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Pretty Modern is a riveting account of Brazil’s emergence as a global leader in plastic surgery. Intrigued by a Carnaval parade that mysteriously paid homage to a Rio de Janeiro plastic surgeon, anthropologist Alexander Edmonds conducted research that took him from Ipanema socialite circles to glitzy telenovela studios to the packed waiting rooms of public hospitals offering free cosmetic surgery. The result is provocative exploration of the erotic, commercial, and intimate aspects of beauty in a nation with extremes of wealth and poverty and a reputation for natural sensuality. Drawing on conversations with maids and their elite mistresses, divorced housewives, black celebrities, and favela residents aspiring to be fashion models, Edmonds analyzes what sexual desirability means and does for women in different social positions. He argues that beauty is a distinct realm of modern experience that does not simply reflect other inequalities. It mimics the ambiguous emancipatory potential of capital, challenging traditional hierarchies while luring consumers into a sexual culture that reduces the body to the brute biological criteria of attractiveness. Illustrated with color photographs, Pretty Modern offers a fresh theoretical perspective on the significance of female beauty in consumer capitalism.
“A masterpiece. Pretty Modern is one of the most nuanced and beautifully crafted ethnographies out there.”—João Biehl, author of Will to Live: AIDS Therapies and the Politics of Survival
The luxuriant nature that enchanted early travelers to Brazil still survives in the massive urban rainforest that runs through many sections of Rio de Janeiro. There are streets where the transition from city to dense tropical foliage is so fast that they seem to me like a passage to another world. Our taxi turns onto one of these roads, winding steeply up from the neighborhood of Gávea into the mist-shrouded green ridge flanking the South Zone. My friend Hermano is taking me to a birthday party to introduce me to a plástica patient, Preta Gil. After doing a Ph.D. in anthropology, Hermano left academia and now divides his time between Globo Network in Rio and Brasilia, where he advises the minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, on Internet policy. Gilberto, one of Brazil's biggest pop stars, was appointed to the post by President da Silva, becoming one of the first black ministers in Brazilian history.
The party is for Gil's daughter, Maria, who is the sister of Preta. When we arrive, around thirty people are mingling on the veranda of a villa. Though we're only a few minutes' drive up from the shopping district, the only evidence of the city is the cobblestone road curving through a verdant valley below. It's a humid evening and the air seems thick with beijinhos, perfume, and the sweet caramel scent of doce de leite. The women are produzida, "dressed up," in high heels, and dance together in a circle to favorites of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira; a lumpy genre that mixes pop, rock, and traditional rhythms like samba). The men stand in clusters drinking. It feels like many other Carioca parties, except that many of the authors of the songs played by the DJ are in attendance.
I recognize a few faces from similar gatherings or else from LP photos. There is Sandra—Gil's "ex" and Preta's mother—a tough-looking blond woman dressed in a flowing white dress. Next to her, pale and shy, is Dedé, the ex-wife of another MPB star, Caetano Veloso. I feel awkward trying to do "research" here and drift over to the bar. Hermano intercepts me, though, and introduces me to Maria. I am introduced as the antropólogo da plástica.
"Fala serio! [Really!] I just did one now too."
Hermano laughs, "What?"
"Ah, a lipo. Here." Maria pats the outside of her thighs, then smooths down her dress.
"The links are complicated," Hermano explains. "Her ex-girlfriend is here, but she now goes out with that guy, whose ex-girlfriend goes out with ..." I quickly lose track, but retain the description of Maria, who "só namora menina," "only goes out with girls." I am reminded of the surprised reaction of a visiting American friend who went to a lesbian disco and encountered women decked out in the de rigueur Carioca fashion of long hair, high heels, and extra tight jeans. She was disappointed that there seemed to be little "critique of normative femininity" in queer Rio, but I have long since realized that interest in plastic surgery in Brazil cuts across subcultures, identities, and professions. Preta now joins us. I recognize her from the cover of Raça magazine, a glossy monthly marketed to Afro-Brazilians. Like her sister she has straight, long hair and light-colored eyes. Though her name means "black," she could fit into a number of color terms in colloquial Portuguese. There are more introductions and beijinhos.
"Plástica?" Preta says, "I already did all of them. I love them. Call me."
The next week I arrange to meet Preta at her condo in a beach neighborhood, where she lives with her father. Preta greets me in the frigid, marble lobby, dressed in a golden velour tracksuit, sleeves rolled up to expose her tattoos. Walking to the car, she explains that her dad is upstairs giving an interview to the New York Times on Brazil's innovations with intellectual property rights. Gil has been active in the global open-source movement, making a portion of his songs available for free downloading.
We start talking about Preta's career as a singer as we merge into the line of traffic crawling south out of the city. Her CDs—which blend pop and Brazilian funk—have been a modest success. But with a reputation for spontaneity and straight talk, she has also become known as a media "personality." Today she is going to a rehearsal for a television program that pairs artistas and athletes with professional dancers in a ballroom dance contest. Preta has achieved a certain notoriety. "When I launched my first CD, Preta, I decided to pose naked on the cover weighing 68 kilos. Naked—no, all you could see was part of my breasts. It was done discreetly. I couldn't believe the reaction. How can a fatty [uma gordinha] pose naked?"
