Politics and Plastic Surgery: Eugenics, Race and Social Mobility in Brazil

Photo by Olga Guryanova on Usplash

By Charlotte Lang

While the Brazilian butt lift has supplanted itself into popular celebrity culture, oft-neglected is Brazil’s unique relationship with plastic surgery. It is the second-largest consumer of plastic surgery in the world and since the 1960s, free and low-cost plastic surgery has been available through the public healthcare system. Under the backing of president Juscelino Kubitschek, surgeon Ivo Pitanguy tied ugliness with societal ill, arguing for the ‘right to beauty’ in rhetoric borrowed from Eugenics. Opening a clinic for the poor, which doubled as a plastic surgery institute, he promoted the image of surgeons as humanitarians correcting the racialised pathologies of the population.

While plastic surgery encompasses congenital deformities and burns, most surgeries performed are cosmetic. It has been democratized in the private sector too. The 1994 plano real expanded access to consumer credit such that plástica financing plans became available. Companies targeted women in the service sector, and consumers formed lottery associations (plástica consórcios) to fund surgery. As with most nations with universal healthcare, Brazil operates on a two-tier system where private healthcare is luxurious and efficient while public hospitals are severely underfunded but provide basic services. It is thus striking that a crumbling public healthcare system provides this plástica, a factor that Brazil’s increased economic prosperity cannot account for. In truth, the democratization of plástica aligned with the rising economic inequality in the 1980s and 90s and the savage capitalism which eroded the middle class. Most of the procedures performed at public hospitals are carried out by medical residents with a vested interest in learning aesthetic techniques to bring to private practice. Brazilian plastic surgery is innovative precisely because of the masses of low-income bodies surgeons have at their disposal, circumventing the typical legal and institutional barriers.

Eugenics gained traction in Latin America following European indictment of widespread racial miscegenation, which imagined a population destined to degeneration. As until the 1850s more than half of the Brazilian population was enslaved, much of the population was mixed race. In the following decades, the intelligentsia would vindicate miscegenation. It was deemed beneficial as a force that would purify non-white populations. The central tenet of this neo-Lamarckian form of Eugenics was the view that populations were not bound by a hereditary destiny and could be perfected through social and environmental factors. Public health was a primary means of accomplishing this goal through vaccination, sanitation and hygienic education. This saw the rural population of Northeastern Brazil classified as an ethnic subcategory. Beauty was moralised such that ugliness connoted disease while beauty was seen as the teleological destiny of the nation.

One of the leaders of the Eugenics movement in the 1920s, Renato Kehl, saw plastic surgery as the natural continuation of the movement. This focus reflected a broader anxiety within elite families over non-European features, allowing the eugenic process to be undertaken on a individual scale. While such an overt eugenics movement disappeared, its tenets arguably took on new, subtler forms. From the 1930’s onwards, Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre advanced the idea of a ‘racial democracy’ where the nation was imagined as an interracial, intercultural melting pot. Brazilians were described as a cultural hybrid of African, Amerindian and European. This was consolidated by activists, intellectuals and writers from highly segregated societies, to whom Brazil appeared as a paradigm of harmony. The reality was a society beset by the legacy of slavery, where racial prejudice was entrenched in education, life expectancy, income and incarceration.

Modern plastic surgery borrows from these Freyrean notions of hybridity, Brazilian surgeons explain its popularity with miscegenation. White women desire the buttocks and breasts of the eroticised Black body, and Black women desire European noses that diminish their visibility as migrants and outsiders. This ideal of whiteness tinged with erotic blackness is not merely an aesthetic ideal that exists in a vacuum, but one which particularly affects working-class women. Service work places a unique emphasis on appearance, such that beauty, youth, and sexual allure carry a particular curency. Many surgeries are also carried out on children and teenagers at the request of their family, who fear certain characters will lower them on the aesthetic hierarchy, linking them with poverty and blackness in a way that would limit future job opportunities. 

When in 1951 job advertisements were forbidden from expressing a preference for white applicants, this was euphemistically replaced with boa aparência (good appearance) and traços finos (fine features). That racialised preferences act as a barrier to entry for high paying jobs suggests the ways in which beauty extends far beyond questions of vanity. It also has a kind of a kind of democratic appeal in an age when social mobility has dwindled and access to education is limited, the body thus replaces the mind as a basis for power and identity. This is a theme familiar to Latin American melodrama, where a poor girl’s beauty is enough to threaten class barriers. One could also argue that this is not unique to Brazil, the commodification of beauty is perhaps ubiquitous to neoliberalism with cosmetic surgery worth an estimated 66 billion dollars globally. A hybrid aesthetic ideal has been popularised digitally with ‘Instagram face’, the surgically crafted face which Jia Tolentino describes as ‘a look of rootless exotocism’ on white women. While this bears resonance to Brazilian ideals, in Brazil it directly reflects and maintains racialised heircharchies, those of colonialism and eugenics. 

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