Thursday, November 21, 2013

“Inner Beauty Doesn’t Exist”: Venezuela’s Beauty Problem

If you had money on anyone other than Miss Venezuela in the recent Miss Universe pageant (or in any international beauty pageant), then you have no business gambling. Venezuela’s socialist economy may be collapsing, but its pageant industry is a booming, national obsession; the country has produced more pageant winners than any other – six Miss World winners, six Miss Internationals, one Miss Earth, and seven Miss Universes, including three of the last six contests. Even when they don’t win, you have to wonder, “Were the judges blind?!” But as always with obsession, there is a dark side to this beauty domination.

The New York Times recently posted an eyebrow-raising article and accompanying video about the impact Venezuela’s success on the world stage has had on the country’s “average” women. It has fueled a fascination among them with cosmetic surgery and procedures like breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs and butt-firming injections, as they strive to transform their bodies to approximate an artificial, pageant-worthy ideal. “Beauty is perfection, to try to perfect yourself more and more every day,” said a clothing shop owner. “That’s how people see it here.”

To keep up with this increasing trend, clothing store owners have begun fashioning mannequins with more exaggerated, porn star proportions. Until recently, one owner explained, “the mannequins were natural, just like the women were natural,” she said. “The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin.” Sales have risen dramatically, so such mannequins are now the standard in stores across the country.

One woman who works in a mannequin workshop says, “You see a woman like this and you say, ‘Wow, I want to look like her.’” She explains why, given the opportunity, she would undergo the surgery to help her accomplish just that: “It gives you better self-esteem.”

According to the Times, Venezuelan women don’t get plastic surgery more than women elsewhere do. But Lauren Gulbas, a feminist anthropologist at Dartmouth, says the surgeries take on “an elevated status” thanks to the importance of beauty in Venezuela and to a belief that such cosmetic procedures will help women project a successful image: “There’s a virtue associated with looking a certain way.”

Osmel Sousa, 67, who has been head of the Miss Venezuela Organization since 1981, takes credit for the country’s obsession with beauty perfection, having recommended cosmetic surgery on the first Venezuelan Miss Universe winner decades ago. “When there is a defect, I correct it,” he said. “If it can be easily fixed with surgery, then why not do it?” Then, with a creepy grin that borders on the maniacal, Sousa says something in the video which would get him fired from a pageant organization in the United States: “I say that inner beauty doesn’t exist. That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.”

I am not opposed to beauty pageants in theory, except for the child-abuse variety depicted in Toddlers & Tiaras, and I am not opposed to cosmetic surgery, except for its scary excesses, when pathologically insecure people mutilate themselves in pursuit of some ever-elusive fantasy. I also have no objection to a deep cultural appreciation for beauty. But a line has to be drawn. It’s disturbing enough that the country’s arbiter of beauty openly expresses contempt for the value of a woman’s inner qualities. But it’s even more disturbing that ordinary Venezuelan women themselves seem to have bought into this standard of one-dimensional artifice and eagerly line up to be surgically sculpted to “perfection.” No matter how many stunning pageant winners Venezuela produces, the reality behind the fantasy turns out to be quite ugly indeed.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/18/13)