On Bodies and Dictatorships

They all turn out the same. Illustration by Onel..

Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve spent months looking for a small-sized bra without padding and still haven’t found it at any store. If I were looking for a pair of comfortable, low-heeled sandals, I would have to set out on a similar odyssey, because platform shoes are now in style.

Fashion governs our lives, determines our tastes and tortures us, even when we choose to follow its dictates faithfully.

A neighbor of mine was talking about the last Miss Universe contest. A friend was showing her the pictures she had downloaded from the Internet. “A gorgeous Venezuelan won,” she was saying. “Now, that’s a body…”

The phrase reminded me of Miss Inc., a Canadian documentary I saw during the last Havana Film Festival. The film explores the beauty academies that thrive in Venezuela, institutions designed to train Miss Universe models.

These institutions take in anyone from four-year-old girls who are taught to walk in high-heels and put on makeup to young women who are convinced their destiny is to become Miss Universe. To achieve this, they have to be beautiful.

We’re not talking about any type of beauty. They have to adapt to standards that restrict individual freedom and promote uniformity. In most cases, accepting these codes entails frustration, low self-esteem and many sacrifices.

Women – and young men also, increasingly – live under the tyranny of beauty standards. From a very young age, our families, friends, the market and the mass media teach us what is feminine and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t, what is right and what is wrong – and whoever doesn’t toe the line will have to deal with the scorn of society, which does not tend to forgive differences.

Like beauty contests and publicity in general, these academies give more importance to a woman’s physical appearance than to their intelligence and idealize the body. Their victims want such an “ideal” body and become frustrated on realizing they have an “imperfect” physique.

To rectify this, there are extreme diets, gyms and surgeons. It was shocking for me to hear a former Miss Venezuela, today the owner of one of these academies, talk frankly and jokingly about a second nose job she had, because straight noses were now in style (whereas slightly upturned noses were in style some years back).

She talked about a part of her body like one does a dress that’s gone out of style. Plastic surgeries are risky procedures. In addition to the use of anesthesia – which can cause anything from a simple allergic reaction to death – hemorrhages and infections can always complicate the procedure.

Incidentally, in Venezuela, the highest authority in the world of fashion is a Cuban that everyone refers to as the Czar of Beauty. Osmel Sousa thinks beauty is wholly external, that what’s inside the body is horrible and he sees young women as upgradable little dolls.

He is the one who decides whether they are “fit” to become a Miss or not and guides them in their plastic surgeries, in short, the person who “manufactures” their perfection, so that they can be admired and desired.

Everyone is of course responsible for their own bodies and lives, but, when we are caught by the fashion industry, we cease being in control of our own desires and begin to try and realize the desires someone set down for women.

The dictatorship of beauty becomes fused to that of the market, creating a perfect couple capable of subjugating even the most unruly.

Hair dyes, makeup, nail polish, lingerie, clothing, shoes, jewelry, everything is designed to satisfy our “needs” and make us look “good”, to make us feel eternally unsatisfied with our bodies and to make us want to look like the ideal woman we see in beauty contests.

In Cuba, people are consuming more and more audiovisual products related to the beauty industry, show business and fashion.

Though there are isolated cases, there isn’t much of a plastic surgery craze here, for the medical establishment is controlled by the State. We don’t have large beauty academies that train women in phony gestures (to walk, smile, applaud and sit down) and that, governed by the international standard of the 90-60-90 body, annul all individuality to produce the same, ideal body.

Incidentally, we had a beauty contest at home at the close of 2013. I will tell you about this in a later post.


Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

15 thoughts on “On Bodies and Dictatorships

  • The Soviet Union represented 14.31% of the world’s economy in 1969 (highest point) and at the year of its dissolution (1991) only produced 3.58% of the world’s economy (lowest point). So while the GDP grew, it’s share of the world economy shrunk. The inevitable collapse of the economy resulted from the unsustainable nature of their Marxist-Leninist system. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the USSR was subsidized with cheap food from China (even while the Chinese people starved), in exchange for weapons for Mao’s army.

    To say the USSR “worked” is like saying Thelma and Louise had a working flying car. Their car flew for a little while …until it crashed.

