Seven Miss Universe, six Miss World, seven Miss International, and two Miss Earth titles have made Venezuela one of the most famous countries in the beauty pageant world. In Venezuela, beauty pageants are similar to sporting events. Both men and women, children and adults, watch them every year. People cook, drink, and celebrate in front of the TV every time Venezuela comes up in one of these contests. Venezuela is a country where beauty and external appearance are highly valued by society. The beauty pageant culture has led to redefine what a woman should be and how she should look.
I hit puberty at a young age. I had my first period when I was 11, and my mother made a great deal out of it. She called many members of her family to tell them that I was a fully grown-up woman. I felt extremely embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had my period because I knew what it meant.
The common conception in most families is that if you’re “ugly” and “fat” before puberty, once you hit it, your body will change and you’ll become a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, my father’s sudden death in 2006 caused me to develop anxiety and depression. I turned to food whenever I felt sad. While most of my classmates were obviously changing physically “for the best,” they had big breasts, a small waist, and big hips, I was considered a chubby, ugly girl. I struggled with self-esteem issues for many years. I was also bullied because of how I looked. I tried very hard to take care of my hair, my face, and my appearance.
Nothing satisfied my mother.
In the fall of 2012, after years of enduring physical and emotional abuse, I moved in with Loraine. I started eating healthier types of food and exercising. In a short amount of time, I became a very slim woman. Not surprisingly, my male classmates realized this change in my body very quickly.
By the time I was 15, I was considered to be “sexy” and “beautiful.” These comments made me furious. The same people that bullied me and said horrible things were now attracted to me. This is when I understood that in order to be a beautiful woman in Venezuela you have to fit the standards imposed and reinforced by society. Venezuelan women’s bodies are regarded by both men and other women as mere vessels of beauty and sexuality. Loraine and I practiced martial arts for a couple of years and always received negative comments that link back to Venezuelan gender dynamics.
According to Venezuelan society, women are supposed to be delicate. It’s a man’s job to take care of and protect women. Whenever you see a woman capable of defending herself without the aid of a man, that woman is considered to be deviant. As women, we are supposed to do ‘feminine’ stuff like dancing ballet, modeling, or taking cooking courses. Any sort of behavior or act that defies the standards Venezuelan society has for us is seen as a challenge to our culture.
Gender expectations are extremely well defined in Venezuelan society. Women should be submissive, passive, and delicate. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be rough, dominant, and strict. Venezuelans live in a patriarchal society where machismo is prevalent. Most Venezuelan men will publicly express this machismo toward women with sexual remarks and dirty words that show how important sex appeal is in Venezuelan society. Women are legally equal to men in Venezuela. However, it is not socially egalitarian. College students, professional women, and businesswomen in Venezuela work very hard to look good and to dress to impress. My sister Loraine recalls what it was like to work with these type of women:
The company that I used to work for valued beauty above talent. In many cases, women would be promoted not because of their achievements but simply because of their looks. I was heavily criticized by my coworkers for being too masculine. I wore security boots because I had to work at an oil platform most of the time. They really thought I could do that in heels. I didn’t exaggerate my makeup, contrary to other women. That was seen as non-feminine, too.
During my second semester at the university in Venezuela, I decided to cut most of my hair and donate it to a local foundation devoted to kids with cancer. After I got my pixie cut, many girls started to approach me and asked for my number. Apparently, I had to be a lesbian because I had short hair. No one really cared about the fact that I cut my hair for a good cause. I wasn’t feminine anymore. I was met with comments such as, “You look like a man,” “That haircut is reserved for lesbians, I thought you were straight,” and the worse one: “This is how you want your family to know you’re a lesbian? By cutting all your hair?”
I didn’t cut my hair for the comments or to impress anyone, I did it for myself. However, the amount of hate I received for doing so continues to impress me nowadays. Loraine recalls how she went through something similar the first she cut her hair very short:
Our mother didn’t let me cut my hair. The same day I graduated from high school, I went to the hair salon and got a pixie cut. I remember that she was furious. Besides, I loved watching baseball games and boxing fights very late at night with our father. That wasn’t considered very feminine so she was against it. Also, she didn’t like the way that I dressed. I prefered wearing t-shirts and jeans over dresses or skirts. It was a nightmare for her! I feel like people in New Orleans don’t really care about how you look. In Maracaibo, people stare at you wherever you go. Here, people get annoyed if you look at them. Sometimes I feel like they’re disconnected from the world. In Venezuela there are a lot of expectations about how women should look like. You see hair salons in every corner in Maracaibo. Going to the hair salon here is super expensive. In Maracaibo many of my friends go twice or three times a week! Having long, straight, silky hair is a must in Venezuelan society. That’s what beautiful hair should look like over there. If you don’t like using makeup, you’re not feminine. If you don’t like long nails, you’re not feminine.
The only instances in which I’ve felt attacked because of my outside appearance in New Orleans have been due to comments made by other Latinos living here. I believe that these beauty standards are incredibly imbedded not only in Venezuelan but also Latin American culture. There are many expectations about how both men and women should look, talk, and feel.