The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil

The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil. Alvaro Jarrín. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, 272 pp.

Why does beauty matter in southern Brazil, and what is its relation to social order? In this multi-sited study, Alvaro Jarrín argues that beauty maps onto colonial schemas of race, class, and gender, in a context where public and private medicine bleed into and support each other. Beauty has become tied to social and economic status. As such, beauty has a biopolitical quality because it impels people to work on their bodies while reinforcing the social orders that allow it to “circulate” (Chapter 3). This is especially true in a setting like Brazil, where plastic surgery has been associated with eugenic movements and attempts to transform marginalized populations, who suffered the brunt of colonialism, into civilized participants in contemporary society.

In early 20th-century Brazil, eugenicists and public intellectuals used aesthetic language to describe the wellbeing of the nation and its populations. They photographed its non-European populations, whose bodies bore visible signs of disease that they attributed to their “uncultured” way of life. As they mobilized strategies for racial mixing designed to strengthen the national stock, European appearance became synonymous with health and beauty. Meanwhile, indigenous, African, and mixed populations’ appearances were associated with disease and ugliness. Jarrín shows how these associations continue to shape the relationship between body and society in Brazil.

Beauty at once promises and obstructs social mobility. It is mapped onto class, race, and gender hierarchies. For individuals seeking economic mobility, it offers a tool for breaking through racial and class barriers. It provides a form of “affective capital” that people view as central to the ability to participate in social and economic life. In public discourse, beauty is a right, but in practice, it turns the working class into the subjects of medical education—what Jarrín calls “experimental subjects.” Beauty (or its absence) renders people “in need of” surgery and ushers poor women into public clinics where plastic surgery residents eagerly practice cosmetic procedures. Jarrín unpacks the gendered dynamics of who will do what for beauty, showing the processes through which plastic surgery is feminized, for example.

I found this book most enjoyable when Jarrín took us to Sunday night dinner at his friend’s parents’ house, narrated and analyzed the plots of telenovelas, and described the catwalk schools taking place on the streets of the infamous City of God. It gave me a sense of the people and the place where he did his research. Though these many sources and types of data are stitched together well, at times these threads aren’t pulled together as cohesively as they could be.

The book starts with a theoretical introduction that brings together notions of biopolitics and affect while providing an overview of beauty and, especially, plastic surgery in Brazil. If the concept of biopolitics helps unpack postcolonial body politics, Jarrín draws on theories of affect to make sense of how beauty and capital coalesce in Brazilian society. The discussion of biopolitics draws heavily on recent scholarship on biopolitics, rather than situating the idea within a lineage of Foucauldian thought and explaining how it relates to associated concepts like biopower, anatamo–politics, and governmentality. All of these are pertinent to the ethnography presented here. The book’s discussion of feminist and punk studies of beauty and biopower (i.e., Mimi Thi Nguyen’s 2011 scholarship), helps crystalize the relation between beauty, governmentality, and the making of Brazilian citizen–subjects. I wish this had been developed further throughout the book and think a fuller discussion of Foucault’s thought would have helped tease out the implications of the analysis.

The first half of the book tackles the above topics: the conjugation of beauty and health in colonial Brazil; how the melding of public and private medicine transforms working class patients into “experimental subjects”; and people’s understandings of how beauty and class intersect. Chapter 5 demonstrates how beauty is raced and shows that concerns with appearance map onto national concerns with the instability of whiteness in Brazil. Chapter 6 unpacks how the hope and promise associated with plastic surgery have brute biological effects. It looks at failed surgeries through clinical ethnography, explores controversies surrounding bioplasty, and examines the development of new surgical procedures. Here, the idea of the experimental subject is most powerfully illustrated, but this chapter also made me question why the term “experimental” was being used to reference patients that are practiced on at medical schools. Is medical training experimental when its primary aims are to transmit established knowledge and technique rather than to “generate surprises” (Rheinberger 1997), that is, to produce, test, or transmit new knowledge and techniques?

The conclusion explores how imaginaries of beauty are inflected by national narratives of progress that situate Brazil as a global epicenter of beauty. The conclusion implicitly nods to the potential productivity of exploring flows of ideas, knowledge, and prejudices between different national contexts in Latin America, which would be a useful enterprise. Why do Brazilian surgeons emphasize their centrality to the development of cosmetic surgery while their Mexican counterparts highlight how crucial they’ve been to progress in reconstructive surgery, for example? I wanted more dialogue with the large corpus of social science scholarship on plastic surgery, much of which has emerged from studies of Latin America (e.g., see the works of Alexander Edmonds, Lauren Gulbas, and my writing on Mexican cosmetic and craniofacial surgery).

Jarrín goes to great lengths to show that beauty matters because it holds out the promise of “upward mobility, social inclusion, and a more egalitarian society” (p. 157). At the same time, many Brazilians associate beauty with race, class, and gender inequalities. Thus, the body emerges as a site of power struggles, but the way this power works seems to remain hidden. While beauty’s effects are often brutal (deformed faces, infected scars), its place in Brazilian society is at once obvious and ethereal. For me, this is what makes beauty such a powerful force. Its hegemony exists because so much hope is associated with it.

Beauty acts almost as a surface that makes it hard to see the structural inequalities that it links with to reproduce social, political, and economic orders. This book is full of rich material that allow us to reflect on how such linking takes place. There is still, perhaps, room for some conceptual work from Jarrín when it comes to articulating how beauty both binds to and blinds us from social, political, and economic orders. This reading of beauty could show how inequalities are reinterpreted as individual shortcomings, rendering working-class populations “docile” in capitalist contexts.

This book will be of value to people with interests in the intersection of race, class, and gender, as well as scholars working in medical anthropology and Latin American Studies. I would also recommend it to people interested in Brazil, plastic surgery, the body, and affect theory. Because it is at times conceptually dense and presupposes a basic knowledge of anthropology theory, it would be best suited to an upper-level undergraduate course.

References Cited

Nguyen, M. T. 2011. The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36:  359–83.

Rheinberger, H. J. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.