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As the Venezuelan crisis continues, the nation’s citizens have struggled to find basic necessities like food and living supplies. It is a decline in a country that once was one of the richest economies in South America. Now there is mass starvation, hours-long queues, and increased crime rates. It has even resulted into the death of Reinaldo Herrera, the nephew of Venezuelan-American fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
Within the fashion world, Venezuela is often associated with beauty pageant culture that includes voluptuous hair, heavy makeup and revealing clothing. This trend also coincides with the societal obsession of plastic surgery, which has even influenced the working class. In order to obtain the looks of Venezuelan beauty queens, both pageant hopefuls and their admirers pay expensive bills for serious procedures to achieve the idealized look. These expensive and high maintenance trends present a conundrum in the nation’s current crisis. Will these beauty pageant trends maintain during, and after, the country’s struggle for freedom or will a less adorned, feminist-focused ideal take forth?
Although fashion and beauty are not the first worry in the country’s present climate, a look into the changing face of the “ideal” Venezuelan woman has potential to reveal the rising role of females and a potential change in their representation in the media.
Venezuelan Beauty Culture
When a Miss Venezuela wins an international beauty pageant, it is a source of nationalistic pride for the country. This notion may have originated from a less than glamorous locale: a beauty pageant held at a baseball game in 1940s Caracas. Two young women competed for the title, with one from a wealthy background and the other from a lower class. After a highly publicized campaign, the woman from the lower class won the pageant. In the 2016 film To Be a Miss, this beauty contest is viewed as an underdog story that reflected the country’s growing pride. During the 1950s, Venezuela was a developing country that lead in oil production. It was headed by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, who initiated numerous public community programs based around Venezuelan identity. This was enhanced by the 1955 win of Susana Duijm, who was the first Miss Venezuela to win an international contest.
However, the Venezuelan beauty culture that is remembered today did not begin until the reign of Osmel Sousa, an actor turned president of the Miss Venezuela Organization. Despite the fact that Sousa has never participated as a beauty pageant contestant, his opinions and advice are highly valued and may appear extreme to those outside the field. He has worked with numerous Miss Venezuelas who have been crowned with an international title, with María Antonieta Cámpoli as his first in 1972. By the 1980s, Maritza Sayalero, Irene Saez, and Bárbara Palacios all won international titles under Sousa’s guidance.
Since beauty queens were, and are, a glorified example of both female perfection and political pride, it is natural for the public to want to replicate pageant contestants looks. Osmel Sousa often suggests for hopeful contestants to alter their looks through exercise and plastic surgery, which has become a part of many Miss Venezuela’s beauty regimes. A form of the trickle-down method, both pageant hopefuls and members of the general public must find the financial means to gain what they consider “perfection.” This can include surgeries on breasts, buttocks, noses, and even mesh on one’s tongue to reduce food intake. Plastic surgery has become so implemented in society that it has influenced the shape of store mannequins.
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When discussing beauty pageants, there are many stereotypes that paint contestants as vain and ignorant. Although Venezuelan culture is “obsessed with beauty,” there are many examples of beauty queens who used their wins as a platform. Miss Universe 1981 winner Irene Saez entered into politics and served as a mayor and later governor. Veruska Ramirez, who won Miss Venezuela in 1997, was abandoned as a child, worked as a maid early in her life, and after her win, survived an abduction. During the 2016 American Presidential Election, Miss Venezuela 1995 and Miss Universe 1996 winner Alicia Machado became a symbol of resistance against Donald Trump, who publicly shamed for her body.
As the country is falling deeper into crisis, women have spoken out against the communist regime through protests. One example is Venezuela’s “Wonder Woman” Caterina Ciarcelluti who has been photographed throwing stones in protest. Caterina appears beautiful yet mentally and physically strong, a combination of characteristics that challenge beauty pageant ideals. As these images continue to spread through international news, the public image of Venezuelan beauty may change or it may stick through the crisis and remain as a symbol of Venezuela’s national pride.