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The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil / Edition 1

The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil / Edition 1

by Alvaro JarrínAlvaro Jarrín
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The Biopolitics of Beauty examines how beauty became an aim of national health in Brazil. Using ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Brazilian hospitals, the author shows how plastic surgeons and patients navigate the public health system to transform beauty into a basic health right. The book historically traces the national concern with beauty to Brazilian eugenics, which established beauty as an index of the nation’s racial improvement. From here, Jarrín explains how plastic surgeons became the main proponents of a raciology of beauty, using it to gain the backing of the Brazilian state. Beauty can be understood as an immaterial form of value that Jarrín calls “affective capital,” which maps onto and intensifies the social hierarchies of Brazilian society. Patients experience beauty as central to national belonging and to gendered aspirations of upward mobility, and they become entangled in biopolitical rationalities that complicate their ability to consent to the risks of surgery. The Biopolitics of Beauty explores not only the biopolitical regime that made beauty a desirable national project, but also the subtle ways in which beauty is laden with affective value within everyday social practices—thus becoming the terrain upon which race, class, and gender hierarchies are reproduced and contested in Brazil.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293885
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/29/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Alvaro Jarrín is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross.  

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The Eugenesis of Beauty

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Brazil was undergoing a process of rapid industrialization and urbanization. The country was controlled by an alliance of landowner oligarchies and educated urban elites, which sought to modernize the country but did not want the process to threaten the rigid social hierarchies that had propelled these groups into positions of power. The phrase inscribed in the new Brazilian flag, "Order and Progress," typified the elites' desire for both economic progress and an intact social order. Although the period known as the Old Republic was inaugurated by both the official abolition of slavery in 1888 and the transition from a monarchy into a liberal republic in 1889, there were few real changes in the structure of power during that period. First, the new constitution of 1891 determined that only male literate citizens were eligible to vote and hold office, which excluded a large majority of the population from democratic participation. Second, abolition did little to change the situation of the black population in Brazil, because the economic structure reserved only the lowest-paying jobs for them.

The historian Kim Butler has argued that state and private incentives for white immigration, resulting in the arrival of an average of fifteen thousand European immigrants a year from 1850 to 1930, pushed most Afro-Brazilians out of the best-remunerated positions in the agricultural and industrial economies, particularly in the southeast. Recognizing the inevitable end to the slave economy, many plantation owners stopped buying slaves and refused to employ freepersons, arguing that these workers were inherently indolent; they preferred immigrant workers instead. This meant that even though Afro-Brazilians had formed the backbone of an exploitative colonial economy, they were systematically excluded from any real opportunities for upward mobility.

Along with the economic transformations taking place, there arose new imaginaries of the Brazilian nation that were profoundly shaped by a eugenic understanding of sanitation and improvement of the population. The educated members of the elite were avid readers and admirers of European scientific thought, but they did not necessarily share the negative social-Darwinist view of Brazil espoused by many European intellectuals. For instance, Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, a French emissary in Brazil and one of the first to promote the concept of Aryan superiority, wrote that Brazil was condemned to backwardness owing to widespread miscegenation. He declared that its people were "a completely mulatto population, polluted in the blood and the spirit, and frighteningly ugly."

Afrânio Peixoto, an influential professor of public health and legal medicine, had a strong response for Gobineau in his book Climate and Health: A Bio-Geographical Introduction to Brazilian Civilization:

In 1869, while in Brazil, Gobineau predicted that "children are dying in such high quantities that in the matter of a few, negligible years, there will be no more Brazilians." ... Not only is the Brazilian population growing enormously ... but racial mixture is also rapidly increasing. The white albumen is purifying the national molasses. ... Pure blacks do not exist anymore; mestizos disappear, either because they die prematurely due to somatic weaknesses, sensuality, nervousness and sensitivity to tuberculosis, or because they interbreed with whiter elements: thus the race whitens. ... In Brazil, the great race — that has assimilated and distilled the other two races, which are only undesirable due to their uncultured condition and ugliness — is the white race. ... Every day morbidity and mortality surrender to the sanitation of housing and of urban settings, in such a way that currently our mortality rate has a very dignified standing among the best in the world.

Peixoto counters Gobineau's pessimistic evaluation of Brazil by declaring that miscegenation is not the problem but rather the solution to Brazil's problems. Using a different eugenic logic than Gobineau, he argues that mortality rates had been lowered through sanitation, and that if any lower types remain, they will naturally disappear because they are unfit. Thus, with ongoing racial mixture only the white race prevails, whitening the nation as a whole. Both Gobineau and Peixoto, however, seem to agree on the fact that ugliness is a mark of being dysgenic and thus biopolitically undesirable — Peixoto is simply more optimistic that the ugly elements of the Brazilian population will be weeded out.

