Hair and Beauty Culture in Brazil

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Hair and Beauty Culture in Brazil

Travelers to Brazil were the first to recognize how head-gear, hairstyles, makeup, and body tribal marks are used as signifiers of ethnic identity in that nation. However, except for tribal scarifications, which are permanent, such signifiers can easily be modified in different parts of the world where interactions between blacks and whites take place.

Hair and Skin Color as RacialIdentifiers

In Brazil, as in any other country of the African diaspora, hair is both an ethnic-identity marker and an indicator of beauty or ugliness. Historically, blacks have been discriminated against both in show business and the world of beauty, two spheres that have been particularly active in the construction of negative stereotypes associated with black phenotypes.

In Brazil, unlike the United States, it is skin colors and hair textures that are mainly used in defining the place individuals occupy in what might be called a racial classification table. For example, the term morena refers to a half-caste whose hair is smooth and curled, while mulato refers to a half-caste with kinky hair. Cabo verde refers to dark-complexioned persons with curled hair, which makes them resemble Indians. Such people are generally considered very beautiful by Brazilian standards. There are, of course, regional variants of this classification scheme.

Comparing the situation in Brazil with that in the United States, where racial classification is defined by lineage, Oracy Nogueira (1985) observed that racial discrimination in Brazil is based more on physical marksmeaning outward marks and appearanceand not on the racial origins of the individuals concerned. In Brazil, markers of racial identification are constantly used in daily interactions to indicate a person's closeness to or distance from other individuals, as well as similarities or dissimilarities with others.

Seen from this perspective, straightening one's hair in Brazilian society may not only be a beauty exercise, it can also be seen as an attempt to move up the racial classification scalethat is, to become less "black." Given the importance of hair in determining one's place in this racial classification, the black activist movements that rose to prominence in Brazil from the 1970s onward elected to use natural hairstyles as a symbol of racial affirmation.

The posture of the black Brazilian activists during that period was basically antagonistic by its very nature, for it was aimed at destroying the dual image constructed by Western society in which black was always associated with ugliness, stupidity, dirtiness, or other negative qualities. The objective of black activism was therefore to establish a standard that would go contrary to the existing one. So if the rule was to wear smooth, permed, and jerry-curled hair in order to disguise one's ethnic and racial identity, the counter-rule would be to show that one is proud of one's phenotype by not straightening one's hair (Olívia Cunha, 1991).

By proposing racial affirmation through the use of natural hair, black activists did not isolate the hair phenomenon from other elements, such as dress and makeup, that were part of the new aesthetic. However, the perming of hair had been in practice as a symbol of beauty and modernity at least since the late 1920s. Petrônio Domingues (2002) demonstrated this by uncovering newspaper advertisements published by blacks in São Paulo at that time. He also found that this same hair-straightening practice had at one time been condemned among women involved in Candomblé. This means that certain symbols consciously used in a given period to affirm racial identity may once have had other significations within the same society, or other connotations within different societies.

Blacks in the United States have used hair straightening or permanent curls for some time, even though these practices were criticized by important black leaders, including Malcolm X. Black activists in Brazil, however, have never considered such practices as taking away from their blackness.

In Brazil, hair dressing has always been extremely popular in the day-to-day life of black women. Many black women spend a considerable part of their earnings on making their hair "beautiful," and from a very young age, black women are socialized to wear their hair curled and permed. Among adults, some black women treat their hair because they are convinced that it makes them look more beautiful, while others justify the practice with the claim that treated hair is easier to manage in their day-to-day activities.

From the point of view of black activism, as pointed out elsewhere, hair is of utmost importance in Brazil in staking out one's ethnic identity. Many Brazilians claim that, of all the black phenotypes, hair stands out as the one that should be given attention as often as one wishes. They also believe that the method used in treating hair is dependent upon different factors, such as the occasion being prepared for, the cost of treatment, and one's financial situation.

Until the 1970s, options for hair treatment were very limited, with the most common being hair straightening with the aid of a hot comb, the use of henna leaves to color and straighten the hair, and the use of headgear or a turban. It is noteworthy that the head scarves used by women in the early twenty-first century no longer have the elegance of the elaborate headgear documented earlier by various travelers, with such scarves now serving more for concealment of the hair than for aesthetic purposes. The very few chemical products available in the past basically consisted of high soda concentrates, which demanded expertise in their application. They were therefore restricted to use by professional hairdressers, and they had to be purchased at specialized stores. By the 1980s, however, changes in the political situation in Brazil led to the further internationalization of its economy, which opened the way for the exposure of Brazilians to more modern hair products. This led to a wider variety of hair products and hair-treatment options.

Types of Hair Treatments

In trying to identify the diverse types of hair treatment from the 1990s onward, three distinct categories of hair-dressing professionals can be recognized: hot-comb specialists, hair-braid specialists, and hairdressers.

The hot-comb specialists employ a hair-straightening comb, a kind of flat iron that, when heated, serves to stretch the hair, thereby making the strands straighten out. The hair then looks as if it had gone through some type of chemical treatment. This kind of hair treatment is usually done in the kitchen of houses, and the customers that undergo such treatment usually come from the immediate vicinity. This hair treatment is the least expensive of the three techniques.

In the 1970s, partly due to the influence of the Black Power movement and the emphasis it placed on hair aesthetics, and partly due to the first black cultural movement in the city of Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia)

namely, the Ilê Aiyêthere was a revival of the use of braids by black women. Initially, the use of such braids was restricted to the period of Carnival, but as the years rolled by, the vogue among black women of wearing braids became more constant. In the state of Bahia, the Carnival association Ilê Aiyê plays an important role in the construction of a positive image concerning both the beauty of black women and the general affirmation of black identity. Even though the field has witnessed a boom in recent times, hair-braiding activities have always been a craft practiced mostly by women. Unlike their colleagues who work with the hot-comb, braiding professionals usually have a more expansive clientele, with some coming from outside the immediate vicinity, including white tourists.

