The Right to Beauty

I have something to get off my chest. Literally.

I cannot handle the amount of plastic surgery in Brazil. It’s everywhere

I remember when I first started coming to Brazil, I’d see all these people on Instagram who seemed to have the most perfect bodies, After years of working to heal my relationship with food and my body, I normally felt pretty confident about my appearance. Getting immersed into Brazilian culture, however, brought up all the feelings. It was weird, like going through the identity chaos of puberty all over again.

I kept racking my brain. How do these women look so perfect all the time? How do you even get a body like that? Well, actually – the doctor’s office.

It took me a while to realize that a lot of the people I was seeing, both online and in person, had “work” done. Plastic surgery, I would quickly discover, is extremely common, affordable, and accepted here.

Here’s a shocking fact, one that I still can’t wrap my head around: in Brazil, plastic surgery is part of the “right to beauty,” an idea championed by plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy. There are various clinics and public hospitals that provide low-cost surgeries to citizens of Brazil because body modifications like these are seen as an imperative part of making an effort to present a better face and a better brand to society. With plastic surgery, the perception is that people will get better jobs, land better marriages, and, overall, live a better life.

Every time I read this, every cell in my body screams YOU HAVE PLASTIC SURGERY CLINICS BUT NO ABORTION CLINICS?

It’s a hard fact for me to wrap my North American feminism around. Logically, I want to be respectful of cultural relativity – i.e. I know feminism means something different here in Brazil, and my own opinion (or the general opinion of – typically – white, American feminism) has no bearing on its value. And yet.

And yet I get so angry.

In terms of total cosmetic procedures, Brazil is, ironically, second only to the United States. (Though in 2014, Brazil accounted for 12.9% of all plastic surgeries, and the US, 12.5%. Especially fascinating when you consider the difference in population size and discretionary income.) To top it off, 85% of all plastic surgeries are done to women.

Yet Brazil doesn’t have nearly as much disposable income as the US, which indicates just how highly valued “beauty” is. It’s a completely different value system. When I listen to others talk about why they need or want plastic surgery, I stare, blank-faced, trying to compute the response. “But you could just go on a trip? School? Travel? Invest in a business? Buy a car? A house?” My brain runs through all the other options that I see as legitimate. To the other person, they’re not as legitimate as being beautiful.

Beauty opens the doors to job opportunities, professionalism, status, and relationship opportunities. In other words, every one wants to be loved and everyone wants their life to have meaning. Beauty, the thought follows, increases those changes.

For me, in this environment which is so different, it’s a huge internal conflict. On the one hand, I am a very staunch believer that everyone has the right to do whatever they want to their own body. On the other, it doesn’t feel like much of a choice when you consider racism, sexism, social pressure, and the lack of visible alternatives.

Brazil was the perfect testing ground for this idea. In the early 1920s, Brazilian eugenic scientists suggested that beauty was a measure of the nation’s racial progress. Beauty started to assume more cultural clout, and plastic surgeons inherited these ideals, seeing their trade as “fixing” the errors of too much racial mixture in Brazil, particularly among the lower classes.

It seems to happen from such a young age, with such nonchalance. I’ve met so many women here who’ve had breast implants and liposuction before they even hit twenty years. As someone with multiple tattoos, I think of all the times people ask me “Are you going to want those when you’re old?” It’s annoying, but, to be fair, it is a valid question. How will you feel about the choices you make now, in your youth, when you’re older and have more experience?

That is to say, some people may make the choice to get plastic surgery, others may regret it, others may choose never to do it at all. What’s lacking in this social conversation is one key word: choice. As a grown woman entering into Brazilian social standards, feel the pressure, something I thought I had long moved past. People comment on my body all the time here, regardless of whether or not I want to hear it, regardless of my history of eating disorders, regardless of the fact that I’m a 30 year old feminist who has other priorities. The amount of conversations I’ve had about my body, diet, and gym routine in comparison to my career is, frankly, shocking and enraging.

I imagine that if this is how I feel as an outsider coming into the culture with a different, foreign perspective, it must be 1000x more intense for women who were born into this culture and who’ve only known this perspective. I can see why the procedures are common enough to warrant naming a moderate breast augmentation the “Brazilian B.” Honestly, had I been born here, I genuinely wonder if I would have the strength and stamina to fight the social norm.

I think much of the world has the impression that Brazil is full of beautiful people. And you know what? It is. Not because of plastic surgery, but because Brazil has such a beautiful mix of cultures and races that isn’t seen anywhere else in the world. Unlike the US, after slavery, there was no official segregation. Marriage between whites and blacks was never outlawed. There’s a co-mingling of ethnicities here that I’ve never before seen in my life precisely because, and in spite of, my being American.

It’s beautiful.

There’s such a rich history and heritage in that ethnic mix. As an outsider, it breaks my heart to see people – men and women – relying on plastic surgery as a way of erasing the visibility of their ethnic background. Facial surgery for more “European”/white features and breast augmentation for a more Western hourglass figure pushes men and women into a really small, narrow definition of what is beautiful.

Photo by trí võ on Unsplash

It’s something I grapple with daily. It’s a weird feeling because I’ve never had such strong feelings about plastic surgery before, especially breast augmentation. While it’s definitely more hush-hush in the US to get surgery (something that I see as a negative, as well), I genuinely don’t know very many people who’ve undergone surgery back home. Here, it’s something I see every single day, which means it’s always in the forefront of my mind, making me question and wonder about the benefits, the values, the alternatives, and, of course, how I look in Brazilian culture.

My humble take? Brazilians, especially women, deserve better. The people here are some of the most creative and innovative people in the world, but the country lacks the resources and infrastructure to turn that into success and capital for thinkers in the country. Instead, it distracts with the beauty industry, making it seem that if you look the part, you’ll get the part. Women (and men) need true social reform, need to learn their value as human beings – not just bodies – need to have their intellectual efforts rewarded before anything else. Then we’ll see actual progress.

As brasileiras são as que mais se enxergam gordinhas e pouco sexy, entre as pesquisadas, só 2% delas dizem que se acham bonitas.

  • Mirian Goldberg, “O Corpo Como Capital (The Body as Capital)”

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