By Julia Krystofiak and Miriam Nelson
Upon arriving in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, we acclimated to our initial surroundings at Wish Hotel. The streets were bustling with a mix of automobiles, motorcycles, and pedestrians—the sounds echoing off the towering white high-rise buildings. Various tropical plants (climate type Am to those who are wondering) grew between the buildings, pavement, and the square and hexagonal pavers. We ventured outside the intensely airconditioned and falsely manicured paradise of the hotel to a nearby park. People hurried around its perimeter, while others walked dogs on the inside, roller skated, stopped to look at the giant statue, or worked out at the outdoor gym. We took in the setting, enjoying this island of outdoor recreation between the network of busy streets. Standing on the central walkway looking towards a manmade pond we heard a yell, “you are beautiful!” We looked around. A group of young people shyly smiled as they approached. They repeated “you are beautiful.” This initially created a situation of intense discomfort for us—as we acknowledged that it was a group of young black women calling a group of primarily blonde, white women beautiful. This prompted our discussion of how European features are incorporated into Brazilian beauty standards as a means of oppression, which we learned about in class (Mitchell-Walthour 2017, 5; Pravaz 2019, 81-84).
Mentioned by Fred on our first tour of Salvador, the “mulata” embodies the Brazilian beauty ideal—a mix of European and Afro-descendant features. The mulata is a hyper-sexualized beauty standard in Brazil rooted in both racial and gender-based discrimination (Pravaz 2009, 80). Brazilian standards on body shape fluctuate depending on the region in Brazil, as larger more voluptuous bodies are associated with health and fertility in Northern Brazil (Fred 2022) and slimmer figures are more represented by beauty standards in Southern Brazil. To demonstrate the pervasiveness of these body shape standards, a 2012 study of Brazilian schoolchildren observed high levels of meal-skipping and laxative use among adolescent girls and the use of weight loss medicines among adolescent boys (Claro, Santos, Oliviera-Campos 2012). In both cases, these extreme measures were taken by school-aged children in attempt to achieve the “ideal” body type.
Telenovelas are a platform that widely and effectively convey nationally held beauty standards, including standards intrinsic in “mulata” beauty ideals (Eakin 2017). In Brazilian media, Sonia Braga starred in a range of productions (Gabriela, Dancin’ Days, Dama da lotação, Dona Flor, Eu te amo, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Milagro Beanfield War, and Moon Over Parador) and brought to the forefront of immensely popular telenovelas the image of the “mulata,” and with it, mestiçagem, or complete racial mixing (Eakin 2017, 150). The mulata emerged as “one of the most potent and pervasive images” in twentieth century Brazil (Eakin 2017, 110). However, research on mestiçagem in terms of race and color within telenovelas has been limited, as most research has been conducted on class inequality within telenovelas. “Most of the commentary on race relations has focused on the absence of black actors in the novelas, except in menial roles such as cooks, maids, and hired help” (Eakin 2017, 153).
Similar to societal standards produced in many states around the world, trans and cis women in Brazil are subjected to unrealistic beauty standards that fuel systematic oppression and racism. In a study examining beauty standards globally, it was found that:
Brazilians had the highest prevalence of stating that beauty increases opportunities in life (66.0%). Additionally, more than a half of all women in Brazil have already considered having cosmetic surgery, and 7.0% reported having undergone some kind of cosmetic procedure – the highest of all countries surveyed. Brazil was also the world’s largest consumer of weight-loss medications per capita (Laus et al. 2014).
In Brazil, publicly perceived racial and gender identities are predominantly determined by an individual’s appearance. Considering this, as well as binary expectations of gender expression, discrimination against bodies continues to impact many people today (Rodrigues-Shirley 2019, Brum 2017, Eakin 2017). For this reason, it is critical to understand the oppressive aspects of beauty standards rooted in both racial and gender-based discrimination.
Brum, Elaine. 2017. Laerte-Se. Netflix. 1hr 40min. https://www.netflix.com/br-en/title/80142223.
Claro, Rafael Moreira, Maria Aline Siqueira Santos, and Maryane Oliveira-Campos. 2012. “Body image and extreme attitudes toward weight in Brazilian schoolchildren.” Revista Brasileira de Epidemiologia 17 (11). Revista Brasileira de Epidemiologia 17. https://doi.org/10.1590/1809-4503201400050012.
Eakin, Marshall C. 2017. “‘Globo-Lizing’ Brazil: Televising Identity,” in Becoming Brazilians: Race and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316800058.
Eakin, Marshall C. 2017. "The Sounds of Cultural Citizenship," in Becoming Brazilians: Race and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316800058.
Fred. 2022. Tour of Salvador. ICR Brazil. May 11, 2022.
Laus, Maria Fernanda, Idalina Shiraishi Kakeshita, Telma Maria Braga Costa, Maria Elisa Caputo Ferreira, Leonardo de Sousa Fortes, and Sebastião Sousa Almeida. 2014.“Body image in Brazil: recent advances in the state of knowledge and methodological issues.” Revista de saude publica 48, no. 2 (2014): 331-46. doi:10.1590/s0034-8910.2014048004950.
Mitchell-Walthour, Gladys. 2017. The Politics of Blackness: Racial Identity and Political Behavior in Contemporary Brazil. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316888742.
Pravaz, Natasha. 2009. “The Tan from Ipanema: Freyre, Morenidade, and the Cult of the Body in Rio de Janeiro.” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Latino-Américaines et Caraïbes 34, no. 67 (2009): 79–104. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41800448.
Rodrigues-Shirley, Marcela. “Activism is Survival for Brazilian Trans Women.” Ms. August 1, 2019. https://msmagazine.com/2019/08/01/activism-is-survival-for-brazilian-trans-women/.
Julia Krystofiak is going into her senior year at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. She is pursuing a degree in political science and data analytics and hopes to attend graduate school following her undergraduate studies. She is originally from Mounds View, MN. Julia enjoys learning about gendered power structures, international relations, and civil conflict. She has been involved in multiple research projects focusing on gendered and populist rhetoric, which is extremely relevant to Brazil under Bolsonaro. She looks forward to better understanding human impact on the climate and natural world in the context of Brazil!
Miriam Nelson is a rising senior at the College of Saint Benedict, majoring in environmental studies and political science. She is from Blue Hill, Maine. Miriam is interested in a wide range of topics including international environmental policy, water conflicts, and land trusts. She highly enjoys spending time outside performing backcountry trail work, backpacking, paddleboarding, and birding.