    The Cuban system was subsidized by the Soviet Union but when that subsidy ended, the Cuban economy crashed hard. The Castro regime was saved by cheap oil from Venezuela, and an influx of tourism supported by dirt cheap Cuban labour. Today, remittances from the USA are brining in almost $2 billion a year, helping to keep the regime afloat. But artificially cheap oil, slave labour and remittances are not the basis of a real, working economy.

  • Cuba is a victim of all this fashion trends. I grow up listening to my friends wanting to dress like european tourists. Mixed and black people doing everything to have straight hair. Gorgeous woman painting their hair (yellow) blonde. All this to keep up with what we as cubans thought was beauty.

    I am glad nonetheless that we take care of ourselves a lot. Always try to dress well, to be clean and to wear perfume. But to my opinion it has been out of control lately, specially in men. I saw my childhood and school friends in my last visit last year (2013) and I saw extremely feminine (metrosexuals) guys with a very machista mentality. But oh well… beauty concept and metrosexualism should not be of interest, taking in consideration the so many issues my country has to solve.

  • Goodrich and Patterson, stop this crap. you two take every damn article and turn it into a political dispute over communism vs democracy b.s. & you end up going on and on and on…… to the point where the subject article is not even part of your comments. Paleeeeez, Stop, really.

  • I suggest you go to http://21stcentury socialism.com/article/the_soviet_model_and_the_economic_cold_war_01331.html
    for the source for my information, read it and tell me where I am wrong /provide your sources for your contentions.

  • Griffin,
    Do please check this out and tell me where the article has its facts wrong .
    Second , my imaginary country was a way of defining the basic of classic socialism and communism .
    You are absolutely correct in saying both that they are utopian and that neither system has yet to be implemented.
    Third, does the word “solace” also mean something other than giving comfort to a sad person ? ( I’ll look it up after I post this )

  • That should read “slave labour”, not solace.

  • Thank you Moses for finally answering my question .
    You have put yourself on record as denying that communism and socialism are democratic forms and are what the Soviet , Chinese, Korean, Cuban leaders said/say they are which are top-down totalitarian forms.
    IMO, this indicates one of two things:
    1) You never attended any classes in the subjects of socialism and communism above high-school level and have accepted the popular thinking that the Soviets et al were communists and not just people who called themselves communist while practicing anti-communism.

    2) you are being willfully ignorant ,i.e. you know that socialism and communism are democratic forms but choose to deny that fact to suit your purposes which, in the end , is to oppose democratic forms in the economy and in the government, in the world society .
    You can clarify , deny my thinking or not as you choose.
    I now KNOW where you’re coming from and no longer need to address this particular issue with you .
    Thanks, you’ve made my day .

  • My sympathy. We had a similar charismatic ruler who shared a birthday with Fidel. 13 August and now half of tiny Cyprus has sunk…..I know about how looks snobs peple are. In some countries looks help u eat presumably. Week of the loner wordpress…..

  • The USSR never had the 2nd largest economy in the world. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the largest 3 economies were the US, Japan and Germany.

    Secondly, the USSR didn’t work, their economy collapsed along with their Stalinist political system. What success they had was paid for by the solace labour of millions.

    To answer your question, I would call your imaginary country another utopian pipe-dream.

  • Your reasoning supporting a centrally planned economy is wrong and has been historically rejected. I have answered your silly question several times before. I would call the system you propose: Fantasy-nomics. It is not in our nature as human beings in a society of any significant size across several cultures and spread about geographically to work in this fashion. It boils downs to this: I like Pepsi and you like Coke. There is no logical reason a planned economy will produce both. One of us in that fantasy world of yours will accept the loss or fight the system to have our
    preference. That’s why we let the market decide as opposed to armchair ‘experts’ like you who would impose your will on others.

  • Thank you Irina for a very good commentary. Indeed, “the dictatorship of beauty becomes fused to that of the market”. Here in New York, advertising reflects a corporate “culture” obsessed with patriarchal images of beauty. You’d be hard-pressed to find a car ad, for example, or even an ad for pharmaceuticals, without a plastic Stepford wife female posing with the product for sale, or in some cases gritty males with well-chiseled bodies and a one-day stubble of beard. (They used to feature a cigarette dangling from one corner of the lip, like Jean-Paul Belmondo, but now cigarettes are a no-no, so they’ve substituted other “masculine” features for it.)

