The life of Monica Spear, the former Miss Venezuela who was shot to death along with her husband on a highway between the cities of Valencia and Puerto Cabello in what was likely a robbery attempt, intertwined with two of her country's dominant contemporary themes: an extraordinarily high rate of violent crime and an almost pathological obsession with physical beauty.
Venezuela's extremely high incidence of murder, rape, robbery and kidnappings have been widely discussed and speculated upon, but lurking just beneath the violence that permeates its society is the relentless pursuit of physical perfection by millions of its citizens, both men and women, from all social classes.
Various media reports have suggested that in oil-rich Venezuela, the "beauty industry" -- comprising beauty pageants, beauty academies, beauty salons, finishing/modeling schools, cosmetics and plastic surgeons -- ranks second only to petroleum as the country's largest business sector. Televised beauty pageants consistently deliver huge ratings, while Venezuelan beauty queens (they have won at least 17 global crowns over the past three decades, more than any other nation) instantly become pop culture superstars within the nation. Many pageant winners subsequently become highly paid models, television presenters and even politicians.
Beauty queens like Spears also serve as role models for millions of Venezuelan girls who will do anything -- including placing their families deeply into debt -- to "improve" their looks, through attendance at finishing schools and modeling classes and expensive cosmetic surgery on their noses, lips, teeth, breasts, bottoms and various other body parts. Venezuela stages literally thousands of beauty pageants of varying sizes and prizes every year, even inside the nation's dangerously overcrowded prisons.
“I guess you could say beauty is their national sport,” a German-Norwegian photojournalist named Karin Ananiassen told Vice.com. “Even the men there take great care of their appearance. You notice it when you walk around in Venezuela, all the guys have fresh haircuts and clean, pressed clothes and probably spend an equal amount of time in front of the mirror each morning as the women.”
Plastic Beauty, Financed By Plastic
A significant amount of the beauty that Venezuelans crave is provided by a scalpel.
"It is no secret that beauty is a value we will take to its maximum expression,” said fashion author Titina Penzini, according to the Guardian. "You walk down any street of Caracas at 6 a.m., and women will be perfectly coiffured, manicured, pedicured and impeccably made up. People here, from all walks of life, will get into debt for a pair of stilettos or a boob job. Whatever it takes."
Plastic surgeons are making a killing not only from Venezuelans seeking a nip-and-tuck, but from foreigners flying in for operations to become more attractive. Some banks even advertise loans designed specifically for such surgeries. "I see five or six clients from abroad each month," plastic surgeon Roger Galindo told the Guardian. "Venezuela is a pioneer in this field, and we have excellent professionals.”
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Georgia, and herself a native of Caracas, Venezuela, said that forty years ago, nose jobs and facelifts were already a fad among the privileged classes of Venezuela. In the past 20 years, however, the number of plastic surgery procedures has increased at an exponential rate. “Breast augmentation and liposuction are now almost as common as orthodontic procedures,” she added.
Yohana Bernal is one of the untold thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of young Venezuelan women who have had their breasts enlarged. "I see it as something normal. It's like putting highlights in your hair," the 22-year-old told the Associated Press, adding that small breasts carry a terrible stigma in society. Indeed, liposuction, breast enlargement, and hair straightening are even more popular in Venezuela than baseball.
Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, puts the whole matter of Venezuela’s beauty pageants in a compelling and melancholy perspective. "No surgeon can say that giving breast implants to a 17- or 18-year-old for beauty reasons is ethical," he told Bloomberg. "It's terrible that these pageants are turning into plastic-surgery competitions and are no longer about real beauty."
Osmel Sousa: A Modern-Day Pygmalion
One of the driving forces behind Venezuela's relentless pursuit of beauty (usually artificial) is a Cuban-born émigré named Osmel Sousa, who has run the Miss Venezuela beauty contest since 1981. According to the Global Post, he encourages young women to go under the knife, since he likes and promotes “perfection.”
"This isn't a nature contest," Sousa said in an interview in 2008, Bloomberg reported. "It's a beauty contest, and science exists to help perfect beauty. There is nothing wrong with that." The Miss Venezuela Organization, which Sousa operates, actually has a plastic surgeon and dental surgeon on its payroll.
"Venezuela has been able to create a production line of beauty queens like no other country," Ines Ligron, director of Miss Universe-Japan, told Bloomberg. "Nothing is improvised in Miss Venezuela; everything is calculated. The girls are sculpted and rigidly trained."
However, Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of history and Latin American studies at Pomona College in California, and himself a Venezuela native, said the real power behind Venezuela's massive beauty industry is held not by Sousa, but rather by his employer, Venevision, the television channel owned by the huge Cisneros media-entertainment group that also broadcasts the annual Miss Venezuela pageant. Tinker-Salas traces the grip that the obsession with physical beauty has had on the country to the rise of the Cisneros media empire in the early 1980s. “In some measure, the obsession with Venezuelans seeking to achieve such high standards of beauty coincides with the rising power and influence of the Cisneros mass media conglomerate,” he said in an interview.
As the popularity of beauty pageants grew, so too did the desires of the media-saturated public to emulate the glamorous paragons of beauty they watched cat-walking on TV stages.
Thank Heaven For Little Girls?
One of the most disturbing aspects of Venezuela's obsession with physical perfection relates to girls as young as five training for and appearing in beauty contests, and attempting to look “sexy,” with some children even wearing make-up, bikinis and high heels. (Of course, this unpleasant phenomenon occurs in the U.S. as well, Alejandro Velasco, a historian of modern Latin America at New York University, pointed out.) “They genuinely believe that being beautiful, which includes being sexy, gives you a confidence that enables you to become more successful,” photojournalist Ben Speck told Vice.com. “They openly say that girls who’ve attended beauty schools have a better chance of furthering their careers.”
Budgeting For Boob Jobs
According to various reports, Venezuelan men and women (regardless of social class) spend more money per capita on cosmetics and beauty enhancements than any other nation on earth. Estimates suggest that Venezuelans allocate as much as one-fifth of their disposable income on such frivolities. Ananiassen told Vice.com that beauty academies can charge $100 just to join, then levy a monthly fee of $150 for four-hour lessons twice a week (in a country with an average per capita PPP of only $13,800).
The Associated Press noted that in Venezuela, a breast enlargement operation costs about $2,000 (one-third of the price charged in the U.S), while a nose job will set someone back $1,500 (one-tenth the price for a similar operation in the U.S.). Still, these are quite steep prices for the average Venezuelan. Acosta-Alzuru said that anybody in Venezuela who wants plastic surgery and finds a way to pay for it will undergo the procedure. “I’ve [even] seen breast implant raffles in a certain drugstore chain,” she marveled.
Extreme Narcissism In A Socialist Workers Paradise?
This mania for good looks and glamor operates under the unlikely backdrop of a stridently Socialist government that ostensibly opposes all forms of Western materialism, vanity and commercialism. However, Socialist leader Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, openly praise beauty queens as a source of pride for the nation. In fact, when Maria Gabriela Isler was crowned Miss Universe last year in Moscow (the third Venezuelan to win the title in the past six years), one of the first to congratulate her was none other than Maduro himself, who tweeted that her victory represented a "triumph for Venezuela."
Acosta-Alzuru said, however, that former President Chávez spoke about the dangers of silicone implants, biopolymer injections and similar surgical procedures. “But, he and his officers knew very well that the Miss Venezuela pageant is a national institution, something that is inscribed in the country’s identity and self-esteem, and [which also serves as] an escape valve,” she explained. “They are also keenly aware that the obsession with beauty is part of the national ‘common sense’, [in] the realm of what isn’t questioned. Hence, it wouldn't be politically savvy to go against that [mentality].”
Indeed, the Socialists, Tinker-Salas quipped, have “adapted” their ideology to the realities of Venezuela.
One of the most confounding aspects of Venezuela's embrace of physical beauty lies with the public's adoption of white, Western European standards of attractiveness -- i.e., light skin; soft, straight hair; thin nose, thin lips, etc. -- in a country where the majority of the population are either mestizo (mixed-race), indigenous or of black African descent. As a result, many Venezuelans have embarked on a hopeless and futile effort to emulate the white, European ideal of beauty. Of course, such attitudes prevail across Latin America, but for some reason, it's intensified in Venezuela. Practically all of Venezuela's beauty queens have "European" physical features. Sousa, himself a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man, reportedly once stated that black girls “cannot be pretty.”
“Pageant winners do not resemble the majority of women in the country,” said Belinda Edmondson, a professor of English and African-American & African Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has researched beauty pageants in the Caribbean and Latin America. “They [Venezuelan beauty queens] are still overwhelmingly middle-class and white, or 'white-appearing,'” she said. With the ubiquitous use of plastic surgery, obvious ethnic markers may be mitigated or disappear altogether, Edmondson added. “I can only recall one non-white winner, back in 1998, and even then her appeal seemed to be that she represented not a specifically non-white population so much as a ‘mestizo,’ or hybrid, ideal that Venezuela and other Latin American/Caribbean countries promote as a sign of multiracial harmony.”
