Increasing Plastic Surgery by Low and Middle Class Brazilians

by Ash

An interesting case study involving the human body can be found in Brazil. Here, elective plastic surgery by women has seen a surge in popularity. The high demand has made the price come down, and opened the market to the middle and lower classes. Brazilians see this change as positive, and many point to the rise as a direct result of growing economic prosperity. This perspective is especially popular with Brazilian news media.

The growing prosperity of the middle class has allowed millions of people to have their ideals of beauty to be realized through plastic surgery. This demonstrates a case where material factors caused a social transformation, a core principle of economic anthropology. This analysis may be partially true, but is believed by a least one anthropologist to be incomplete. One anthropologist observed that the increase in plastic surgery (or “plástiqa”) is not because of increasing economic prosperity, citing data showing that the rise of plastic surgery was during the 1980’s and 1990’s when Brazil saw mounting economic inequality[1].

Edmonds (2010) argues that a range of problems—with social origins—manifest themselves as “aesthetic defects”. This manifestation can be treated by the so-called beauty industry. In this way, systemic problems can be “solved” with a procedure. The women who choose to have these procedures (it is almost exclusively women) do so for many reasons, including some who believe that having their nose changed, or breasts augmented, would allow them to earn more money—women make up much of the service industry in Brazil. This illustration of patriarchal power is not atypical, and demonstrates the power of a male dominated hegemony. The author analyzes this phenomenon using the ideology of feminist anthropology. Women know that they are more likely to be hired if they are closer to a socially recognized standard of beauty.

It goes without saying that there are ethical issues with treating poverty or low self-esteem with surgical procedures—but the doctors see themselves as therapists, treating the mental, not physical conditions of the patients. Their laissez-faire attitude towards plastic surgery seems incongruent with our American ideal of health care, but most doctors see the underlying social problems. As one plastic surgeon put it: “her principle illness is poverty”. Brazil has a long history with distorted perceptions of physical beauty, and stereotypes of women with exaggerated curves are pervasive. Globalization of western ideals of beauty have led to women wanting to look more “western”. This has led to women desiring tan skin—but having surgeries to correct noses that look “negroid”—the way they describe African facial features. The combination of global media and Brazilian aesthetics of race and beauty has produced a form of body modification that acts as a proxy for many social issues of the working class.

[1] Edmonds, A. The poor have the right to be beautiful?: Cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute J Royal Anthropological Inst, 363-381.


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21 Responses to Increasing Plastic Surgery by Low and Middle Class Brazilians

  1. My opinion on plastic surgery is if you and you alone want to have it on any part of your body and you do it safely all the more power to you, it is your body and why should anyone tell you what to do with it. It is tragic however that your essay claimed that many women in Brazil are enhancing their bodies because they believe fitting into the standard look on beauty will make it easier for them to get a job or earn more money. It also strikes me as wrong that the plastic surgeons feel that they are therapists and by fixing the woman patients out appearance they will be solving all her problems and giving her a better life, like looking good is all one needs. This topic is incredibly interesting and can be observed through almost any lens of anthropology, I really enjoyed reading this essay.

  2. Camille Gaty says:

    This is really interesting, I wonder what kinds of similar ways people devalue and try to downplay/change their black body characteristics (such as “negroid” nose shapes) in places where plastic surgery isn’t an option.

  3. Audrianna Bobo says:

    The thing that stands out to me the most in this essay is the intention for Brazilian women getting plastic surgery. They believe, like you said, that without it they would not be able to move forward with their careers or advance above the level of poverty. There are many reasons that people get platics surgery all across the globe, but here in the United States, apart from suregry for medical reasons, a common intention seems to be wanting to reach the American standards of beauty, just like in Brazil, but not for the reason of advancing in a carreer to support a family or fight against poverty. It seems to be just that, reaching the standard of beauty for the sole purpose of not feeling satisfied with oneself unless one meets those standards. Clearly, there are many other reasons that people get these surgeries, and I also believe that you should be able to if you so want, but it’s just an interesting obersvation in the interntions between two nations.