The art of hair braiding has always required the use of human or artificial hair attachments, which are meant to add to the volume and length of the hairdo. The laws of supply and demand and the taste of clients has led to widely varying prices, and the process can be expensive. The hair attachments used for such operations originate from diverse sources. Natural human hair generally comes from India, while hair treated with chemicals generally comes from the United States. Synthetic braids are mostly obtained from Taiwan or China. However, the rise in demand for braid attachments has placed Brazil within the network of international braids markets, which is also a reflection of the dynamics of globalization.

One other important issue concerning hairdressing has to do with its naturalness. The quest for naturalness in hair treatments does not in any way signify letting go, in real terms, of products and technologies that modify the hair. Rather, the issue concerns the naturalness of the end resultthat is, the appearance. In essence, hair that is considered natural is that which does not betray the treatment it has undergone. Apart from appearance, what distinguishes naturalness from artificiality is whether or not chemical products have been employed. A good example is the fact that the use of kanekalon hair (a type of synthetic hair used to augment hair volume) makes one's hair less natural than if human hair attachments had been used.

When Soft Sheen, a multinational cosmetic industry, set up shop in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1980s, a range of hair relaxers and permanent afro-wave products were introduced to Brazil. To maintain such hair treatments, however, other products must be used to keep the hair looking wet. Besides being expensive, these products became scarce. This forced manufacturers, cosmetologists, and hairdressers to look for alternative Brazil-made products that are both less expensive and equally effective.

With regards to beauty products in general, the launching of the magazine Raça Brasil in September 1996 literally led to the discovery of a new black consumership. According to Roberto Melo, producer of the magazine, "the sales record attained by Raça Brasil gave the lie to three existing dogmas in the Brazilian editorial market: (1) that blacks did not have enough purchasing power to indulge in secondary consumer products; (2) that magazines that carry the pictures of blacks on their front covers would not sell; and (3) that black Brazilians are not proud of their racial origins" (Jornal da Tarde, October 13, 1996).

The astounding success of Raça Brasil (its premier issue sold 300,000 copies) served as a catalyst for the debate on the existence of specific products exclusively for the black consumer. More than anything else, the magazine Raça Brasil greatly contributed to the increased visibility of the black middle class by showing how much purchasing power the class controlled (see Fry, 2002).

Following the lead of Raça Brasil, other diverse print media have brought to the forefront the emergence of specific products for the black segment of the society. Curiously, even in the early twenty-first century, the discovery of the black consumer has been highly restricted to products meant for the body, such as creams, makeup, and cosmetics, and products for hair conditioning. In 2000 the Brazilian Association of the Personal Hygiene, Perfume, and Cosmetics Industry reported a growth of 60 percent in the market of products for black consumption, while the overall market for beauty and general cosmetic products only increased 11 percent. In early 2002 the daily newspaper Jornal da Tarde announced that in the previous year the Brazilian market for shampoo and hair-conditioning products generated R$680 [reais] million, while hair relaxers brought in another R$280 million. The production of the pioneering manufacturer Cravo & Canela ("clove and cinnamon"a popular way to refer to black and brown skin) grew dramatically, from a modest 20,000 units to 200,000 units in eight years.

In previous years, despite the fact that the products were consumed mostly by blacks, the manufacturers were still reluctant to put pictures of black people on their labels. By the late twentieth century, however, virtually all hair-care products available on the market, be they hair conditioners, relaxers, or even shampoos, either had images of black women on the label or the label explicitly stated that the product was made especially for use by black people.

According to the Brazilian press, there is a consensus concerning the greater preference of blacks in general (compared to white people) for the consumption of clothes and other objects connected to body care and physical appearance. The veracity of this alleged preference of black consumers for the acquisition of body-care products notwithstanding, after the launching of Raça Brazil, the beauty-products market for black people in Brazil grew as it never had before. Initially, it was the same traditional manufacturers that introduced cosmetic products specifically for black consumers, as was the case with the Davene and O Boticário companies. Later, manufacturers had to adapt their products to the standards of those that had come to be identified with black consumers, as was the case with Shen hair pomades, which are manufactured by Avon. Curiously, only recently did Avon start to openly appeal to black consumers in Brazil.

The emergence of an ethnically segmented market was propelled by the Umidfica manufacturing company, the pioneer in the domain of hair-care products in Bahia. Founded in 1994, Umidfica produces up to fifteen different hair-treatment products, fourteen of which are exclusively for black hair, while only one product is meant for all types of hair. Umidfica's mission has thus been different from that of manufacturers that offer specific products for consumption by blacks, especially as Umidfica originally set out to service the black sector of the economy. Only recently did its management think of diversifying by extending their products to the white sector as well.

The transformation undergone by the cosmetic market for blacks in Brazil has so far yielded two important trade fairs: Cosmoétnica and Étnic. The latter made its debut during the International Fair for Cosmetics and Afro-Ethnic Products in São Paulo in December 1997, while Cosmoétnica came on the scene in December 2000 with its first fair dubbed the International Trade Fair for Black Beauty, also held in São Paulo.

Black hair manipulation in Brazil shows the universal character of the black condition in different parts of the Americas, as well as the specificity of the Brazilian system of race relations, which is based on a color continuum that offers many opportunities for the individual manipulation of physical appearance.

See also Representations of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean


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