“Better dead than ordinary” is a Venezuelan proverb that explains much of that country’s ongoing obsession with beauty. As host Hailey Gates discovers in the third fascinating episode of States of Undress, one in five Venezuelans willingly risk injury and illness in pursuit of a physical ideal that the availability of relatively cheap cosmetic procedures seemingly places within everyone’s reach. It’s a curious preoccupation for a country on the brink of economic ruin.
Like it is in most countries, beauty in Venezuela is an industry. But it’s also a national pastime. Here, women want to look like Miss Venezuela. Girls as young as four are enrolled in modelling schools which Gates describes as “beauty factories.” Venezuela leads the world in pageant wins (seven Miss Universes), a success that seems attainable to all. In a country rapidly falling apart, it’s almost the only dream worth investing in.
The episode opens with Gates examining the shape of the mannequins that display women’s fashion – voluminous breasts, teeny waists, and ample backsides. A man tells her he loves it, “because it looks like a Venezuelan woman. Everything big.” The shopkeeper notes how men are so enamoured they’ll even hug them. Later, the female owner of the factory that makes the mannequins laments how “it used to be easier to be beautiful. Society is very demanding.”
Beauty is a preoccupation that sits uncomfortably with the country’s political and economic situation. Venezuela is rife with crime (the capital, Caracas, has the highest murder rate in the world), poverty, and neglect. Most people’s daily lives revolve around queues – standing in line from before sunrise for basics like milk, often at wildly inflated prices.
But despite this, women, whose average wage is around the equivalent of $400 US a year, spend 20 percent of that salary on cosmetics and beauty treatments. As one Miss Venezuela hopeful tells Gates, it’s “our responsibility to be beautiful.” While Gates doesn’t judge, it’s difficult not to question this sense of self and social worth masquerading as national pride.
This distorted worldview is further complicated halfway through the episode when Gates gets her period and the simple act of going to the supermarket to buy the necessary sanitary products becomes impossible. Since mid-2015 Venezuela’s economy has been in free-fall. Sanitary products, when available at all, can cost anywhere from 45 cents to $45 a box due to inconsistent exchange rates, potentially eating into a third of a woman’s monthly wage. In the end, Gates can only buy sanitary pads, gratefully but illegally, through the burgeoning black market.
While it exposes economic issues, Gates’s tampon odyssey also deepens the conversation around how Venezuela sees women’s bodies. Lack of access to these products reads like a wholesale denial of the reality of what women’s bodies actually do, that they aren’t simply vehicles for beauty and sexual pleasure, like those fantasy mannequins and their devotees suggest.
But beauty is not solely a female fixation in Venezuela. Taut, hairless men also compete for the chance to be crowned Mister Universo, their bodies scrutinised by judges and plastic surgeons that suggest how they might be remodelled into an even more perfect form (penis enlargements are popular).
Venezuelans often take cheap options rather than go without something many of them have come to view as essential. When Gates meets with a woman whose nose has collapsed as a result of dodgy biopolymers we see the true cost of the beautiful face that Venezuela presents to the world – it’s a mask over some rather cruel realities. While fashion can be a means for social progress, in Venezuela the promotion of an unreal and dangerous beauty ideal mostly looks like a distraction from it, and any real, positive change.
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