Why I Study Beauty in Brazil

by Alvaro Jarrín, author of The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Beauty matters deeply in southeastern Brazil. Everyone has strong opinions on what ideal beauty is, how it can be attained and the effects it has on those who possess it. Popular sayings like “beauty opens doors” reflect a widespread belief that being beautiful can lead to upward mobility, because it provides opportunities in the job market and marriage market that would otherwise be closed. The popular saying “there are no ugly people, only poor people,” on the other hand, implies that no one is ugly by choice, and that those who lack beauty are only that way because they cannot afford the myriad beautification techniques available for purchase. Even for the working class, there are low-cost aesthetic surgeries available at some publicly funded hospitals that double as medical schools, but patients must agree to become experimental subjects for medical residents from all over the world who come to learn new Brazilian surgical techniques. Beauty matters in Brazil not only because individuals value it so highly, but also because the nation has become a global center of knowledge production within the transnational circuits of the plastic surgery industry.

In my book, The Biopolitics of Beauty, I trace the origins of this national concern with beauty to Brazilian eugenics, which began to consider beauty as a measure of racial progress. For the plastic surgeons I interviewed, beauty was still a eugenic enterprise, insofar as it “corrected” what they perceived as mistakes from too much racial mixture, and produced a more homogeneous population. They described their work with working-class populations as a form of charity, and considered it a way to uplift the poor and provide them citizenship by improving their appearance. Patients really admired the surgeons who offered beauty to the poor, but were more critical of the “dictatorship of beauty” they felt they had to participate in. My interviewees at publicly funded hospitals in southeastern Brazil described ugliness as intimately tied to forms of race, class and gender discrimination they had suffered – beauty had meaning for them because it seemed to condense all the ways that appearance trumped their qualifications or their hard work. Patients knew very well that they were running a risk by consenting to become “guinea pigs” for plastic surgeons, but they told me repeatedly that the risks of ugliness were even higher.

As I prepare to present my work at the upcoming AAA Meetings in Washington D.C., I think about this year’s conference theme, “Anthropology Matters,” and the ways in which anthropology can help us understand the world we live in, critique the forms of inequality we see, and yet empathize with people who are caught in power structures that are larger than themselves. Too often, people dismiss the Brazilian plastic surgery rates as an effect of their “culture,” and leave the question at that. Anthropology helped me unpack the complexity behind this cultural practice, and understand how beauty came to feel like a dictatorship for many Brazilians.


Alvaro Jarrín is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross.

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