Project coordinator criticizes the hegemonic aesthetic model and believes it encourages racial prejudice
by Leda Samara
On magazine covers, intelevision programs, on the catwalks, appear the most “beautiful”women in the country. The current aesthetic standards determine what a womanneeds to be beautiful and adorn in fashion magazines the examples to befollowed. For a woman of the “real life”, the obsession with losing afew pounds or letting impeccably straight hair become part of the routine. Butwhy this incessant search? Why is it so hard to accept?
Projeto Pixaim (ProjectNappy), conducted by the headquarters of the Mato Grosso* Central Única dasFavelas – CUFA** – works with the very questioning of current standards ofbeauty, encouraging the acceptance of black women’s hair. CUFA is aninternationally recognized organization, present in all Brazilian states and insome Latin American and European countries. The organization aims to developsocial actions to integrate the population of the periphery, made up of mostlyblack people. In an interview with Jornal Comunicação, the project coordinatorof the CUFA-MT, Neusa Baptista, talks about Projeto Pixaim.
Jornal Comunicação: What is the current standard of beauty and how does it promote prejudice?
NeusaBaptista: In Brazil, the classifications of race are definedby skin color and hair texture. It is the appearance, not the origin that counts.Although more than half of the population declares itself black, we still don’tsee black as the standard of beauty. Xuxa (1), Gisele Bundchen (2), Angelina Jolie (3) andother white beauties are always remembered when it comes to standards ofbeauty. On the runway, the white women stand out, as well as in fashionmagazines and even among children’s dolls. Although today one discusses areturn to the natural standard of beauty (some celebrities are choosing to bephotographed au naturel and there are discussions of a law requiringadvertising agencies to inform the reader when using Photoshop in photography),there is still a standard of beauty and it is white. Surely, this pattern feedsthe prejudice against all those who are outside of it; for black men and women,racial prejudice is still nourished since the black aesthetic is notcontemplated as a model of beauty.
Xuxa, Gisele Bündchen, Angelina Jolie
Jornal Comunicação: How important is it to discuss the acceptance of “nappy” hair?
Neusa: The kinky/curly hair is one of the marks of the black aesthetic, and along with skin color, is at the top of the items used to classify a person as black or other shades of color (morena, chocolate, mulatto, etc.)(4). To respond to the aesthetic appeal of the white standard – straight hair – many black women attack their bodies with the use of straightening formulas based on caustics,that degrade the hair and scalp, and act negatively on the self image of the woman. Straight hair is still the ideal of many black women and kinky/curly is seen as ‘problematic’, ‘bad’, ‘inadequate’, requiring some sort of modification to be socially accepted. The importance lies precisely in countering this type of thinking, bringing to the women options that value their hair and black culture.
Assuming identity isimportant in any situation. I don’t think you can be happy without it! Forblack women, using braids is often part of it. But I always say it’s a lengthyprocess, sometimes it takes a lifetime. For each time that one assumes thatAfrican identity, they have to deal with a great source of prejudice.
Jornal Comunicação: What activities doesthe project offer the participants?
Neusa:What’s happening today is the Pixaim Caravan. We will visit 30 cities in theinterior, with theatrical performances of the play “Cabelo Ruim (BadHair)”, in partnership with the Tibanaré Theatre Group. We will alsorelease and hand out the book “Cabelo Ruim (Bad Hair)?” to schoolsand workshops where African braids are done.
In addition, theProjeto Pixaim is, since last year, a Point of Culture, which has its activitiesin the Centro Esportivo e Cultural da CUFA-MT, em Cuiabá(Sports and Cultural Center of CUFA-MT inCuiabá***). Currently, it offers workshops in African braids and black dolls tothe women of community and neighborhood. Also there is a telecenter beingbuilt, a children’s reading corner and a sewing studio, which will be the pointof production of women trained in the workshop of black dolls.
Jornal Comunicação: How has the projectcontributed to the acceptance of black identity?
Neusa:The Project Pixaim works on the axis of self acceptance, appreciation of theblack aesthetic and encouraging entrepreneurship. We have seen among the womenattending that it functions in two ways: first by the critical training that isreceived in the workshops, by means of talks on topics such as identity,beauty, entrepreneurship, self-esteem, gender relations; and second, theacquisition of new knowledge (in braids or dolls) that allows them to initiatea new stage in their lives, generating income and also integrating the actionsof the Project, contributing to the Salon of Community Beauty or CommunityStudio. I think this contributes not only to the acceptance of the Africanidentity of the woman, but also their identity as a resident of the periphery,valuing both.
Jornal Comunicação: What other aspects ofAfrican culture should be valued to strengthen this identity?
Neusa:CUFA conducts projects that value a range of aspects of black culture, music,sports, handcrafts, graffiti, and aesthetics. I see this work as an appreciationof the realities of urban blacks and the culture of the ghettos. Thus, theidentity is strengthened. Many youth find themselves, rediscover themselves asdancers, graffiti artists, rappers or even as community leaders from theintervention of the work of CUFA.
Jornal Comunicação: Do you think theproject makes the participants change their concepts and question the hegemonicaesthetic values?
Neusa: That’s what we expect to happen. Changing concepts is a challenge, and largely depends on the person. What we encourage is that at least to stimulate the questioning of these standards. Then there will be room for changes.
We at CUFA feel that we can transmit to these women questions such as: Does a standard of beauty really exist? What is it? How do I fit in? What are the difficulties for those who do not fit in? Why is the black aesthetic not valued? They realize that the workshops of Project Pixaim are not like others, that it has a little more,both in content and in form, because we value the knowledge that the woman brings, everything is taught on the basis of the dialogue, the informality. I think it attracts and stimulates them.
* – Mato Grosso is a Brazilian state located in the western part of the country.
** – CUFA (Central Única das Favelas)is a Brazilian organization that is nationally recognized for its social,political and cultural work. One of its founders is the popular rapper MV Billand it was created as a unifying entity of mainly black favela youth in searchof spaces to express their attitudes, questions and develop paths in life. CUFApromotes activities in areas of leisure, education, sports, culture, graffiti,literature and Hip Hop.
*** – Cuiabá is the capital city of the state of Mato Grosso
1. Xuxa (Maria da Graça “Xuxa” Meneghel), is a Brazilian television actress, singer and children’s television show host. Her various shows have been broadcast in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. She is the richest woman in Brazil, her fortune is estimated at US$ 1 billion.
2. Gisele Bündchen is a Brazilian model and has been the highest-paid model in the world (since 2004) and is the sixteenth richest woman in the entertainment industry (since 2007) with an estimated fortune of $70 million.
3. Angelina Jolie is an American actress and one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses.
4. Anthropologist Nilma Lino Gomes has done extensive research on the significance of hair in the construction of black identity in Brazil. She notes how a negra can instantly become a mulata by simply changing her hairstyle. Hair weaves and extensions have become more and more popular amongst Afro-Brazilian women as the price becomes more affordable. Gomes herself notes that when she wears her own hair in its natural state or in braids, white and black men refer to her as crioula, negra or negona. When she wears the weave, men call her morena, morena linda (pretty brown-skinned girl) or mulata.