After Miss America, U.S. Feminists Should Think Much Harder About The Beauty Culture We Export

American society brainwashes women everywhere into believing that making themselves a certain kind of beautiful can change their lives.

Last night, Nina Davuluri, an American woman of Indian descent, became Miss America, and the country’s many racist crazies took to Twitter to embarrass themselves. The U.S. blogosphere has thankfully responded with righteous indignation, but the whole debacle has now overshadowed a more salient point: Our American beauty pageantry, and all of our attempts to define beauty into a certain body shape and “look,” can be devastating for women. And as an article in The Atlantic today on buttock injections in Venezuela pointed out, in some places, many women are dying because of it.

I now live in one of those places. Last Saturday I moved from Bogotá on a high savannah in the Central Andean Cordillera to sultry Medellín in a valley on the Western one. I’d never been to the Land of the Paisas before, but had heard much talk about the trend for women to operate on their breasts. “It’s like all paisa women have just agreed between themselves that silicon is mandatory,” my partner, Migs, warned me over the phone after leaving Bogotá ahead of me to do some reconnaissance and find an apartment.

I did know a little about Medellín before I came here. The year before, I’d read an article in the literary magazine El Malpensante about a paisa woman who, Angie Jolie–style, got fed up with all the trouble her breasts were causing her and decided to rid herself of them. But in the writer’s case, the boobs were silicon and leaking plastic into her body; they’d originally been a graduation gift from her mother and her eight sisters, all of whom had also been operada. Silicon apparently remains the favored gift of paisa parents for their daughters’ quinceañeras.

Migs also told me about a billboard with a lurid picture of a boob job gone wrong, with the warning to women, “When you go for your operation, choose a doctor you can trust.” In Medellín, the choice is not if you operate. It’s when, and with whom.

Driving into the metropolis, the very first thing I noticed was the number of lingerie shops—there are about five of them in the space of 200 meters on the palm-lined avenue winding below my new apartment complex—and the absurdly curvy mannequins in the windows, with disproportionate boobs and bums that seem inspired by a Botero painting more than by any real-life female body. One after another, the ads that line bus stops tout push-up bras, yogurts that help you feel skinnier, a slim-line new shape for bottles of Baileys backed by glamorous women with elaborate telenovela hair and sequined dresses. Every woman in this city is surrounded, within a literal radius of five feet, with messages that say: Nothing about the real you is good enough. Make yourself different.

My reaction as a feminist to the boob-and-bum-job norm here in Medellín is obviously one of frustration and bewilderment. I haven’t yet met any paisa women, but I find myself wanting to shake them, or at least pick their brains. I want to ask what it is like to cope with such intense pressure to conform to a preset image of beauty-by-numbers, of constantly trying to fulfill external (male) expectations. Why don’t more women resist? I wonder if feminists even exist in Paisaland.

But no matter how well-intentioned, I am a middle-class gringa, coming at this question of beauty culture in developing countries from a position of privilege that Colombian women have every reason to resent. I may judge Colombian women for their silicon body parts, when in fact rejecting a hegemonic beauty culture is far easier for someone with the undeserved privilege of being born white and blue-eyed in a rich country.

As Alasdair Baverstock pointed out in his Atlantic piece, getting a cosmetic operation in Latin America often offers a ticket to social mobility that hard work and an education can never match: “When you live in a country where a beautiful woman has greater career prospects than someone with a strong work ethic and first-class education,” says one of Baverstock’s interviewees, “you are forced into the mindset that there is nothing more important than beauty.”

No matter where you live, being a feminist involves resisting, every single day: resisting oppressive ideas about beauty, female sexual purity, a mother’s duty, a women’s place in the home and the workplace and society at large. And in developing countries, just getting by often requires so much resistance that the choice becomes clear. If it helps your career prospects, you get that boob job. 

When I grumble to Migs about all the Colombian silicon, he offers a blistering retort: “I’m sorry, but who do you think gives these women these ideas about what’s beautiful? That would be your country, your beauty pageants, and your Hollywood, thank you very much.”

For the billions of women in the world who feel like they’ll never have a chance to have a better life, Nina Davuluri is America’s newest Horatio Alger story—a woman of color vaulted to a life of glamor and opportunity because she was cunning enough to play the grown-up version of Pretty Pretty Princess. Our movies, our pageants, our advertisements are designed to brainwash women everywhere into believing that making themselves a certain kind of beautiful can work a similar kind of magic and change their lives.

So when we feminists rail against women who participate in their own oppression, part of me shouts that we’re missing a key point. Until we start taking seriously the political and economic injustices that keep women in developing countries from being able to believe they really can change their lives—and by that I mean creating fairer immigration policies, trade agreements, and lending conditions; and prioritizing human development on par with economic development at the international level—the chauvinistic beauty culture we export will keep producing the heaviest casualties in places where women need hope the most.

Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.

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