On mannequins and plastic surgery in Venezuela, context is key

Mannequin factory, with very busty & hippy (but thin-waisted) mannequins

Photo credit: NY Times

Are Venezolanas really that much more invested in a limited beauty standard than women elsewhere? As a Venezolana myself, I have to say that this article about the trend in ridiculously busty mannequins in Venezuela – and how that both reflects and affects a new-ish plastic-surgeried reality – made me bristle a bit in its ethnocentrism.

The shape was augmented, and so were sales. Now [Eliezer Álvarez's] mannequins, and others like them, have become the standard in stores across Venezuela, serving as an exaggerated, sometimes polarizing, vision of the female form that calls out from the doorways of tiny shops selling cheap clothes to working-class women and the display windows of fancy boutiques in multilevel shopping malls.

That mannequins in Venezuela are now busty to a level bordering on the absurd (given their other proportions) is a fact – I noticed this myself when I went back this summer after having been away for five years, a long time for me.  But I find this a little more complicated than “look at these women with their crazy beauty standards!” As a woman who is firmly rooted in both Venezuelan and American cultures, I don’t find the main issue at hand here – an unattainable beauty standard – to be very different here or there. In fact, a Venezuelan woman interviewed for this piece comments on how skinny the mannequins arriving from the U.S. and Europe are, a beauty standard no less ridiculous, but which we’re quite used to here in the United States.

What IS different, and what I think this writer is actually reacting to, is the culture of openness around bodily modification to attain this kind of standard.

Cosmetic procedures are so fashionable here that a woman with implants is often casually referred to as “an operated woman.” Women freely talk about their surgeries, and mannequin makers jokingly refer to the creations as being “operated” as well. Mr. Álvarez’s wife and business partner, Nereida Corro, calls her best-selling mannequin, with its inflated proportions, the “normal” model.

To a person not raised in Venezuela, this openness can indeed be somewhat shocking. But what seems lost here is that it is only shocking compared to a WASPy culture of silence around this stuff in the United States. While the author mentions that the data available suggest that Venezuelan women do not get plastic surgery more than their counterparts in other countries, this seems to serve as a passing aside. Again, the author’s curiosity seems to stem from the sheer openness with which plastic surgery is met. And while it is possible that Venezuelan women may not have surgery more than American women in general, what I know as a Venezolana myself who goes back on the regular is that there is often little attempt at making these look “natural” in any way. This is visible on the streets: especially in shopping malls and places frequented by Venezuela’s more affluent people, it’s pretty hard to ignore that a ton of women have really large, really fake boobs. It’s my suspicion that this blatant openness is the source of discomfort here.

This openness, I think, is tied up with race and class too – we have our own unattainable beauty standards here in the U.S., and women here who alter their bodies to look overtly like that standard are quite often deemed “tacky,” or told they look too much like sex workers, the implication being that sex work and sex workers are deviant, have little value, and are lesser than. Of course, it’s a lose-lose: those who don’t meet that standard are often targets of systemic harassment as well.

To be very clear, I’m not here to defend this culture of unattainable beauty standards – whether U.S. or Venezuelan. If I believed in hell, I would think there’s a special place there reserved for Osmel Sousa. And from my own personal struggles with an eating disorder and body image, to a cousin quite traumatized by the process of being a high-level contestant in the beauty pageant cycle in Venezuela, to a family friend’s near-death at the hands of an illegal pumping procedure (a huge issue for trans women here in the U.S.), I have seen and experienced quite personally the ways that unattainable beauty standards distinctly damage women in Venezuela. That said, I find the way that this is written quite dangerous, as without the appropriate cultural context it makes Venezuelan women appear to be making irrational decisions with their limited resources (which fuuuuck that) rather than just surviving the patriarchy in the ways that are available and culturally acceptable.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVeronica is an immigrant queer writer, domestic artist, and music video enthusiast.

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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