The evolution of Brazilian beauty standards.

The New York Times had a piece on Sunday about a growing epidemic among girls and women in Brazil: anorexia. Two girls have died from it within the last two weeks.
While Brazil historically hasn’t been a country that falls victim to the Western social beauty standard of “the skinnier, the better,â€? it looks like things are changing. And rapidly.
The particularly interesting part I found in this article is historian Mary del Priore’s contention that Brazilian women’s recent struggle with “globalized� social beauty standards is partly due to their subversion of Brazilian machismo.

“This abrupt shift is a feminine decision that reflects changing roles. . . Men are still resisting and clearly prefer the rounder, fleshier type. But women want to be free and powerful, and one way to reject submission is to adopt these international standards that have nothing to do with Brazilian society.�

So Brazilian women are swapping one patriarchal culture for another? This is way too depressing to believe. Thoughts?

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29 Comments

  1. katie
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    In a world where (as far as i know) every current society is deeply rooted in patriarchy, I don’t really think women are easily convinced there are any viable options outside of the black and white of two patriarchies. or three, or whatever they percieve their other options to be which are often just another version of patriarchy. its like mackinnon said,, can a woman ever know her true sexuality when everything she has ever been taught has come from a patriarchal culture? there was more to it, but that was the jist.

  2. Taisa-Marie
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    “Brazilian women’s recent struggle with “globalizedâ€? social beauty standards is partly due to their subversion of Brazilian machismo.”
    Huh? I’d like to know how recent it really is. Even in our society it is only in the past decade that these eating disorders have really become extreme. I have plenty of friends from and in Brazil, and they all emulated the western ideals of beauty (thin) all thier lives. Maybe it is a way to subvert machoism, but maybe it is also that girls are taught/figure out from a young age that the easiest way to leave Brazil is to become a model.

  3. cherylp
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s my experience that women aren’t “choosing” what they believe to be beautiful and then emulating it – especially not to buck a perceived opressiveness. So maybe they are “trading” one patriarchy for another, but I think it’s a futile trade, because there isn’t any choice involved, per se. I would also argue that quite a large number of men in the Western world prefer women who are “rounder and fleshier” too, but that hasn’t changed our media’s portrayal of feminine beauty either. All I know is it makes me sad that now another rich culture, complete with “real” feminine beauty, has been infiltrated by these wholly unrealistic standards.

  4. screamapillar
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I was anorexic for a while, and for me it was definitely out of a desire to NOT be attractive. It wasn’t really a rejecting of conventional rules of sexuality, it was just a desire to not be thought of as sexual. I felt like my body spoke for me everywhere I went — it was a sexual object, it announced that I was a sexual being, it made men on the street think of having sex with me. I hated the publicizing of something I considered very private. So starving myself was an attempt to shut it up, to make sure that the only things anybody was thinking about me were the things I WANTED them to think about me. My ultra-skinny body would be sexual only for those with whom *I* chose to be sexual, since it was so far removed from the stereotypically sexualized physique, etc. “Skinny” is a comparatively asexual ideal of beauty, as far as beauty ideals are considered. Especially compared to my natural body type, which is a total hourglass shape.
    I’m guessing that this is somewhat similar to what you highlighted from the article. I viewed my body’s innate sexuality as something that pleased a lot of people I had no interest in pleasing. I wanted to control the message my physical appearance was sending so that I could decide who my body pleased.
    None of this is to say that I think that skinny bodies are asexual, or unattractive; it’s just that I perceived them as being less likely to garner sexual attention. Eventually I realized that even if you look like you’re dying, there’s always some sicko with a fetish just waiting to click his tongue at you, so you might as well feel healthy, be happy, and tell everyone else to fuck off.
    I’m sure that sounds crazy — it sounds crazy to me at this point, a couple years into recovery — but that was kind of the gist of it.

  5. pugbug
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I second cherylp’s point that men in the US don’t prefer rail thin women, but nonetheless the beauty norm persists. Does that mean anorexics in this country are subverting American machismo? Doubt it.

  6. pugbug
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I hadn’t realized that, screamapillar — I’m less sure now.

