- Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil
In Pretty Modern, Alexander Edmonds asks: “how did plastic surgery—a practice often associated with body hatred and alienation—take root in this city known for its glorious embrace of sensuality and pleasure?” (7). A compelling and carefully crafted narrative follows in answer to this deceivingly simple question. The city to which he brings readers is Rio de Janeiro also known as the “City of Beauty and Chaos” (4), which has become a significant node in plastic surgery’s global network. Edmonds is quick to point out that to mention Brazil to foreigners is to evoke clichéd notions about beauty (and bodies), samba (and carnaval), and soccer. The “beauty, samba, and soccer” triad shares one obvious commonality: the “(mixed-race) Brazilian body.” In the international arena, Brazil is associated not only with sensuality, but also with mixed-racedness. This national body—which Edmonds’ renders “ethnographiable”—is constructed in contrast to its historical connections to both Europe and Africa.
Since Brazil imported the largest number of enslaved Africans in all of the Americas, race and blackness are pervasive themes in conversations regarding national identity and the body (politic). These are topics to which Edmonds rightly devotes considerable attention to in the examination of how plastic surgery is consumed, talked about, and enacted by upper and lower class women. He asserts that: “in Brazil racial mixture, mestiçagem, is neither chic nor marginal; rather, it is a dominant theme in twentieth century politics and culture” (127). Racial boundaries are blurred and race is often strategically deployed based on context, political persuasion, and individual preference. Like other places in Latin America where racial ascriptions shift in relation to context, individuals deemed “as real blacks,” or “real Africans” (usually referring to people with dark skin and kinky hair), [End Page 639] are confined to blackness as their only possible racial identity. In other words, a large number of Brazilians are unable to fully take advantage of the strategic ambiguity that mestiçagem offers those whose racial ancestry is (phenotypically) ambiguous.
Edmonds tells us that, “sexuality—especially across racial lines—is a key symbol in the formation of a new, mixed population with positive traits, such as cordiality and physical beauty” (130). A “sex-positive” national image, where whites, blacks, and Indians enjoy each other without prejudice, celebrates “hybridity rather than racial purity as beautiful” (134). In Brazil, the mulata emerged as the national symbol of beauty, sexuality, and passion. Yet, in real life this mulata must possess very specific physical characteristics, she must have a bunda empinada (large, round bottom), thin waist, be light skinned, have smaller breasts, and straight, preferably blond, hair. Edmonds writes that “The blond is not ‘really white’ because she is actually a negona, part of the racially mixed people” (133). He goes on to ask: “How can beautiful morenidade encompass the nation yet coexist with color hierarchies privileging whiteness, especially ‘white’ physical features and hair?” (135). Pretty Modern documents how individuals, the state, and the medical establishment are complicit in the “whitening” ideal at work beneath the encompassing myth of racial hybridity and harmony. The same contradictions and ambivalence that abound in conversations about race and color coexist in beauty practices. For example, the same patient might seek a buttock augmentation, an ethnic marker to be sure, and a rhinoplasty to correct the “Negroid nose,” a de-ethnicizing procedure.
Sexuality and gender are also central to plastic surgery. From Edmonds’ striking ethnography emerges a picture in which women—rich and poor; white, mixed, and black; young and old—are the main consumers of elective aesthetic surgeries. In contrast, the world of the plastic surgeon is a world of men, mainly white men. Among them, Ivo Pitanguy emerges as a star surgeon, the pioneer in modernizing and democratizing plastic surgery in Brazil. About his encounter with the celebrity surgeon, Edmonds writes: “He’s wearing a beige Italian suit, and sun glasses he doesn’t remove inside the dark rooms of the clinic” (49). Having been named one...