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  • Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil by Alexander Edmonds
  • Susan Besse
Edmonds, Alexander . Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010. 297 pp.

Pretty Modern provides ample ethnographic evidence of "Brazil's leadership in 'banalizing' plastic surgery" (118). Socialite Tatiana compares lifting a fallen breast to taking medicine to alleviate flu symptoms: "to feel better, to work better, to be in a better mood" (8). Ester, a divorced maid and single mother in her 30s from Ceará, explains that cosmetic surgery was a "necessary vanity" to raise her auto-estima: "to overcome psychological discomfort" rooted in perceived "defects" of her post-partum body (46). Fermina, a 58-year-old illiterate street vendor from rural Minas Gerais, had a face lift hoping to "be rejuvenated, just [End Page 282] like the celebrities" (47). Brown-skinned Preta Gil—the daughter of tropicalista pop-star and former minister of culture Gilberto Gil, a media personality who proudly identifies as "Black," and a recent convert to evangelical Christianity—volunteers: "I already did all of them [plástica: breast implants, tummy tuck, and three liposuctions]. . . . This was bacana. It helped me, left me happy" (38-39).

Alexander Edmonds' goal is to explain how and why plástica has taken root in the third world context and particular cultural landscape of Brazil at this specific historical juncture. Why does Brazil have per capita rates of plástica five times higher than some much richer European countries, and why has this happened during a time of income concentration? To answer these questions, Pretty Modern contextualizes the realm of the aesthetic by analyzing the relationship of beauty to social conflicts in modernizing Brazil since the 1920s. Organized in three parts, the book focuses on: transformations in medical practices and technology; shifting politics of racial identification; and female sexuality, including the political economy of female reproduction.

Part 1 is, perhaps, the most interesting. Focusing on the career of Brazil's celebrity plastic surgeon, Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, who founded the cosmetic surgery ward at Rio's public hospital Santa Casa in 1962, Edmonds traces the blurring of distinctions between reconstructive (reparadora) and cosmetic (estética) surgery that has allowed plastic surgeons to justify offering free or low-cost estética to "needy" patients in Brazil's under-funded public hospitals. Trained in the US, France, and England following WWII, Pitanguy introduced not only new surgical techniques to Brazil but also a new philosophy regarding the "social purpose" and "justice" of offering estética to the poor as well as the rich. In his words, "The poor have the right to be beautiful" (14). This notion of "right," Edmonds shows (drawing on Walter Benjamin's analysis of fashion in modern consumer capitalism), can be connected to the intense concern of Brazil's 20th century modernizing elites to create an authentic national culture and modern citizenry. The "Brazilian body"—characterized by mulatta beauty and tropical sensuality—provided a malleable palette upon which to overcome colonial legacies through compelling founding myths of mestiço Brazilian identity, and to recast the nation as youthful, beautiful, and moving toward a modernity of the future. Since the late 1980s, democratization has reinforced this "right to beauty." In the context of neo-liberal privatization and socio-economic polarization that have eroded arenas of self-governance, beauty culture serves as an outlet for heightened but unrealized social aspirations. The number of cosmetic surgery operations in Brazil increased six fold during the 1990s. While Edmonds interprets this trend as evidence of "distress in the body politic" (21), Pitanguy— who calls himself "a psychologist with a scalpel in his hand" (14)—takes special pride in "healing" the mental suffering of his grateful poor patients.

Edmonds identifies a wide range of other material and cultural factors that have contributed to the success of estética in Brazil. "Messy" medical conditions encourage flexibility and innovative experimentation while allowing [End Page 283] medical residents to develop scientific expertise by performing large numbers of elective surgeries on public hospital patients. There exists a "good working environment" in which few patients pursue malpractice suits. Inaccessibility and ineffectiveness of psychotherapy for Brazil's poor...


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pp. 282-285
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