of the “rich & beautiful crowd” in the eyes of everybody else. Do not care? Well you should, because the ultimate aspiration is to l o o k perfect and wealthy at the same time. No one said anything about actually being something.
I have personally witnessed a Brazilian hetero guy seriously stating that absolutely no woman is beautiful when they wake up. Does just this not show how far from reality and from being in touch with ourselves, we have drifted?
Social Media Stars Getting Them Young
The even sadder story is with teenage idols and influencers. Social media is huuuuge in Brazil. The popular bloggers and instagrammers have millions of followers that adore the earth their idols walk on. The majority of those followers is made up of young girls who copy just about everything they see their favorites say, use or do. Unfortunately, some of those social media stars have absolutely no sense of responsibility or reality when it comes to selecting the content that they address to their audience.
Imagine a famous digital influencer, with 3 million followers on Instagram solely, not to mention all the other channels she is active on. The fame of this vlogger started with short and cute DIY videos that gave ideas how to customize clothes, decorate your house etc. while spending as little as possible. Now, rather showing off a luxurious lifestyle filled with beauty procedures, travels and photo shoots than the actual tips, this social media star is the ultimate example of what every little girl in Brazil wants to become. In the eyes of her followers she is rich, slim, blond, blue-eyed, happily married and receives countless gifts (as well as money) from beauty and fashion businesses just for showing them off in her social media channels.
Even though, deeply religious and not tight-fisted about her views on God, this digital influencer daily documents her struggle with insecurities about her own appearance. Already adored by her faithful fans and representing a type of beauty that most of the followers will never attain, this vlogger keeps altering her appearance by several beauty procedures and surgeries and posts it all on the internet.
What message does this give? How will kids, especially teenagers already worried about their appearance and acceptance, learn to love themselves the way they are? That it is okay to be different? And that appearance is definitely not everything? What are their chances of being an integral human being following a role model that has no idea or does not care about the impact they are making? Or even aspire becoming one?
The wildest thing is that Brazil is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth. So many different types of people and beauty are represented here. How come is it then, that everyone wants to look the same and like a 30-year-old-forever?
Why have we forgotten that beauty lies in differences, in uniqueness, in experience and individuality? Nobody is perfect, ever, yet everyone has something interesting or even spectacular about them. Why has the notion of character and beauty lost all of its essential meaning and become the equivalent of a mediocre American pop-star?
I am generally most in awe with the types of beauty that are nothing like mine. But that does not necessarily mean that I have to become it. Definitely, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, take care of your eyes so that you could see beyond the layers, the masks, the skin that people put on to adequate themselves to the dictated worn-out and featureless model, and look at what they really are.
I know that it is not just Brazil I am writing about, it is the world. The issue has just touched me much more strongly here than ever before, I guess. What do you guys think about this phenomenon?
Oh, and to counterbalance the criticism, check out this wonderful project called The Atlas of Beauty – a photographer capturing different kinds of authentic female beauty all over the world. Love it!
11 Comments Add yours
Great article. Well written and very succinct with my experiences of living in Brazil! Fake it till u make it culture where outer beauty and appearance is valued more highly than character and substance
Thank you Liv! It means a lot! I sometimes wonder if it is due to the lack of wanting to actually get to know people… Which also makes it harder to make real friends here.
Nice piece, I have lived in Brazil for three years and feel like I’m doing it wrong, being female I mean, because I have had precisely one manicure since arriving here, I frequently go without makeup and I *gasp* chopped about four inches off my hair recently. The hairdresser kept asking “are you sure?” and then checked with my husband for his approval – eh hello, it’s my hair! Oh and don’t get me started on the posing!
Thanks! I really really like your blog too!!! I know exactly what you mean, I feel the same way. The other day we went to a country house of a friend. It was cold and all I had brought was shirts, jeans, warm sweaters and tennis shoes (no make up at all in my luggage), while some of the other women wore black leather pants, knee-high boots and a full make up even early in the morning! I did feel that I was probably doing it wrong, but that was still not motivation enough for me to change 😀
Bem, cuidados com a aparência são como higiene para nós brasileiros.
Love this article! I thought Brazil was beautiful because of its diversity, everyone is so different and therefore beautiful in their own way, it’s a shame that so many can’t see it! I think you are so right that beauty should be found in uniqueness. Have you ever visited Florianópolis? Things seem slightly more hopeful there, I mean sure there is still the prevailing, plastic-looking beauty standard there too, but there is also a bit more of a relaxed, hippie culture present, (especially around the uni, UFSC) in which people don’t seem to mind so much about tight clothes and makeup, and they allow themselves to be free and beautiful in their own way.
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Hey Kia! Thank you so much for the feedback! No, i haven’t been to Florianópolis yet, but it sounds like a great place! 🙂
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Excellent article, you really hit the nail on the head. I’m a foreigner (Australian, male) living in Brazil and I must admit this is a part of the culture here that irritates me. On one hand, I walk down the street in SP and recognise that there is generally a staggering number of good-looking women of various backgrounds, colours, etc – one of the little perks of life here I guess. On the other hand, you quickly realise just how much of it is fake, and how much pressure people are under (women especially, but even men as well) to constantly align themselves with this standard conception of beauty. It seems so much time is often wasted on this that could be better spent enjoying life in other ways. I can’t remember the number of times I have had arguments with my Brazilian partner about needing makeup on before going to the bakery across the street, or me not being dressed up enough to go and visit friends of ours who already know me well. And don’t get me started on the importance of painting fingernails…… too often, despite their outgoing and friendly nature, people here are all style and no substance.
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Hi Tim! Thank you for your comment, and sorry for the delay! I completely agree with you. I have coworkers only wearing high heels despite the pain and the toll it takes on their posture… I really do not get it still, even after 5 years in Brazil. And I stand my ground on not painting my nails or not wearing any heels when I do not feel like it. Health and comfort before anything! 😉