I write to you with half a soul. The other half shriveled and died while I was reading a New York Times article about trends in Venezuelan mannequins. According to the piece, workshops in Valencia, Venezuela, are beginning to alter the proportions of their fiberglass dummies, further elongating legs, narrowing waists, and augmenting butts and busts. (The writer, William Neuman, mentions “cantilevered buttocks,” a thrilling phrase that nonetheless mystifies me, even after I Googled it.) The resulting figures look not quite human, although maybe that’s the point: “Beauty is perfection, to try to perfect yourself more and more every day,” says Daniela Mieles, who runs a mannequin workshop in Valencia.
It’s a philosophy that extends beyond woman-shaped clothes hangers to actual women. According to the piece, Venezuelan culture is increasingly encouraging of plastic surgery, from breast implants and tummy tucks to nose jobs and butt-firming injections. The distorted mannequins, we learn, reflect the way real women have started to modify their bodies, pursuing an ideal of beauty with its own buzzword: estrambótico, or extravagant.
South Americans don’t actually go in for more cosmetic procedures than North Americans or Europeans. Still, the article contains a few stomach-churning quotes from people preoccupied by looks. “I say that inner beauty doesn’t exist,” Osmel Sousa, the director of the Miss Venezuela pageant, tells the Times. “That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.” (Indeed! And why fight that losing battle when you can just inject some belly fat into your ass and call it a day?) Another woman confides her plans to get breast implants for $6,350, “an amount equivalent to about three months of basic expenses for her household, including food, utilities and other living costs.”
The NYT piece suggests that some of this aesthetic focus may be specific to Venezuela. It traces an emphasis on physical attractiveness to the country’s success in international beauty pageants, arguing that when three Venezuelan contestants won the Miss Universe title in the 1970s and ‘80s, their loveliness became a special source of pride for a nation in turmoil. And we are told that Venezuela’s oil-powered culture of “easy money and consumerism” prods people to commodify everything, including women’s bodies. There may be truth to this, but I would argue that the United States is equally in the thrall of an unhealthy obsession with beauty. The story conveniently glances over a reference to the way Venezuelan dummies used to look:
Mary Angola, another mannequin maker in Valencia, said that older styles came from Europe or the United States, and hardly reflected the physiques of real women around her.
“They make them so skinny,” she said.
Right. North American mannequins may lack the va-va-voom of their Southern counterparts, but the vision of womanhood they enshrine is equally impossible and damaging. Which is why I wonder whether there isn’t something liberating about dummies with unapologetically freakish T&A. They tell you to flaunt your artificiality instead of trying to look natural. By planting the aesthetic goalpost in bizarro-land, they cast beauty as something you must work to achieve, which seems somehow fairer and better than it being a perfection you must come by effortlessly. Cosmetic procedures “are … fashionable here [in Venezuela],” the Times reports, “and women talk freely about their surgeries.” By contrast, in places like New York City, ladies experience a lot of pressure to conceal the hoops they jump through to look conventionally pretty. Is a society that openly celebrates cosmetic enhancement preferable to one that asks women to pretend they were born with perfect figures?
Removing attractiveness from the realm of luck or genetics and transposing it elsewhere is a tricky proposition, of course. You don’t want to turn beauty into even more of a class marker than it is already. In the brave new world of endless and unabashed plastic surgery, wasp-waisted, balloon-boobed allure may only be available to people who can pay for it. That’s why I still think our best bet is unchaining ourselves from the idea that beauty matters all that much in the first place.