Peixoto was not alone in putting forward the whitening thesis — at the turn of the century, miscegenation began to be consistently portrayed by the Brazilian intelligentsia as a constructive force that would create a racially homogeneous country in the long run, particularly if it was combined with sanitation campaigns and the proper moral and hygienic education. The power of medicine was understood as capable of rooting ugliness out of the population, an ugliness that was a marker of disease, ignorance, and vice rather than simply an aesthetic evaluation of different physiognomies. The ongoing mixture between white men and indigenous and African women, on the other hand, promised to improve the nation's racial stock, which would be visible in the beauty of the children produced from such unions. Beauty became a sign of the nation's racial improvement, and ugliness became a sign of what needed to be corrected in Brazil.

Eugenic thought, in other words, produced the backbone of the aesthetic hierarchy present to this day in Brazil, which pronounces certain bodies more beautiful and therefore more valuable than others, and which cherishes the power of beautification practices to elevate individuals within that hierarchy. It was one of the leading eugenicists, Renato Kehl, who first promoted plastic surgery as a valuable tool that could complement the work of eugenics in the effort to improve the Brazilian population. The title of this chapter is a play on words: the word eugenesis, defined as the condition of being eugenic, draws attention to the ways in which beauty became a marker for eugenic improvement, but it is also reminiscent of the word genesis, suggesting that this historical moment inaugurated beauty's ongoing centrality to the national project.


The Brazilian intelligentsia of the postabolition period was not always confident about the nation's future. The small white elite that controlled the country felt threatened by a large majority that was uneducated, extremely poor, and of mixed race, and were unsure whether there were enough white immigrants coming in from Europe to offset the dark-skinned masses. For example, Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, a doctor and anthropologist who wrote extensively on the racial question in Brazil in the late nineteenth century, originally shared the pessimism of Europeans with regard to Brazil, believing racial mixture would inevitably lead to degeneration and increased crime, particularly in the poorer northeastern regions of the country. One can perceive a subtle shift in his writings, however, toward the end of his career, when he began to give the environment a more important role than race in Brazil's future.

His students at the Medical School of Bahia, such as Afrânio Peixoto, shed most of this racial pessimism in the following decades and instead sought to emphasize the plasticity of the Brazilian nation and its people. There was a marked change in popular-culture narratives as well. One of the key foundational fictions of Brazil, Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) by Euclides da Cunha (published in 1902), describes Brazil's northeastern rural population as sickly, indolent, and dangerous and simultaneously highlights the potential of this population to become civilized and productive members of the nation. The writer Monteiro Lobato followed suit in 1918, inventing an archetypal figure known as Jeca Tatu, an ignorant and lethargic rural worker who, upon encountering hygienic education and sanitation measures, became an industrious, healthy, and exemplary worker.

The shift away from racial pessimism was the product of a new form of eugenic thinking that rejected the notion that climate and race would destine the nation to indolence and poverty, and instead proclaimed that it was disease, ignorance, and vice that were at the root of Brazil's unproductivity. It was a form of scientific racism insofar as its explicit aim was to racially improve the nation, but it was an approach significantly different from that espoused by German or American eugenics, which sought to prevent racial mixing as well as the reproduction of the unfit. The historian Nancy Leys Stepan has described it as a neo-Lamarckian eugenics that "often came tinged with an optimistic expectation that reforms of the social milieu would result in permanent improvement, an idea in keeping with the environmentalist-sanitary tradition that had become fashionable." This optimism was based on recent advancements in Brazilian microbiology, particularly the international recognition given to the Oswaldo Cruz Institute after its successful sanitation and vaccination campaigns in Rio de Janeiro against the bubonic plague, yellow fever, and smallpox. The director of the institute, Oswaldo Cruz, became a "cultural hero among the elite" because he seemed to prove not only that the country could produce scientific innovation but also that public health initiatives backed by the state could do away with many of the obstacles that seemed to hold the nation back in relation to others. This new paradigm reflected a newfound faith in medical science and a vision of the Brazilian population as malleable and perfectible.

Notions of beauty and ugliness played a central role in neo-Lamarckian eugenics. Medical discourses on ugliness preceded discourses on beauty, because ugliness was a key way to demarcate biopolitical others who were seen as a threat to the nation. Carlos Chagas, who was then a student of Oswaldo Cruz, gained national notoriety after discovering the pathogenesis of a disease that became a symbol of the poor state of health of rural Brazilians, and which was theorized as a probable cause for their general unproductivity. This illness, which came to be known as Chagas's disease, was said to affect at least 2 million rural workers, at a time when the total population of Brazil had barely reached 30 million. More importantly for my argument, however, was how Chagas described the sufferers of the illness at the 1912 Medical Congress in Belo Horizonte: "As a rule, those infected with the most severe cases do not reach adulthood, disappearing early on for the collective benefit; when the illness allows them to reach an older age, however, it stunts their physical development, thus resulting in miserable creatures of monstrous appearance, who are an assault against the beauty of life and against the harmony of things in those [rural] regions."

