“Look at Her Hair”: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood in Brazil

“Look at Her Hair”: The Body Politics of Black Womanhood in Brazil

Transforming Anthropology
Volume 11, Issue 2 (July 2003)
pages 18–29
DOI: 10.1525/tran.2003.11.2.18

Kia Lilly Caldwell, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This article examines Brazilian ideals of female beauty and explores their impact on Black women’s subjective experiences. The analysis focuses on hair as a key site for investigating how Black women’s bodies and identities are marked by Brazilian discourses on race and gender. Despite Brazil’s image as a “racial democracy,” derogatory images of Black women in Brazilian popular culture highlight the prevalence of anti-Black aesthetic standards in the country. Through analysis of Black women’s personal narratives, this article examines how individual women attempt to reconstruct their subjectivities by contesting dominant aesthetic norms. The analysis provides insight into the gendered dimensions of Brazilian racism by demonstrating the ways in which Black women’s views of, and experiences with, their hair highlight the complex relationship among race, gender, sexuality, and beauty.

“Otherness” is constructed on bodies. Racism uses the physicality of bodies to punish, to expunge and isolate certain bodies and construct them as outsiders.
—Zillah Eisenstein


This article examines Brazilian ideals of female beauty and explores their impact on Black women’s processes of identity construction. Given Brazil’s longstanding image as a “racial democracy,” examining the racialized and gendered significance of hair provides key insights into the ways in which Black women’s bodies are marked by larger political and social forces. My analysis focuses on hair as a key site for investigating how Black women’s identities are circumscribed by dominant discourses on race and gender. I examine the pervasiveness of anti-Black aesthetic standards in Brazilian popular culture and explore Black women’s attempts to reinvest their bodies with positive significance.

The racial implications of hair and beauty have received scant attention in most research on race in Brazil (Burdick 1998). This tendency is largely due to the lack of research on the intersection of race and gender and the near invisibility of Afro-Brazilian women as a focus of scholarly inquiry (Caldwell 2000). Nonetheless, examining the social construction of beauty provides crucial insights into the intersection of race, gender, and power in contemporary Brazil. As a key marker of racial difference, hair assumes a central role in the racial politics of everyday life in Brazil. Most Brazilians are keenly aware of the social and racial significance of gradations in hair texture and use this knowledge as a standard for categorizing individuals into racial and color groups. The racial implications of hair texture take on added significance for Black women, given the central role accorded to hair in racialized constructions of femininity and female beauty.

This article forms part of a larger study that explores Afro-Brazilian women’s struggles for cultural citizenship through analysis of women’s life histories and practices of social activism. Field research was conducted in the city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, in 1997. The research participants included activists in the Black movement, women’s movement, and Black women’s movement, as well as non-activists. My field research and ethnographic analysis examine how women who self-identify as negra (Black) develop critical consciousness about issues of race and gender, and how this consciousness translates into social and political activism. Excerpts from my interview data are used in this article to explore Afro-Brazilian women’s views of hair and beauty. My analysis places dominant constructions of female beauty in dialogue with Black women’s critical reflections on the psycho-subjective dimensions of beauty and their role in processes of identity formation…

…Brazil’s now widely disputed image as a “racial democracy” also played a central role in constructing official and popular understandings of gender during most of the twentieth century (Caldwell 1999). In an attempt to reinterpret Brazil’s national past of colonial slavery, nationalist ideologues, such as Gilberto Freyre (1986[1946]), promoted constructions of Black womanhood that legitimized colonial gender norms. These gender norms continue to buttress and perpetuate colonial hierarchies of gender, race, and class by constructing the social identities of White women as the standard of womanhood and female beauty, and the social terms of sexual and manual labor. In contemporary Brazil, the social identities of Black, Mulata and White women demonstrate how physical differences are linked to gendered notions of racial superiority. While Black and Mulata women have long been regarded as being more sexually desirable, White women have traditionally been considered to be more beautiful. In many ways, the distinctions made between White, Mulata and Black women draw upon a virgin/whore dichotomy that classifies women into different categories based on their presumed suitability for sex or marriage. These forms of differentiation are succinctly expressed in the Brazilian adage: “A white woman to marry, a mulata to fornicate, a black woman to cook.”

