This month, a Bloomberg headline labeled the popular Brazilian butt lift (BBL) “one of the deadliest cosmetic surgeries,” echoing similar headlines in the New York Times and the Guardian over the past two years. A 2017 study published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal found that two out of 6,000 BBLs resulted in death. This number largely stems from the high demand for BBLs, which has led to some unqualified or underqualified physicians and others with limited surgical training doing this work within a loosely regulated system. BBL, or Gluteal Fat Grafting procedures, removes fat tissue from around the waist and injects it into the same patient’s buttocks to form an hourglass figure.
While this figure is viewed as highly desirable across the globe today, the BBL procedure and its connection to its namesake in Brazil has a long history rooted in anti-Blackness. In fact, we can locate the fixation with the BBL and the body it promotes at least as far as back as the abolition of slavery in Latin America’s largest country. Brazil is also home to the largest population of African-descended people outside of the African continent.
After slavery’s abolition in 1888, White Brazilian elites, most of whom were descendants of Portuguese colonists, had a conundrum. They dreamed of building a White nation, shaped by a concept of progress understood as being tied directly to Whiteness. But Brazil’s population of African descent far outnumbered its White population.
White elites latched on to the growing eugenics movement, which was taking off around the globe, as a potential solution. Eugenics aimed to “improve” the population according to elite White standards. In Brazil, eugenic policies included the imprisonment and sterilization of certain groups and other measures.
White Brazilian elites hoped eugenics could help them achieve a form of what they saw as racial progress by making Brazilians of color more like White Brazilians, physiologically and culturally.
The prominent eugenicist Renato Kehl argued that plastic surgery was “the cure to ugliness.” He focused largely on women’s bodies, specifically on sagging breasts, wrinkles and especially what he and other surgeons to this day called the “Negroid nose.” His vision of improving women’s bodies involved reshaping them to conform to an elite White vision of beauty. This thinking helped create a plastic surgery industry in Brazil that had anti-Blackness embedded at its core.
There were similar pseudoscientific debates surrounding miscegenation, or interracial reproduction. During the height of the eugenics movement in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, eugenicists like Raimundo Nina Rodrigues viewed interracial reproduction as undesirable because they believed it corrupted Whiteness. Others, however, thought it could serve as a way of “diluting” Blackness over generations — and with it, what Whites saw as undesirable traits. Kehl and others again saw a role for plastic surgery in trying to purge these traits. Surgery could fix the aesthetic “problems” of centuries of miscegenation by reconstructing bodies to conform to White standards of beauty.
Over the first half of the 20th century, many intellectuals and politicians came not only to support miscegenation, but to celebrate it. This celebration effectively became a propaganda tool to erase racial consciousness and drive the diverse people of Brazil to see themselves as “Brazilian.” Different political regimes used this populist rhetoric for their strategic needs, as was the case with Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship (1937-45), which made Carnival a national holiday to celebrate the country’s multiracial formation. These politicians touted race-mixing as integral to the formation of an exceptional post-racial Brazilian society.
The embodiment of this celebration of racial mixture was a new national symbol for Brazilians to embrace: a hyper-sexualized mixed-race Black woman known as the mulata. The mixed-race woman, or the White fantasy of her, became both the embodiment of the new national myth and the sexual and reproductive mechanism for race-mixing that would whiten the population by reducing or diluting the Black population.
The media and popular culture during the 1960s and 70s featured the mulata as a light-skinned Black woman possessing the body type that is marketed today as desirable throughout the world: an hourglass figure with a thin waist, wide hips and protruding buttocks. This image was popularized abroad in the 1970s and 1980s through films like “Gabriela” (1983) and even by the Brazilian tourism board, Embratur, including a nearly hour-long promotional film titled “Carnival in Rio” (1983). That film found actor Arnold Schwarzenegger traveling to Brazil “to learn about the Carnival triple-threat: “the bunda (buttocks), the mulata and the Samba.” Intellectuals, writers and others declared Brazilian women’s buttocks “the national passion” or “national preference” in terms of sexual desire and desirable body type.
This body type is ubiquitous today in the sexualization of women’s bodies in Brazil, with entire beauty pageants dedicated to the buttocks. This is the case of the annual Miss Bumbum contest, in which 27 women representing each Brazilian state compete against one another for the title of best buttocks in Brazil. They generally all possess the same hourglass figure and are White or light-skinned.
The popularization of this racialized image drove women to plastic surgery. In mainstream Brazilian television and magazines, including many dedicated to plastic surgery, surgeons rejoice in its success — not unlike eugenicists did decades ago. One noted that “the butt of the Brazilian woman is, without a doubt, the most successful in the world …[due to] that marvelous mixture of races.”
This nationalist rhetoric crystallized in the form of the buttocks becoming a marketing tool for surgeons in Brazil and around the world, lending aesthetic credibility to the surgeon and the results. Brazilian surgeon Ivo Pitanguy is credited as the pioneer of the procedure and the first to teach it to other surgeons at the training center he founded in 1960. At that point, “Brazilian” became the operative adjective in the procedure’s name.
BBL’s popularity and the body type it promises reached U.S. and global popular cultures by the late 1990s and early 2000s through the sexualization of megastars of color like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, as well as those who appropriated that image in their building of stardom, such as Kim Kardashian.
Their stardom made this distinct body type a product to be attained and consumed. Many non-Black women turn to the procedure in their “blackfishing,” or their broader efforts to appropriate Blackness or pass, even temporarily, as Black, often for financial gain on social media. In the age of social media brand-building, individual users tap into these standards and cosmetic procedures to monetize large followings, also known as clout-chasing.
As such, the demand for the procedure is exceptionally high. With surgeons overburdened by demand in doctor’s offices and other medical settings, there has been an increase in procedures conducted by unlicensed “doctors” and others, including cases in which patients have been injected with unsafe and toxic materials, such as cement and caulking.
Today, as in the past, it is women of color who suffer the consequences of the culture around BBL and its anti-Black history. The confluences of racial, gender and economic marginalization render Black women more vulnerable to receiving unlicensed treatment or surgery, for example. While non-Black women often reap the benefits of the body type promised by the BBL, Black women may be socially and economically punished for it in a world that condemns Blackness and demands that Black women maintain “respectable” appearances, which often stands in for White, middle-class presentation.
The high demands for the Brazilian butt lift — and those seeking to capitalize on that demand, even if they are unqualified to offer them — have rendered it one of the most dangerous procedures. The history of the BBL reveals striking similarities in the White fantasies for controlling and consuming Black women’s bodies, both then and today.