Afro-Aesthetics, Beauty Competitions and Racial Resistance in Brazil
by Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman
In 2016, the official Miss Brazil beauty pageant competition witnessed an unprecedented moment, as six black Brazilian women from around the country advanced to compete in the national competition. The composition of this cohort alone was enough to spark interest. Never before had this many self-identified black women competed for Miss Brazil. As the top finalists stood together in anticipation of the final decision, the judges announced that 21-year-old Raissa Santana, a black woman, had been selected the winner.
Her tearful pageant win made national and international headlines and, in some ways, served as a reprieve from the mostly negative coverage of 2016 Olympic blunders and the embarrassing political scandals plaguing the nation. Some interpreted Santana’s victory as an example of Brazil’s ability to embrace multiculturalism and overcome racism. And, while such a conclusion would certainly be an overstatement, what remained true was that her crowning was significant because she was only the second black winner in 30 years! At the end of the pageant, not only had a negra assumida (a woman who identifies as black) won the competition, but photos of Raissa posing with the other stunning black contestants became a symbol of black beauty, black womanhood, and a type of Brazilian nationalism that hinted to the possibility that this year was the beginning of a new era, a turning point for race and beauty in Brazil.
By virtue of her win, Santana represented Brazil at the January 2017 Miss Universe pageant. She glided across the stage displaying her tall, thin sculpted frame in a red bikini that contrasted with her brown skin and her voluminous curly hair. As she neared the center stage, the presenter announced that Raissa had stated she was “proud to be the first black woman to represent her country at Miss Universe in thirty years.” To some in the audience this was a mere side note, but for others more familiar with racial discourses in Brazil, her explicit reference to racial pride was a clear rupture from the rhetoric of racial democracy that often promoted the idea that race and racism were insignificant in Brazil. Considering that more than half of the Brazilian population identifies as black or mixed-race, and yet there had been only one other black winner in the competition’s history, Santana’s comment was an affirmation of racial pride and it also exposed the systemic oppression and institutionalized racism against black Brazilians that traces its roots back to slavery.
Admittedly, slavery and beauty pageants are an unlikely pairing, yet in Brazil’s case, they are inextricably connected. It was the presumable ‘ugliness’ of Africans that Europeans argued was the evidence of their perceived moral depravity and, hence, their suitability for enslavement. Consequently, enslaved black women’s bodies were attacked both physically and symbolically. Their bodies were framed as grotesque and dangerous, but they were also simultaneously portrayed as wild, hypersexual and sexually available in order to recast their sexual abuse as a product of their own proclivities. These abuses are well documented. However, the ways in which the realm of beauty and aesthetics functions as another extension of the unique ways that racial oppression impacted black women has seldom been discussed. For example, enslaved black women were required to physically display their debased slave status. Across the Americas, black women were prohibited from wearing shoes and forbidden from using clothing with vibrant colors. They were required to use headscarves to hide their elaborate braided hairstyles, which were deemed threatening because some claimed they diverted attention away from white elite women.
However, rather than accept these restrictive social rules, black women were inventive. They transformed the old rags that they were given for the purpose of covering their hair into exquisite headwraps. They did so as an act of defiance and a type of symbolic resistance against the racial and gender hierarchies that hoped to humiliate, stigmatize and dehumanize them. After 1888, when slavery ended, "whitening" efforts, including the subsidized immigration of millions of Europeans to Brazil, were implemented to minimize the black and brown population. These formal efforts were encouraged by appeals to do away with what was perceived as the physical, cultural and aesthetic inferiority of African heritage.
The excitement about Raissa Santana’s 2016 pageant win can only be fully appreciated in the context of Brazil’s long history of anti-blackness and also of the many examples of black resistance. For example, decades before Santana’s pageant win, organizations such as Ilê Aiyê in Bahia (considered the blackest state in Brazil) had been engaged in racial resistance through the affirmation of African and Afro-Brazilian culture and aesthetics. In fact, only a few months preceding the 2016 Miss Brazil pageant, the Ilê Aiyê Black Beauty Night crowned its Ebony Goddess (Deusa do Ébano) in a competition that had garnered the attention of Bahians across the state. For nearly 40 years, Ilê Aiyê has hosted this beauty pageant to promote the self-esteem of black Brazilian women by providing an alternative and attainable standard of beauty that is rooted in the affirmation of blackness. In direct contrast to the Brazilian mainstream that stigmatizes African roots or hypersexualizes the mulata (mixed-race woman of African and European descent), Ilê Aiyê’s Ebony Goddess competition inverts racialized hierarchies of beauty so that African cultural and physical features (especially dark skin and natural/afro-textured hair) could be exalted.
