Editor's Letter: The Diversity of Beauty

by June Carolyn Erlick

I remember so vividly the first time someone called me “gordita.” It was while I traveled on a clumsily converted cattle boat pitching in the waves from Cuba to Canada in 1970. I was seasick all the time. Yet I remember the emotion of shock at that word more than I recall how I felt about my sickness. Of course, I know now that the Cuban who called me “gordita” meant “my little pleasantly plump friend” and probably wanted to console me. I heard “fatty.” I cried.

Ironically, I’ve always felt a bit more in home in Latin America than in the United States because I’m five feet tall and well, maybe, a little pleasantly plump. So when Álvaro Jarrin and I started to put together this issue of beauty, I was perhaps just a little bit surprised about how many people wanted to change things about themselves: their noses, breasts, muscles, skin color, hair, weight and even ethnicity. I was not alone.

I cheered when Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe and telenovela actress, fought back when now-President Donald Trump insulted her about her weight—and battled again when the candidate did it again via Twitter. That would certainly lose him the election, I thought. If North Americans are held to an impossible beauty standards, Latin Americans are often served a double whammy, since their standards are often determined by the tall blonde North American ones. And just as I’ll never be tall and skinny, Latin American forms of beauty are certainly their own—a fact that is increasingly recognized and celebrated.

Of course, Latin America is known for its beauty contests and famously stunning actresses—think Sofia Vergara, Sonia Braga, Salma Hayek  and Dolores del Rio.  And those beauty contests and movie roles helped shaped standards and images other than the skinny blonde.

Beauty is a fact of everyday life in Latin America, from the manicures (for both men and  women), the stylish clothes (I often wondered how Colombian university students could make jeans seem so very elegant), and the infinite varieties of hair care. A recent article in The New York Times recounted that a local singer in Northeast Brazil subsidized trips to the beauty parlor for parents of Zika babies, intended as a source of comfort for stressed mothers.

Beauty is business, goods and services that urge people to keep on purchasing.  Yet the  quest for some idealized type of beauty is not just a matter of vanity or even identity for many Latin Americans; it’s a ticket to a better job, a hope for higher class status or an investment in a beauty contest or, more unfortunately, a position in the drug trade. Not too long ago in Bucaramanga, Colombia, a school nurse fretted to me that a lot of her poorest students were refusing to eat (she didn’t use the word “anorexia”) because they hoped to be chosen for a reality show and make a lot of money.

The articles in this issue cover a wide range of topics, showing how Latin Americans have  been shaped by concepts of beauty and, in turn, have shaped those concepts. Beauty often implies conformity, but as you will see in these pages, it is also resistance. It is the power of an indigenous beauty queen who speaks out against massacres. It is the dignity of the elegantly dressed cholitas who remind us that beauty is not just skinny and white. It is the effort of those held in clandestine jail cells to maintain their humanness through fashion shows.

I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of beauty in Latin America, yet it took the  knowledge, inspiration, collaboration and dogged work of Álvaro Jarrin, a professor at Holy Cross College who specializes in beauty-related topics, for the two of us to create this issue of ReVista. A special thanks to you, Álvaro, for making this ReVista what it is!