But Venezuela is hardly alone in its preference for white European racial physical features. Edmondson indicated that in other majority-non-white societies like Brazil or Jamaica (where there's an obsession for skin-bleaching among some working class black women), the desire for “physical whiteness,” or approximations of “whiteness,” are little affected by the political views of the government, regardless of where that government falls on the political spectrum. “In fact, it may work inversely: the blacker or darker the country becomes, the more [that] whiteness is prized, since whiteness is associated with wealth, modernity, and leisure,” Edmondson noted. “The less achievable those things are through economic and political change, the more desirable it may be to change one's personal appearance to get what otherwise doesn't seem attainable,” she added.
But Acosta-Alzuru noted that race is a rather fluid concept in her homeland. “Venezuela is a country of mestizos,” she said in an interview. “And, even though, there are all shades of skin color and all combinations of skin, hair and eye color, no Venezuelan can say that he or she is purely white or black.” But she concedes that, on a socioeconomic basis, all social classes in Venezuela aspire to achieve the white, Western ideal of beauty.
Economic Crisis? What Crisis?
Moreover, the economic crisis that has ensnared Venezuela -- including rampant inflation, a collapsing currency and shortages of basic goods and necessities like milk and toilet paper -- has apparently not put a damper on peoples' insatiable appetites for nose jobs, breast implants and other cosmetic services. This is a country where almost half (44 percent) of the population lives in poverty -- despite the expansion of oil-related wealth over the past dozen years or so.
Conversely, Velasco said that the recent drop in poverty rates partially explains the increase in spending on cosmetic products. “Along these lines, the paradox of a socialist state obsessed with materialism and beauty is not entirely unexplained,” he said. “The fact is that many of the government's social programs are built around direct cash transfers to the poor. That has meant a lot of liquidity -- which brings increased inflation but also more cash in hand.” What's interesting is that the redistribution of wealth has not affected materialist consumption habits, but rather have increased them. “In other words, socialist policies have not translated into a socialist culture shift, at least not among most,” Velasco added.
The High Price Of Beauty
Sometimes the pursuit of synthetic beauty leads to disease, tragedy and even death. Venezuelan media reported on the death of a 26-year-old journalist, Adriana Carolina Hernandez, who slipped into a coma for a week-and-a-half and died after injecting polymers into her buttocks that subsequently migrated into her lungs and caused a pulmonary embolism.
Also, consider also the case of Eva Ekvall, who was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2000 at the tender age of 17, after Sousa suggested she get breast implants, fix her teeth, sharpen her nose and lose some weight. "My nose looked bigger on my thinner face, so I needed a nose job," she told Bloomberg. "Osmel just kept saying, 'Oh, don't worry, we can fix this and that. Everything will be fine.' "After winning the title, Ekvall worked as an actress, model, TV news anchor and also advocated for cancer charities. She died of breast cancer in December 2011 at 28.
Prior to her death, she told the BBC that women in Venezuela should not be afraid to seek out breast examinations, something she promoted for her fellow country-women. “It's absurd that there should be a taboo about breast cancer in a country of breast implants, where women have few reservations about showing off their surgically-enhanced breasts,” she said.
Part of the problem with illnesses resulting from plastic surgery, Acosta-Alzuru noted, can be traced to unqualified surgeons offering cosmetic operations at very cheap prices to poor people and committing acts of malpractice. The Attorney General of Venezuela, Luisa Ortega Díaz, has urged women in the country to be aware of the dangers of cosmetic surgery. "We have an ongoing campaign for women to take action in the event they are going to have surgery, liposuction, [or] rhinoplasty,” she said in a statement.
Criticism Of Barbie Dolls
Not everyone in Venezuela approves of this immense superficiality and pursuit of ephemeral beauty. “Girls in Venezuela grow up thinking that being beautiful is the most important goal in life,” a manicurist in Caracas, Xiomara Rivero, told Bloomberg. "This is the worst place in the world to be ugly."
Tinker-Salas noted that some feminist and Afro-Venezuelan organizations have criticized these beauty contests and the biased attitudes they propagate, but their voices are drowned out by the immense popularity of the beauty contestants themselves. Alas, no organized movement against this relentless drive for superficiality has coalesced yet in Venezuela.
“There have been isolated voices, but nothing organized as a movement,” Acosta-Alzuru noted, adding that at least two telenovelas (TV dramas very popular in the country) written by Leonardo Padrón have addressed the issue of the country’s obsession with physical perfection and plastic surgery: "Ciudad Bendita" ("Blessed City") and "La Mujer Perfecta" ('The Perfect Woman").
Incidentally, Mónica Spear appeared as the protagonist in "La Mujer Perfecta." She played a character who suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, which presented quite a statement about the real importance of physical beauty in the context of the definition of "the perfect woman," Acosta-Alzuru pointed out.
And now that "perfect woman" is dead.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.