  7. a_human
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    pugbug, no more than the obese are.
    If you define your body image to support or subvert something, you’ve allready lost.
    Doing the opposite of what the system wants means you still give a shit what the system thinks.
    The shape of a person’s body is not pro or anti patriarchy or feminism.

  8. tink
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I suspect screamapillar’s logic is pretty common. I went through puberty at age 10. I started trying to drop weight when my teachers began looking down my shirt (7th grade). It worked – no boobies, no booby staring.
    It stinks, but I think this is all TOO often the real reason…out of a desperate desire to be LEFT alone, no matter what we claim or tell ourselves (I claimed I was trying to be pretty, but really, I was trying to disappear)

  9. tajour
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    >>I viewed my body’s innate sexuality as
    something that pleased a lot of people I had no
    interest in pleasing.
    I have always wondered how many women who gain back weight they lose are responding to increased sexual awareness/pressure. My best friend in college lost 100 pounds and gained it back the following year when she couldn’t handle the dating game. I lost significant weight a few years back and my new bod caught the eye of someone I thought was a friend. It was not welcomed and I gained that weight back after his advances. After many failed attempts, I can’t help but regularly berate myself for being overweight. At this point I think energy put into fixing the way my thinking works would be better spent and the results might last longer.

  10. sojourner
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    “Actually, I suspect screamapillar’s logic is pretty commonâ€? Yup. I read that sometimes teenagers who’ve been sexually abused become anorexic for that same reason.

  11. nerdyourlolo
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    screamapillar, thanks for sharing. I don’t think you sound crazy at all, and in fact I think that many women can relate to those feelings. While I was never anorexic, I spent plenty of years acting out in self-abusive ways, precisely because I wanted to draw attention away and act out against my perceived beauty and sexuality (and hey, in my mid-twenties, I’m still really struggling with this one, I’m just a lot braver and kinder to myself now).
    Body image is directly tied to control. If you have no control over your life, your sexuality, if your own sexuality threatens your sense of safety, you take control of the one thing that you think you can, your body. And while it may feel powerful and defiant to choose that form of control…it’s just not. It’s not subversion. It’s just acting out when healthy alternatives aren’t presented as an option.

  12. Allie
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Alas, this trend in Brazil is not very new – Brazil has had the highest per capita plastic surgery rate in the world since 2000. See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,231824,00.html.

  13. Allie
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Alas, this trend in Brazil is not very new – Brazil has had the highest per capita plastic surgery rate in the world since 2000. See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,231824,00.html.

  14. UltraMagnus
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t immediately read into it that they were swapping one patriarical (sp) standard for another, I read it that they were going the opposite way.
    If they wanted to subvert the “curvy, fleshy” standard, what other way is there to go besides much bigger or skinnier? Even if you go “bigger” you would still probably have the curves that the men liked, where as super skinny takes away the flesh and makes you “little boyish”.
    That’s just my take on it.

  15. donna darko
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I read that sometimes teenagers who’ve been sexually abused become anorexic for that same reason. Looking like a boy is one strategy; another is gaining weight to literally keep men at a distance.

  16. Posted January 16, 2007 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Wow, what an interesting side discussion. And as common sense as it seems here…I have read a lot of articles on anorexia, and while they talk about control, hardly any of them put it as clearly as screamapillar; i.e., a girl trying to deny her sexuality not because she feared *sex* but because she feared *men*.
    But I think that’s another discussion.
    As per Brazil, I’m utterly unsurprised. Meet the new beauty standards, same as the old, blah blah blah. Patriarchy demands conformity; what shape that conformity takes is almost irrelevant.

  17. Posted January 16, 2007 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    I was anorexic in high school & attended a performing arts school. I got so much positive attention from producers & directors for how I looked. I was 5’6″ & 85 lbs. I miss being that thin b/c you get so much more positive attention when you’re that thin.
    Now I’m about 50 lbs overweight & I just loathe my body so much. If I could cut off my fat & live I would do it.
    I know I’m a feminist but I wish I knew how I got this fucked up about my body.