In Brazil, racialized gender hierarchies also classify women by dissecting their bodies and attributing certain physical features either to the category of sex or beauty. This dissection process assigns features such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape and size of the nose and lips to the category of beauty, while features such as the breasts, hips, and buttocks are assigned to the sexual category. Given the Eurocentric aesthetic standards that prevail in Brazilian society, Black women have traditionally been defined as being sexual, rather than beautiful. Ironically, however, Black and Mulata women’s association with sensuality and sexuality has been lauded as evidence of racial democracy in Brazil (Caldwell 1999; Gilliam 1998).

Representations of mixed-race or Mulata women in Brazilian popular culture reveal the complexities of Brazilian discourses on race, gender and beauty. A carnival song from 1932, “Teu Cabelo Nao Nega” (Your Hair Gives You Away), highlights the ambivalent portrayal of Mulata women in Brazilian popular culture. As the song states:

In these lands of Brazil
You don’t even have to cultivate it
The land gives
Black beans, many learned men, and giribita
A lot of beautiful mulatas

The hair gives you away.
You are mulata in color
But since color doesn’t rub off, mulata,
Mulata, I want your love. (Davis 1999:155)

“Your Hair Gives You Away” was the carnival success of 1932 and became one of the most successful carnival songs of all time (Davis 1999). The portrayal of Mulata women in the song reinforces Brazil’s nationalist image as a racial democracy and racial-sexual paradise. The lyrics portray Mulata women as being quintessentially Brazilian. Like black beans, they seem to spring from the land in large quantities. However, on closer observation, the lyrics also reveal racist beliefs premised on anti-Black aesthetic values. Both the title of the song and the lyrics contain the phrase, “hair gives you away.” When analyzed in the context of Brazilian racial beliefs, this phrase can be seen as an expression of racial “outing.” By referring to the Mulata’s hair, the narrator of the song states his belief that this desirable woman has African ancestry. Her hair texture is the marker that reveals this ancestry. The narrator then goes on to describe the Mulata as being Mulata in color. This statement reinforces the Mulata’s phenotypic characteristics and the fact that she is not negra or black in color. The narrator further states that the Mulata’s color is inconsequential since it will not “stick” to him. His desire to have the mulata’s love, or more accurately her sexual favors (Carvalho 1999), is unchanged and he continues to sing her praises, albeit with a double-voiced message of attraction and revulsion.

The process of racial outing performed in “Your Hair Gives Away” demonstrates how Afro-Brazilian women’s bodies are marked and categorized by Brazilian practices of racialization. Despite the prevalence of official and popular discourses, which emphasize the importance of racial miscegenation, practices of racial differentiation and categorization are pervasive in Brazil. As recent work by Antonio Guimaraes (1995) and Robin Sheriff (2001) has shown, the much acclaimed Brazilian color continuum coexists with practices of racialization that center on categorizing individuals into bipolar categories of Whiteness and Blackness. These practices of racialization reflect a decidedly anti-Black bias, which privileges Whiteness as an unmarked and universal identity. Lewis R. Gordon’s (1997) work on anti-Blackness provides significant insights into these processes. As Gordon provocatively argues,

in an antiblack world, race is only designated by those who signify racial identification. A clue to that identification is the notion of being “colored.” Not being colored signifies being white, and, as a consequence, being raceless, whereas being colored signifies being a race. Thus, although the human race is normatively white, racialized human beings, in other words, a subspecies of humanity, are nonwhite…. In effect, then, in the antiblack world there is but one race, and that race is black. Thus to be racialized is to be pushed “down” toward blackness, and to be deracialized is to be pushed “up” toward whiteness. (1997:76)

“Your Hair Gives You Away” demonstrates how a national preference for Whiteness and a concomitant devaluation of Blackness circumscribe the social identities of Afro-Brazilian women. The anti-Black aesthetic values articulated in “The Hair Gives You Away” describe the Mulata’s hair texture and skin color as being unappealing. These physical attributes were considered to be undesirable largely because they were associated with the Mulata’s African ancestry. Furthermore, while not explicitly stated, Brazilian notions of “good” and “bad” hair are present in the narrator’s evaluation of the woman described in the song. By stating, “the hair gives you away,” the narrator indicates that she does not have “good” hair and thus has not completely escaped the “stain” of Blackness…

Read the entire article here.

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