    The best of the New Left of the late 1960s and early 70s challenged those stereotypes, and created a counter-culture in which real people of all shapes and sizes were not only accepted but eroticized, and the corporate images of beauty denounced. Corporate culture, though, couldn’t accept women who refused to shave their legs or under their arms, even though that was pretty typical in parts of Europe. When the punk-rock singer Patti Smith produced an album cover with natural hair under her arms, there was a very strange tension between infatuation and repulsion; the album became a best seller. (The fact that her poetry and music were fantastic helped, of course.)

    There was and still is a craze among some — not in my circles, but it’s pretty pervasive on TV — for large-breasted women and shall we say “well hung” men. The internet is filled with crap trying to lure people into operations that will alter their bodies, as you point out. Marge Piercy wrote a classic piece in the 60s titled “Grand Coulie Dam” exposing such practices and consolidating some of the best arguments of the Women’s Liberation Movement. John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” looks at beauty historically, through great art and corporate media advertising. Both essays are still available, and still relevant.

    I’m interested in learning more about how all of this is playing out in Cuba, as the market, TV, and corporate standards of beauty become more accessible and eventually pervasive there. You point out that there isn’t much of a plastic surgery craze there — that’s great! But without a strong women’s liberation movement in Cuba to challenge the images marketed there as it expands, I fear that Cuba will go the same way as everywhere else that capitalism touches. And that aspect, at least, would be a crying shame, for one of the things I most appreciated about Cuba in my short visit there last summer was the “natural” beauty of the people I met, their non-pretentiousness, and an openness that would be destroyed by the corporate obsessions and masques that come with advertising and the images of beauty imposed by the capitalist market.

    Mitchel Cohen
    Green Party, Brooklyn New York

  • The fact remains that the Soviet economy grew from near zero to being the 2nd largest economy which clearly demonstrates that a centrally planned economy , no matter its totalitarian nature, easily outpaced any other capitalist system.
    Capitalist economies are chaotic and based upon production for profit and only peripherally, for need. For that reason alone , a centrally planned economy has to be far more efficient.
    Since my post requesting an answer to a question has gone away, I’ll take this opportunity to repeat the question:
    If the Soviets, Chinese, Cubans , Koreans were all socialist or communist and simultaneously totalitarian, what then would you call:
    1) an economic system in which the workers ( the majority of any country) control and operate both the economic system and the government from the bottom-up in a democratic ( majority-rule ) fashion ?
    2) a SOCIETY without a formal government in which the workers or the common people , the electorate control and operate that society from the bottom up in a democratic/ majority rule fashion ?
    Please do take the time to answer this so that I can fully understand your terminology ..

  • The Soviet Union grew to have the second largest economy in the world but it was never efficient nor highly productive. You, of all people, know that size is not the only important factor!

  • Soviet style socialism which was not socialism but rather a state run economy since it lacked a democratic , bottom-up base did, however, work very well, bringing the Soviet economy from near -total destruction at the end of WWII to being the #2 economy in the world.
    Isn’t it fortunate for you to have me around to correct your “facts” ?
    As for standards of beauty, they are and have been set by men
    and need to be revised by women .
    The fixation on large breasts is totally a male thing that comes and goes over time and which today borders on sociopathy .

  • Exceeded only by the Argentinians, Cubans are the most fashion-conscious Latinos. If Cubans had money, there would be no competition. It is for this reason, among many, that Soviet-style socialism, which barely worked for the Soviets would have never worked for Cubans. Cuban culture is too individualized and stylistic. Cubans love to ‘show off’ and the notion of being ‘equal’ is suffocating to a Cuban. Anyone who has Cuban friends in Havana knows Cubans who live in almost uninhabitable homes and apartments with empty refrigerators yet hit the streets dressed to the nines. When I lived in Havana few years ago, you would have thought Dolce & Gabbana were the UOD (uniform of the day) because nearly every Cuban under 50 had their names on some item of clothing. The “dictatorship” of fashion is in full control in Cuba.

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