Beauty and the Bündchen: Standards of Beauty in Brazil

In Moon Brazil and in my previous posts, I often touch on the fact that one consequence of traveling around Brazil is the discovery that there are many different countries contained within this continent-sized nation. The observation was underscored this week in an article published in The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Off Runway, Brazilian Beauty Goes Beyond Blond” Brazilian correspondent Alexei Barrionuevo highlights yet another Brazilian paradox: despite being a country in which over 50 percent of the population possesses some African and indigenous descendency (i.e. isn’t white), when it comes to the way Brazilian women are represented on the world’s runways and in the fashion media, the whiter, blonder, and more European, the better.

The truth is that an estimated 70 percent of all Brazilian models are culled from the three small, most homogeneously European states that comprise the Brazilian South; meanwhile black models claim it’s easier to get work abroad than in Brazil. The journalist accompanied a few Brazilian model scouts as they set off in hot pursuit of the next Gisele Bündchen. The task involves tracking down (literally – as if they were hunting elusive wildlife) fair-skinned, golden maned, tall, and naturally thin girls who share the same profitable genes as the world’s longest lasting and highest paid supermodel. With this mission in mind, the scouts head to the hills of rural Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.

While Rio Grande do Sul boasts less than one-twentieth of Brazil’s population, the state yields the largest concentration of Brazilian models – apart from Gisele, Alessandra Ambrosio, Caroline Trentini, and Raquel Zimmerman are other Gaúchas whose names might ring a bell. The impact of these glamazons is felt not only on the Brazilian catwalks, but on the runways of New York, Paris, and Milan as well. For this reason, scouts such as the rapacious ones featured in the article spend so much time pouring over books, maps, and web sites. In studying colonial history, immigration patterns, and demographics, they strive to discover untapped areas that are likely to have “the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in.”

The article makes the point that these snow white Brazilian beauties are sought after by the global fashion industry to the detriment of black, indigenous, and mixed race Brazilians, while Brazilians themselves find dark-haired, darker-complexioned women to be “among Brazil’s sexiest.” According to Barrionuevo, “the pattern creates a disconnect between what many Brazilians consider beautiful and the beauty they export overseas.” He then quotes a renowned São Paulo fashion consultant, Erika Palomino, who admits to being “perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women.”

The argument is certainly valid, as is the fact that, in recent years, Brazilian women of color (and non-white Brazilians in general) have achieved historic prominence in all social spheres. As the Times article mentions, over the past decade, the income of black Brazilians has increased by around 40 percent, creating an important black consumer class. It also alludes to the fact that this year, for the first time ever, the heroine of the Globo television network’s 8 o’clock novela (soap operas that are watched by roughly 30 million Brazilians every night) was a black woman, played by the actress Taís Araújo, whose character just happened to be an international top model. The latter fact is significant viewed that as recently as ten years ago, virtually the only TV roles available to black actors were housekeepers and slaves (in the case of period novelas).

However, it’s also erroneous to imply that Brazil doesn’t have its own race issues when it comes to the color of its beauty icons. For every Taís Araújo, there are at least 10 (real or fake) blond bombshells anchoring TV shows for both children and adults. And although Taís Araújo might have played a model in a fantasy soap, in real life, big-name black models (excluding actresses) are virtually non-existent.

The truth is that an estimated 70 percent of all Brazilian models are culled from the three small, most homogeneously European states that comprise the Brazilian South; meanwhile black models claim it’s easier to get work abroad than in Brazil. Erika Palomino might find it “embarrassing” that Brazil never exported a Naomi Campbell, but it’s ironic that the best known black model working in Brazil today is not only imported from abroad – but is the one and only Naomi Campbell herself.

Over the last few years, Campbell has become a fixture on the São Paulo Fashion Week circuit, appearing in runway shows, and more frequently, on paparazzi sites and in magazines (true to form, she’s racked up a few VIP Brazilian boyfriends – all of them wealthy and white). In the meantime, São Paulo state prosecutors recently forced the organizers of SPFW, Brazil’s biggest and increasingly international, high-profile fashion event, to ensure that 10 percent of the models hired are of African or indigenous descent (this on account of the fact that in 2008, only 2.3 percent of models models – 8 out of 344 – who paraded down the runway weren’t white).

There are numerous stories I’ve heard or read about that I could relate concerning black Brazilian women’s efforts (conscious or otherwise) to comply with white standards of beauty. One of the most recent and personal involves Alice, the 5-year-old daughter of two close friends of mine in Salvador, a city where 85 percent of the population possesses some African descendency. Alice’s mother, Myra, is black and her father, Edivaldo, while light-skinned has an Afro (and considers himself “preto” (black). Both are very proud of both their color and heritage… a fact that made it all the more puzzling, and disarming, when their daughter, a butterscotch-skinned girl with long thick waves of blondy-brown hair, announced to them (and to the world at large) that she thought curls were “ugly”. Instead, she fervently wished that she could trade her voluminous tangles for the silky, platinum tresses of Barbie (whose presence is ubiquitous in Brazil among the under-6 set).

Myra, Edivaldo, and all their friends went into full defense mode. For weeks, when in Alice’s company, we oh-so-subtly championed the glory of curls (Myra even found her a terrific picture book about a little girl with crazy, crinkly hair whose life took a turn for the definitely dull when she had it straightened), while making snide remarks about Barbie the imperialist bubblehead.

This happened a few months ago. Since then, the anti-curls phase seems to have passed, and the Barbie phase will pass as well. But here’s hoping that when Alice grows up and looks at the mirror on the wall, Gisele won’t still be considered the fairest of them all.

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