Appearing nude in a Playboy-type magazine in Brazil is considered to be a normal "career move" for celebrities. The problem was not with her nudity but with her weight. "I don't fit into certain beauty standards, and the public couldn't handle this. But I have the right, because it's my body. It was artistic expression. I have nothing to do with marketing. I'm a daughter of tropicalismo, and my idea of life is different."
Preta adds, "Later I discovered there was another reason. Just after the album was launched, my father was made minister of culture." But the biggest problem, she explains, was the fact that she began to "date famous and handsome men."
"How could a girl who isn't thin, who isn't Juliana Pães, who is black, date the romantic lead of a novela?"
"People said that?" I ask.
"It was on the cover of magazines. Brazil is like that."
I ask if the decision to have plástica was related to her career. "No, I did the first ones before I started. I think plástica is becoming banal. For example, I did three, plus three liposuctions. I never messed with my face though. I put in silicone because I wanted to. I had a baby, I breast-fed, and so I had the implants, did an abdominal surgery to take out the loose skin, and had a lipo. This was bacana [cool]. It helped me, left me happy."
We're interrupted by her cell phone.
"Alô. He was well-endowed?" she says, and begins laughing. I turn my head to look out the window. The highway feels like a parking lot. We're in Barra now, crawling past an endless stream of malls, franchises, and kitsch monuments. In the distance clusters of giant condos seem to shimmer in the haze.
Preta hangs up the phone, explaining, "They do these silly stories and want my opinion. The new Superman's clothes are really tight and his genitals look very big and the studio wanted them digitally diminished. I was going to say, I think it's cool he has a big dick; he is Superman after all. But I've got to watch what I say. And really I never looked at the penis of Superman, or the penis of Batman, or the penis of any other superhero. It's like this every day. Journalists!"
Preta returns to the topic of plástica. "I think consumo [consumerism] is the world's big evil. Take my manicurist, she has three kids, her husband's broke, and she got it in her head to have a lipo. It went wrong, and she stayed three weeks in the hospital. She is a woman; she has the right. But it's expensive, and you have to know where to do it. It's the massification of the media. Same as a favela kid who wants those Nikes so badly he robs you to get them." Preta is continually interrupted by her cell phone. This time it's her sister.
"Oi Ju, are you coming to Church tonight?" She loses reception and then explains that she converted to evangelical Christianity four years ago. I dumbly nod my head as I try to mentally tally this new bit of information with what I know about her life. There is nothing remarkable per se about being a crente, "a believer," in Rio de Janeiro. Evangelical Christianity has hit Latin America with almost revolutionary force in the past few decades. It's true that popular Catholicism has long coexisted with other faiths, from the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé to the New Age "Union of the Vegetable." There is, however, a specific politics in this latest battle for souls. The churches are winning converts among the poor, away from two ambitious social movements in Brazil: liberation theology and Afro-Brazilian sects. Apolitical, haunted by corruption scandals, and preaching a message of domestic peace, why would an evangelical church attract a member of the entertainment elite such as Preta? Preta's case is even more curious because, as she explains, her whole family "is of the Candomblé world." "My mom, dad, stepmom," she continues. "And I was too. I think it's beautiful, but it's culture, not religion. I mean the Orixás [Candomblé deities] do have powers. But I opted for the powers of Jesus."
I ask if she changed her views of beauty after converting, as evangelical Christianity has been quite critical of worldly "vanity." "I don't listen to this. I go to Church with make-up. I went once in a bikini, straight from the beach."
"And no one minds?"
"Neither the male nor the female pastor. Jesus must thank God that at least I left the beach and showed up! I'm very vain; I like make-up, décolletage. No problem."
"Does your church disapprove of plástica?"
"Not mine. The pastor even wants to do it. She even came to visit me in the hospital, while I was recuperating."
I ask Preta if she had any problems with her surgeries. As she talks in more detail, I realize she has more ambivalent feelings than she had at first let on.
"When I had my second lipo I wasn't well, I didn't know where I was going ... a friend went to do it and I said, 'Ah, I'll go with you!' But I came out of the surgery with a deep depression. After [psycho]analysis and everything, I saw that I had mutilated my body." She explains that she had a series of complications, and a "hole" that needed to be corrected with a third liposuction. "I had a fever, inflammations and infections. You end up in pain, putting in needles, draining the pus, it was chaos. And I came out of that lipo with the same problems, thinking the same things. And I thought, 'My God, I want to be a singer and now I'm here in a bed, liposuctioned, with bad anemia, wounded.'" Then she adds, "But I have the right, if I want to do it."
As Preta talks I think of how plástica often fits into a long therapeutic process in which medical, psychoanalytic, and here, even spiritual, notions of suffering intermingle. Plástica was a result of consumerism, she said, but it was also a "right," connected as much to her career as to her experience of motherhood. Her ambivalence, like that of many women, was directed at certain operations, not cosmetic surgery per se. Liposuction had become "banal," but she remained extremely positive about her first surgeries— implants and a tummy tuck—"I never had any problems with them. They were perfect, excellent, and I love them."