  18. celtic_lass
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I have nothing deep and profound to say, I’m just very upset. As a former sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I know that manytimes therapist/treatment centers and the like will site the Latin cultures like Brazil’s as societies where it is beautiful to be HEALTHY LOOKING. This turn is just so very sad.

  19. celtic_lass
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I have nothing deep and profound to say, I’m just very upset. As a former sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I know that manytimes therapist/treatment centers and the like will site the Latin cultures like Brazil’s as societies where it is beautiful to be HEALTHY LOOKING. This turn is just so very sad.

  20. Posted January 16, 2007 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I agree with celtic_lass, I think it’s really sad that these women are rebelling in such an unhealthy way. Especially since at least their patriarchal body standards are healthy. I can’t help thinking, “I wish we (American women) had it that good.” Though I know that living up to someone else’s standards is never -good.-

  21. donna darko
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    They are probably influenced by the super-skinny, American success of Gisele Bundchen and the girl from Victoria’s Secret.

  22. Nick Simmonds
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Especially since at least their patriarchal body standards are healthy.
    Nobody’s patriarchal body standards are healthy. I seriously doubt, even if Brazilian standards are as different from American as this article would indicate, that those standards are any more attainable for the average woman. By “fleshier”, they almost certainly mean “skinny but with an inexplicable large bust and buttocks”.
    Even if they were attainable, I think the fact of having an “ideal beauty” is the greater source of damage here, rather than the difficulty in achieving it. It was interesting to read screamapillar’s post, earlier, because it gives voice to a phenomenon that I’d noticed but couldn’t articulate. Women are treated as if the way that they look is a message that they’re sending, and as if the way that men react to it is somehow their fault. Partly it’s a reaction to clothing and makeup, but as much as that the physical attributes that a woman doesn’t have much control over–weight, shape, face–are treated as if they’re intentional. If she’s sexy, it must mean that she wants sex; if she’s not, then it’s because she’s frigid. If she makes me think of sex, that must mean she wants sex with me. Women are treated as if their distance or proximity to some ideal form were intentional, and the response to their visual type is partly a result of that.
    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, because it just clicked in my head. I think it’s part of a general, false, male attitude of believing that in sex and romance men are actually passive victims of what women want, and have to act out against it in order to remain “masculine”.

  23. Perin
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    There is definitely something to be said about the relation between liberal Western feminism and a less-womanly appearance. Consider how the slim, svelte body fashionable in the 1920s and late 60s coincided with these women’s reaction to hegemonic male notions of female fleshiness. Women have been reduced to their bodies for a long time and I agree with a_human on how misguided it is to try to make political statements through the shape of one’s body. “The personal is political” only when such political statements lead to progressive changes for women…

  24. Posted January 17, 2007 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m from Puerto Rico, and I can tell you that the average figure of a Latina woman is different that of the average woman in the states… someone here mentioned “fleshier”, but to put it bluntly (and I don’t want to sound to macho about it) Latina woman do not have small hips and little butts. That’s a reality. And Brazilian woman are, to say the least, gorgeous and their figure will never be associated with the word “skinny”.
    Though I don’t like “skinny” woman, that is my preference only. That young, healthy girls are being brainwashed into becoming Nicole Richie is disgraceful. Not everyone is “thin”.
    By the way, the current Ms. Universe is from Puerto Rico and like all Ms. Universe, she is beautiful, tall(er) and “thin”, and the press was all over her a couple of months ago because she dared to put on 5 pounds – she still looked gorgeous, but was getting “fat”. Just goes to show you how stupid men – and women – are sometimes.

  25. Posted January 17, 2007 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m from Puerto Rico, and I can tell you that the average figure of a Latina woman is different that of the average woman in the states… someone here mentioned “fleshier”, but to put it bluntly (and I don’t want to sound to macho about it) Latina woman do not have small hips and little butts. That’s a reality. And Brazilian woman are, to say the least, gorgeous and their figure will never be associated with the word “skinny”.
    Though I don’t like “skinny” woman, that is my preference only. That young, healthy girls are being brainwashed into becoming Nicole Richie is disgraceful. Not everyone is “thin”.
    By the way, the current Ms. Universe is from Puerto Rico and like all Ms. Universe, she is beautiful, tall(er) and “thin”, and the press was all over her a couple of months ago because she dared to put on 5 pounds – she still looked gorgeous, but was getting “fat”. Just goes to show you how stupid men – and women – are sometimes.

