Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some ideas about aesthetics in indigenous beauty contests in Latin America

When thinking about how bodies are socially and individually connected, I decided to make a short description of how these relationships influence the aesthetic perceptions in indigenous beauty contests.

The aesthetics characteristics of indigenous bodies today carry all the stereotypes contextualized by the others. They symbolize that “blood did not diluted” or in actual cases diluted to the extend that the “western” stereotypes of beauty must prevail over other phenotypical characteristics. Moreno (2007) describes this in her study Misses and Indigenous Pageants in the Ecuadorian Nation Building that “(…) indigenous bodies seem to be socially constructed as non desirable or unattractive. Beauty is not natural, but ideological; it has a certain type of face, certain features, hair texture, eye color, mouth and lips shape”(Moreno 2007).

The aesthetic stereotypes influence the concept of the self, and of Western notions of cultural identity: “privilege exotic body images as an index of authenticity. (…) Western images of Indians are the product of Western discourses. These images often say more about Westerners than about Indians and tend toward simplistic notions that do not encompass the complex realities of most native peoples' lives.” (Conklin 1997).

But these characteristics of the body as authentic of a certain "race" can also be transformed in powerful political discourses for defending identity and fighting typologies of discrimination, or at least producing new spaces that shape the tensions of categories of race. Recently, these indigenous beauty contests in Latin America have reestablished the idea of authenticity. The ultimate standard of evaluation consists of the level of authenticity they have. For instance, an indigenous national beauty contest in Guatemala, the Rabín Ahau, calls contestants from all parts of the country to compete based on the authenticity of their race, the authenticity of their typical clothing, their ability to express themselves in their own language and in Spanish and their authenticity in dancing (Moreno 2007).

This idealization of authenticity and its ultimate achievment of proving identity and ethnicity can also be observed in the recent scandal of Bolivia’s beauty contest Cholita Paceña in 2007. The aim of this contest is to elect the most beautiful, authentic and representative young Aymará woman in Bolivia. Last year, the winner of this pageant was disqualified because the braids that she wore were false, since part of the requirement is to wear “traditional” and “authentic” body accessories and styles. Again, it is possible to observe how this aesthetics of the body within race produces new arenas for constructing identity an idealization of otherness and the self.

I will end these reflections with a personal anecdote. I was chatting three months ago with two Colombian friends who are both grad students at UBC, and they told me that there are no indios in the region I am studying for my MA research. I asked them why they thought that, and they responded that the people who live there don’t dress like indios, don’t speak like indios and don’t live like indios, but most important, they don’t look or seem like indios, I tried to explain them in all ways possible how these stereotypes were produced, how these are relational categories, and I even tried to make a brief explanation about ethnicity and race, mentioning that indio is not an acceptable term, and taht they rather use indigena, but it is impossible to explain in 10 minutes to an already convinced audience the 500 or so years of historical processes of power and domination that created such perceptions, and that ultimately they are not representing themselves in terms that conform to outsiders' stereotypes of Indianness. I hope that they understand a little bit, just a tiny bit more about these complex processes after they read this.

-Conklin, B. A. (1997). "Body Paint, Feathers, and VCRs: Aesthetics and Authenticity in Amazonian Activism." American Ethnologist 24(4): 711-737.
-Moreno, M. (2007). "Misses y concursos de belleza indígena en la construcción de la nación ecuatoriana." Iconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales. 28.
-Elegirán a belleza indígena en Bolivia (June 16 2007)