Like the rest of the diaspora, Brazil has had a complicated relationship with race. Although the country claims to be a “racial democracy” and boasts one of the largest black populations in the world, the country struggles with racism and prejudice much like its American counterpart.
Recently, the New York Times published an article about Brazil’s booming modeling industry, but as Erica Williams of the Ms. Magazine’s blog points out, things aren’t always as nice as it seems.
As the NY Times piece mentions, model scouts in Brazil routinely try to find women with “the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in,” but the reality on the ground is much different. Brazil is a country that boasts a large contingent of brown bodies, and over the years, darker skinned entertainers have been making headway in the country’s media. But in spite of this movement toward more inclusive images, the models that come out of Brazil have overwhelmingly European features.
One fashion expert calls the practice of presenting only European-esque models embarrassing: “I was always perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women,” Erika Palomino, a fashion consultant in São Paulo, tells the NY Times. “It is embarrassing.”
Williams argues that the big booty (often times brown) women used to market the country to tourists (men) are not the same women exported to the fashion industry for one reason only: Women of color are good enough to sleep with, but are rarely considered beautiful.
Ironically, while scouts search Southern Brazil for women of European descent to fit into their standard of beauty, European and North American men travel to the northeast of Brazil seeking sex with women of African descent who they imagine as hypersexual.
Walk to any newsstand in Salvador da Bahia and you will find dozens of postcards that use images of black women scantily clad in bikinis to “sell” the area to the rest of the world. This is nothing new. The figure of the mulata, or mixed-race woman of African descent, has long been represented in Brazilian popular culture as the epitome of sexiness. Exported abroad as early as the 1970s in Oswaldo Sargentelli’s world tour of samba shows featuring mulata women, now the term has become synonymous with “prostitute” for many European men who travel to Brazil for sex.
So, while women of African descent in Brazil may be considered “hot” or “sexy,” they are not considered “beautiful” enough to be models. In fact, as Barrionuevo states, “more than 70 percent” of Brazil’s models are from the “three southern states” that have had the heaviest influx of European immigration.