We see here the eugenic reassurance that the weakest will simply disappear for the collective benefit of the nation, but also the dire warning that if the state does not intervene with public health initiatives, there will only be more "creatures of monstrous appearance" populating the rural landscape. Chagas instrumentalized ugliness, in other words, as a way to garner sympathy for the populations he sought to treat, but also as a way to aestheticize the threat of those afflicted by disease, portraying them as an assault against the very senses of his urban audience. His ultimate goal was to expand, to the national level, the scope and influence of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, which until then had acted mostly in southeastern urban settings, and this required a hyperbolic description of the rural areas as plagued by monstrous figures in desperate need of medical attention.

Other members of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute shared similar objectives. In 1912 the institute sponsored the nine-month scientific expedition of two doctors, Belisário Penna and Arthur Neiva, through the northeastern and central regions of Brazil in order to chronicle the state of poor rural workers. Like the reports yielded by other naturalists' expeditions before it, Penna and Neiva's report also catalogued the flora and the fauna of the sertões, or "backlands," but it was the body of the rural worker that became a central object of scrutiny and concern in the report and in later discussions about it. What most shocked the reading public at the time were the photographs that accompanied the report and which graphically depicted the dire state of the health of the population in rural areas. Consider the example in fig. 2.

The photographs taken by Penna and Neiva concentrated on visible signs of disease, such as goiter, and sought to visually connect physical abnormalities to the sorry state of the black rural population. Photography had been used in Brazil since the nineteenth century to visualize the black body as a laboring or deviant body, as Beatriz Rodriguez Balanta has cogently argued, but Penna and Neiva also sought to explicitly connect this body to medical deformities. The captions for the photographs, on the other hand, comment frequently on the backwardness or lack of intelligence of the photographic subjects. A photograph of a woman with a slight case of goiter has the following caption: "The size of the goiter does not always correlate with intellectual depression: this photograph represents an ill woman bearing a multi-lobar goiter of small dimensions, yet demonstrating very poor intellect." The photograph of a man with a severe case of goiter has a similar caption: "A bearer of goiter with a very low intellectual index. He presents, however, regular muscular development." The emphasis on intelligence seems to suggest that disease affects intellectual development to different degrees, but the caption offers hope that this correlation is not inevitable, and that goiter may not affect the rural workers' physical ability to till the land.

The report's long discussion of diseases that are less visible on the body, such as malaria and yellow fever, and their relative absence from the expedition's photographic record in comparison to goiter, indicate that these photographs of goiter perform several key functions. First, as Nancy Leys Stepan has pointed out, they provide visual evidence to back up Carlos Chagas's claim that the etiology of goiter is related to advanced Chagas's disease, a claim later proven to be false. A visible deformity such as goiter served as an aesthetic marker of difference for these rural bodies, a deformity that was meant to cause a sense of aesthetic repulsion among Penna and Neiva's educated readers. This dichotomy between the observer and the observed reinforced the social differences between the ruling elites and the Brazilian working class: the educated observer was expected to examine, measure, and appraise the healthiness or unhealthiness of the subject in question.

Second, linking a visible deformity such as goiter to intellectual ability was a subtle way to racialize the subjects of these photographs as an inferior type of human, unable to help themselves and thus in desperate need of biopolitical intervention to become civilized. The portrait of dark-skinned rural workers as deformed, stupefied, and nearly disabled by disease was part of a larger campaign to convince the political elites of the need for a more interventionist Brazilian state, for which public health should be a primary concern not only in metropolitan areas but also in locales neglected until then. The starkness of the report was said to have inspired Miguel Pereira, one of the founders of the sanitation movement, to declare in 1916: "Outside of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, now more or less sanitized cities[,] ... Brazil is still a vast hospital. ... Chagas's genius discovery has revealed to the country ... a Dantesque spectacle of generations upon generations of malformed individuals and paralytics, of cretins and idiots."

Belisário Penna would go on to publish a series of articles in the newspaper Correio da Manhã in his efforts to influence public opinion on the need for sanitation, articles that were then reprinted in his book Saneamento do Brasil (The Sanitation of Brazil). In those articles, he argues repeatedly that during his travels he witnessed widespread physical and intellectual infirmity among the rural population, painting a desolate picture in which nearly everyone is ill with one disease or another: "In certain localities no one, literally no one from the area escapes ... infection. These are small towns of one hundred to three hundred inhabitants, where there is merely a vegetative, animalistic way of life, and where entire families are made up of crippled, retarded and goitered semi-idiotic individuals, this in areas with luxurious vegetation, fertile lands, crystalline waters and healthy climates." Although Penna and Neiva were unable to conduct full diagnostic exams in the field, Penna asserts that the very visibility of sickness on the bodies of the rural populace, in sharp contrast to the idyllic environment where these people lived, was enough to confirm their diseased state.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Biopolitical and Affective Dimensions of Beauty
1. The Eugenesis of Beauty
2. Plastic Governmentality
3. The Circulation of Beauty
4. Hope, Affect, Mobility
5. The Raciology of Beauty
6. Cosmetic Citizens
Conclusion: Thinking of Beauty Transnationally


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