Additionally, in contrast to the Miss Brazil contest or even Miss Universe, Ilê Aiyê contestants are mothers, students and businesswomen of all body types and reflect the diverse life trajectories of black Brazilian women. The competition makes a concerted effort not to sexualize the bodies of contestants in order to counteract the hyper-sexualization that black women already face in Brazilian society. Hence, they are evaluated largely on a choreographed African dance routine. Their ability to dance is viewed as indicative of their commitment to and familiarity with the cultural elements of African and Afro-Brazilian traditional culture. The pageant is intentionally and explicitly directed at recognizing the type of black beauty that is often rendered invisible in Brazilian society. The winner of the competition goes on to represent Ilê Aiyê on the coveted Carnaval float, where she becomes a model of beauty particularly for pretas (dark-skinned women/girls of African descent) who by seeing the Ebony Goddess, can see themselves more positively.
Despite mainstream victories such as the 2016 Miss Brazil pageant, the beauty of black women in Brazil—especially more African-looking black women—remains largely unrecognized, when not openly degraded, crassly objectified or met with antagonism. In no other way is this made apparent than in the scandal involving the 2013 Globo Carnaval Queen competition in Brazil. Each year, Globo television, the largest television network in Brazil, crowns the "Globeleza" Carnaval Queen, who becomes one of the most popular and beautiful representations of Carnaval. In its history from 1991, there had never been a dark-skinned black woman selected until 2013. That year Nayara Justino, a dark-skinned, black Brazilian woman, was chosen the winner of the Globeleza competition.
Immediately following her selection, she and the network were inundated with viciously racist online attacks from white and black Brazilians alike, who believed that Nayara was simply too dark to be worthy of the Globeleza title. Rather than denounce these racist attacks, the competition stripped Nayara of her crown and bestowed it on another contestant whose lighter skin appearance offered the appropriate sex appeal more palatable for the broader audience. It is in a national and even international context in which light-skin and European features dominate that The Ebony Goddess competition in Bahia, as well as other organized efforts to affirm black beauty, find their significance as deeply meaningful acts of racial resistance. The vast majority of the women who have won the Ebony Goddess competition are pretas and, like Nayara, would similarly be considered “too dark” to be beautiful. It is for this reason that Santana’s 2016 Miss Brazil win has been met with hope and ambivalence. Her selection leaves unresolved difficult questions about the extent to which her light brown skin tone allows her to be seen as beautiful.
Ultimately, beauty pageants are not merely contests, but rather they reflect power struggles—of who has the power to dictate who is beautiful, which often translates into whose lives are valuable. Feminist and black activist organizations across Brazil recognize the power inherent in beauty and aesthetics, effectively leveraging the links among self-esteem, black aesthetics and racial identity to organize and demand access to educational, political and economic resources. For example, organizations such as Bamidelê in Paraíba, Brazil launched a successful campaign entitled, “Morena Não, Sou Negra” (I’m not brown-skinned, I’m black), which relied on beautifully photographed images of black Brazilian women with braids and afro-textured hair to de-stigmatize and affirm black identity. Additionally, organized marches including the “First Annual March of Women with Curly Hair” in São Paulo and the “Vai ter Gorda” (There will be Fat Women) social campaign in Bahia include black women as leaders who highlight aesthetic questions about body size, skin color and hair texture in order to catalyze discussions and political mobilization for equality.
Brazil is a country facing uncertain times, but it has also often proven itself to be a “caixa de sorpresas” (box of surprises). Though the future is uncertain, what has become clear is that the days of only seeing hackneyed stereotypes of black women with their heads hanging low in shame or service are becoming numbered. These images are slowly being replaced by the increasing images of black Brazilian women who bow their heads only to be crowned as queens and Ebony Goddesses.
Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of South Florida. She is the author of The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families and has published research on race, family, aesthetics, and emotions. She is completing a new book on modern slavery in Brazil.