  4. Alexis Bush says:

    I find your choice of topic very intriguing. I also find it extremely sad that women in Brazil feel the need to get plastic surgery in order to get more job opportunities. I wonder what parallels there are to this in the U.S. and other places. I think the symbolic interpretive theory could be used to explain why women in Brazil feel the need to have these operations done. Certain plastic surgery results are a symbol of beauty in Brazil and possibly could not be the same symbol in the U.S. Great essay!

  5. Lily Mindel says:

    This essay was super informative from the first couple of sentences. I thought it was a really interesting topic to look at through an anthropological lens. I learned a lot from this essay, and what stood out to me was how these woman want to look like the “western” woman. Like said above, I wonder what other countries think about the idea of looking like the “western” woman, and what characteristics of them do they really like?

  6. Madison Arata says:

    The words “plastic surgery” in your title really caught my attention because in Americas society today, most women find the need to have plastic surgery in order to reach A list standards. They find the need to look perfect, to like you said, get a job. Some buisness would hire a man due simply to what is on is resume or where he earned a degree, but for women it is more. Not only do you need an outstanding resume and an impressive degree, but you also need to look the part. The amount of pressure put on women is ridiculous and explains why so many of us pat for our beauty. I think the claim that plastic surgery is leading to economic prosperity is extremely offensive and used as a guilty explanation for why women do not as easily get the job as a man.

  7. Greta Schock (Recitation #11) says:

    I’ve had the importunity to travel pretty extensively through Brazil, and the main perspective that I learned about plastic surgery is that it is not always a way to combat low self-esteem, but to show status. Women (as well as men) will save up a lot of money in order to have plastic surgery, in order to show that they are wealthy and can afford such lavish procedures. In my mind, I compare this to fashion in France in the 1700s, and how excessive amounts of make up and fashion were used to show that they were of a higher class.

    I think that your essay was very interesting and accurate, and that another theory that can be used to approach this phenomena could be Marxist/economic anthropological theory.

  8. Maya Heath says:

    I think this was something really great to write about, especially in today’s society. I think today a lot of people are very concerned about aesthetics. I think a lot of people believe that feeling the need to look and feel perfect has derived and is mainly only an issue in the United States. This article is very interesting because it shows that the need to feel beautiful is universal. Although universal, I like that you elaborate on how it is different and how looking “good” is for different reasons. I always thought it would be a great idea to look at beauty from an anthropological perspective and I thought this article really captured the meaning and roots of beauty. You did a great job on representing that.

  9. Anna Bockhaus says:

    Very interesting topic choice. I really liked how you framed the increase in plastic surgery as a reaction to the inequality and deeply hegemonic system, rather than “growing economic prosperity.” In opening up elective surgeries to the middle and lower class, it seems as if these cosmetic surgeries are becoming a standard for Brazilian women if they want to succeed. I really enjoyed you essay, nicely done!

  10. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    This was an interesting read because I don’t know much about the topic. While reading, I was saddened because of the reasons these women wanted plastic surgery. Its unfortunate that in today’s patriarchal society women feel like they have to change their bodies so that they can get better jobs, opportunities and significant others. Another reason why I was saddened was because Brazilian women want plastic surgery to get rid of their “negroid” characteristics. Its upsetting that in the 21st century, some people still can’t see the beauty in every culture and every body, even after our histories.

  11. Leah Hilleman says:

    I thought it was very interesting on how this essay discussed how plastic surgery is not only for becoming “more beautiful” in society but it is to gain more wealth in the work force. I would like to relate this to the sexual discrimination in the work force. Women as a whole make less money in their salary then men do. We have then associate wrath and power with physical attractiveness. We believe that we have a better chance of earning a promotion or getting a job if we are more physically appealing. I believe we are too wrapped up in the topic of beauty. We should be focusing more on work ethic and other proximities instead of the physical nature of the human body.

    • Azabe says:

      I agree, it’s disheartening that women generally are judged on their looks in the work force more so than intelligence and talent. It’s even more mind boggling that women in Brazil change their physical appearance to look racially more European in order to be perceived as more beautiful and therefore achieve greater success than they would otherwise.