An evangelical Christian, daughter of one of the most critically acclaimed artists in Brazil, and named "black" by her father in an unusual affirmation of racial pride, Preta is hardly the typical siliconada. Yet like many plástica patients of diverse class backgrounds, she said that cosmetic surgery would help her "self-esteem." Ironically, one of the operations that she said was most therapeutic—breast enlargement—is one widely viewed in Brazil as a moda, a fashion. It began at a surprisingly precise date: the Carnaval of 1999, the same year a samba school paid homage to Ivo Pitanguy.
* * *
The term methodological nationalism indicates how ideologies of race and nation shape the writing of history. In Brazil there is perhaps also a species of "aesthetic nationalism." Of course, the debates over siliconadas are half in jest. Yet only half. After all, it is often through jokes, gossip, and complaints muttered under one's breath that the fantasy life of nationalism plays itself out. From this perspective, we can begin to understand the popular reaction to silicone breast implants. This controversy reflects a particular tradition of fetishizing the female body. But the fact that it was connected to Carnaval, a key symbol of Brazilian identity, points to other issues as well.
In the United States, breast implants provoked an ongoing debate about their safety, leading to a temporary ban by the FDA and the largest class-action lawsuit in American history (Haiken 1997). In Brazil, the health risks of silicone implants were discussed much less, and Brazilian regulatory agencies never restricted their use. Implants, though, did spark other debates: about Brazil's national identity, its relationship to North America, and real versus artificial beauty.
In March 1999, the news magazine Istoé exclaims: "So many young women exhibited their 'retreaded' breasts ... that they soon renamed the samba stadium Silicone Valley" (Istoé 1999). Among those parading were some of the most well-known artistas in Brazil: models, actresses, singers, dancers, and television presenters. A flurry of media stories featured the siliconadas, many of them topless. (Brazilians use the English word perhaps to express the foreign origins of this custom. Whatever the size of a bikini top—and they are known in slang as "dental floss"—it is still not permitted to remove it in public.) Interest piqued around the operations of Carla Perez. Raised in a working-class district of Salvador, Perez first became known as a dancer in a pop group. As with many female artistas, her fame was often credited to possession of a physique that embodied the national aesthetic ideal, even though it was widely known that she had had plastic surgery. So when Perez, known as the Bunda Nacional, "national bottom," got 220 ml silicone implants in time for the 1999 Carnaval, the question was raised whether breasts had become the "new national preference."
Intellectuals, artists, and patients debated whether the implant was compatible with a Brazilian "biotype." Polls were conducted and noted writers consulted. One magazine declares: "Breasts are invading Brazilian daily life" (Istoé Online 2000). Plastic surgeons reported a rise in demand for implants, a surprising trend since aesthetic breast reductions had long been among the most popular procedures in Brazil (SBCP 2005). The average size of the prosthesis almost doubled from the mid-1980s (Época 1999b). A Brazilian anthropologist warned the large breast fashion was another example of the "assimilation of an American standard" (Valor Económico 2000). Then the July 9, 2001, Latin American edition of Time featured a smiling and siliconada Perez on the cover dressed in a bikini (figure 1). The headline stated Latin American women were "sculpting their bodies ... along Californian lines. Is this cultural imperialism?" For her part, Perez remarked, "Everyone is accustomed to praise my bumbum, but now what I most like in my body are my breasts. I feel more sensual."
Carnaval parades are an outlet for the creativity of samba composers and dancers, a spectacle of cross-class and interracial mixing, a celebration of themes drawn from Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian history. They represent Brazil in the foreign imagination as the locale of the "world's biggest party." And they showcase "beauty": both of the floats and costumes often made in a favela cottage industry, as well as of the dancers. Carnaval is also seen as an expression of national popular culture, archetypically embodied by the mulata dancer. In the debates about silicone, the mulata could signify both the tradition of Carnaval, as well as a particular ideal of the female body that emphasized the buttocks, hips, and thighs, and not the breasts—an ideal that the siliconadas seemed to undermine. While a few black activists critiqued the sexualized image of the mulata, most observers instead were more concerned about the threats posed by these celebrities to traditional erotic culture.
Excerpted from Pretty Modern by Alexander Edmonds Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction. In the Universe of Beauty 1
Part 1 The Self-Esteem in Each Ego awakens
The Siliconadas 37
The Philosopher of Plástica 47
Without Tits There Is No Paradise 57
A Brief History of Self-Esteem 75
Hospital School 89
The Right to Beauty 102
Aesthetic Health 114
Part 2 Beautiful People
Magnificent Miscegenation 127
The National Passion 135
Nanci's Rhinoplasty 143
My Black Is My Brand 150
Role Models 162
The Economy of Appearances 167
Part 3 Engineering, the Erotic
Creating and Modeling Nature 177
Aesthetic Medicine and Motherhood 183
The Vanity of Maids 195
Lens of Dreams 204
I Love Myself 219