  26. cabst90
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Screamapillar: I can relate to your experience on a superficial level. I do things to try to decrease my sex appeal, although I do not try to change my body shape. I dress differently and adopt a different attitude.
    Nick Simmonds:
    I agree very much with what you said.
    If she’s sexy, it must mean that she wants sex; if she’s not, then it’s because she’s frigid. If she makes me think of sex, that must mean she wants sex with me
    I live in Mexico and this thinking is more pronounced for me here. To many men here, I am sexy because I am a foreigner, a percieved rich foreigner, with an exotic appearance. Exactly what you said is what I feel. Men think that if I look at them, I want to have sex with them. If I dressed in a sexier fashion, it would be even worse. Imagine if I smiled at people. No matter what I wear, the majority of men look at me like I am a walking porn magazine and then they are surprised, defensive, and indignant when I express that that attention is not welcome.
    I don’t wear skirts or overtly sexy clothing, I never smile when I walk down the street, just the opposite, I look like I am pissed off at the world, and I have started giving them the finger or saying something like “I didn’t invite your judgement� or “not even in your dreams� if they are within hearing distance.
    I attributed it to the socialization that women exist in order to serve and pleasure men. Objectified in pop culture and the media are not the cause of this phenomenom. Rather, I think that it is a result that further intensifies the problem. Women are, by virtue of being women, objects of sex for men. Media and pop culture objectification of women only reinforce the socialization that “women equal pleasure (sexual pleasure, the pleasure of living in a clean house…which you yourself did not clean, pleasure of enjoying status confired by other men for exploits with women, especially attractive ones).� It seems to me that the difference in men is that some men understand that women are more than pleasure and can relate to women on different levels. Some men can only relate to women on the level of their own pleasure.
    Nick Simmonds, do you have any suggestions of how to fight this kind of problem?

  27. screamapillar
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    If she’s sexy, it must mean that she wants sex; if she’s not, then it’s because she’s frigid. If she makes me think of sex, that must mean she wants sex with me.
    Thank you, Nick Simmonds! This is what I felt. Of course, I did not starve myself with this consciously in mind; I didn’t learn to articulate it until well after I’d begun to get healthier. It wasn’t a statement or a rejection of values; I agree with a_human that rejecting the patriarchal standards of beauty means acknowledging them in the first place. Rather, it was just an instinctive reaction to the apparent assumption that things I could not control were being accepted as messages I chose to send. Starving myself came years before the realization of why I felt the inexplicable need to starve myself.
    Well, this wasn’t so bad. I should de-lurk more often.

  28. urthlvr
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Taisa-Marie said “it is only in the past decade that these eating disorders have really become extreme” this isn’t true. self-starvation among women goes back to the Middle Ages. it was a sign of devotion and considered a miracle when a woman (or even some men) were able to survive by eating only the host at communion.
    screamapillar’s feelings to make her feel less available as a sexual person is also seen in the reasons why some medieval women chose to fast-they wanted to avoid forced marriages and starved themselves to make themselves less desirable to their intended husbands.
    iirc, it was in the mid to late 1800s when the term anorexia was first applied to self-starvation as a psychological problem.
    read “From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: the history of self-starvation” by Vandereycken and Van Deth. looks at the issue from a historical perspective.

  29. Nick Simmonds
    Posted January 17, 2007 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Nick Simmonds, do you have any suggestions of how to fight this kind of problem?
    I wish that I did. I guess that two things would probably help: forcing a misogynist to realize that a women is a person, or doing something that violates the message that he’s reading on his own. I think that any indication of disinterest–for example, giving them the finger–probably fits into the latter category. Making them empathize with women, or a given woman, is probably more difficult.
    I’m no psychologist, though, nor am I a feminist strategist. I hesitate to try to formulate a way to “fight” something.

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