  12. Azabe says:

    Brazilian in this sense is an interesting case to study because it is more racially mixed than the United States, yet there are many hidden as well as overtly racist mentalities present in the country. The country is over 55% Black/non-White but still works in a social, political, and economic frame that disenfranchises people of color. I agree the growing influence of the west and Western beauty ideals has impacts Brazilian socially but this is not a new instances many Brazilians have seen their country as a racial democracy because of it’s large multiracial population. In terms of class, plastic surgery is also a means of displaying wealth, which you do touch on class in your essay as well as the complexities and intersections of race, class, and gender in Brazil. Great essay, really enjoyed it!

  13. Gillian Davenport says:

    Great essay! I would be interested to see how an anthropologist using practice theory would see how people openly talk about and advocate plastic surgery, and then how individuals actually feel about it behind closed doors. I would say the same thing about the US, and that while the media may idolize or glorify plastic surgery, there is a lot of judgement and even taboo surrounding the topic within some American households.

  14. Colman Garthwaite says:

    I thought it was very interesting why women were getting plastic surgery in brazil. When I think of plastic surgery I usually think of people getting it mainly just to look better. The fact that many of these women believed that it would get them better, higher paying jobs was very interesting. Feminist anthropology would be a very good way to look at this topic. I think it would also be interesting to view this through a practice theory perspective; many people say they are hiring the most qualified people, but this article shows that that is not actually true and that people are hiring others because of there looks.

  15. Emma Gerona says:

    It would be interesting to compare this culture of plastic surgery in Brazil to that in America. I think it is fascinating how widely accepted the concept of plastic surgery has become in Brazil when it is still such a conflicted concept in the US. I feel like many more people in the US who actually get procedures done, try to hide it and make it seem as if they still posses this concept of natural beauty. It is really interesting how you pointed out that plastic surgery is still seen as a medical procedure in America, but more as therapy in Brazil. I wonder what effect this would have on the number of eating and dysmorphia disorders without the increased stigma around changing ones body image through “surgical” procedures.

  16. Seaira Lee says:

    I personally think the topic of plastic surgery is interesting in itself but this different look on a another country’s use of it was very intriguing. I think, in the U.S ,we think of plastic surgery as a something that financially well off people participate in order to have a more pleasing or attractive appearance. It was really surprising to see that this is almost the opposite in a place like Brazil where it seems that if a women has plastic surgery she will get better higher paying jobs . I wonder though it is possible that this kind of attitude towards plastic surgery could become popular in other places like the U.S? Or is this a rare kind of thinking that most likely won’t leave Brazil?

  17. Morgan Barker says:

    From an American perspective, plastic surgery is looked down on if it is done terribly and praised if it is done well. It is interesting to see a culture where plastic surgery is almost normalized. Brazil is such an interesting country in the fact that their beauty ideals are very unique. It does surprise me though that elective plastic surgery can be normalized for a whole country! This is definitely a gendered movement but I wonder what it is like for men that want to get plastic surgery. In the US most men will not get plastic surgery and I guess it is the same in Brazil, but I do wonder about the men that get plastic surgery. What do you think they alter and how do you think it affects them culturally, as in is it permissible for men to get plastic surgery as well? Just some food for thought.

  18. paigemaguire says:

    I really enjoyed this reading! I actually really liked how you looked at this from an economic perspective but I felt like I was not reading an article from an anthropological view, I was also gaining interesting knowledge about this change in culture and how different it is from the American cultural views. I would have loved to hear more about this from the feminist perspective (i.e. going more in depth). Why are only women predominantly going through these surgeries? Does that say something about the gendered practices of plastic surgery?

  19. Bianca says:

    I wonder if there are feminist women in Brazil that see this for what it is and represent a crack in the hegemonic system somehow by not changing their bodies surgically. It seems like the society is very gendered, with an expectation for women to be curvy and symmetric, and I’m curious if plastic surgery is anywhere near as popular in men. I read that 95% of Brazilian households have a tv, so the public tunes in and eats up images of surgically altered beauty. Celebrities and people portrayed in the media continuing to alter their bodies are the driving force of insecurity.

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