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.