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Within the fashion world, Venezuela is often associated with beauty contests. Pageants in this country are a nation-wide phenomenon that idolizes beautiful women with voluptuous hair, heavy makeup and revealing clothing. When a Miss Venezuela wins an international beauty pageant, it is a source of nationalistic pride. This love for pageantry also coincides with the society’s obsession with plastic surgery, which has even influenced the working class. To obtain the look of a Venezuelan beauty queen, both pageant hopefuls and their admirers pay for expensive makeup, fashions, and plastic surgery procedures. These costly and high maintenance trends present a conundrum in the nation’s current crisis. The country’s citizens now are struggling to find basic necessities like food and living supplies.
This public catastrophe brings the question of will the tradition of beauty pageants and their extreme trends maintain during, and after, the country’s struggle for freedom or will a less adorned, feminist-focused ideal take forth?
Venezuelan Beauty Culture
The Venezuelan appreciation for beauty contents is said to have originated from a less than glamorous locale: a 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. According to the 2016 film “To Be a Miss,” this beauty contest is viewed in Venezuelan history as an underdog story that reflects the country’s early beginnings. By the 1950s, Venezuela was a developing country that led in oil production in South America. To create a sense of pride during this boom time, then-dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez initiated numerous public community programs based around Venezuelan identity. The 1955 win of Susana Duijm, who was the first Miss Venezuela to be awarded an international beauty title, helped build this effort.
However, the ornate Venezuelan beauty culture that is known today did not begin until the reign of Osmel Sousa, an actor turned president of the Miss Venezuela Organization. Although Sousa has never participated in a beauty pageant, his extreme opinions and advice are highly valued. He has worked with numerous Miss Venezuelas who have won 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 their 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 Venezuelan society that it has even influenced the shape of store mannequins.
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When discussing beauty pageants, many stereotypes paint contestants as vain and ignorant. However, there are some beauty queens who used their wins as a platform. Miss Universe 1981 winner Irene Saez entered into politics and has served as a mayor and governor. 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 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. Ciarcelluti 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 perception of Venezuelan beauty may change. The typical Venezuelan beauty may no longer be known for her pageantry skills, instead she may be a rebel who is fighting to restore her country’s identity or to rebuild a new one that has since dismantled.