Race, Color, and Beauty in Brazil

by Deanne Walters

First Flag of the United States of Brazil (Nov...

First Flag of the United States of Brazil (November 19, 1889 – April 14, 1960). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brazil is a country with a long history of racial mixing, so the common system of classification for people is not one by race, but one by color. The three main categories that are used in the census are white, brown, and black. Even with the long history of mixing there are still benefits given to people with lighter skin and beauty is racialized.

To start off by looking at economic disparity can show how race and color play out in a society. When looking at economic benefits, in 1980 people who were black in Brazil made only 40 percent of what someone who was white made, and someone who was brown made only 44 percent. Looking at the data from the 2010 census there is a similar divide. Someone who was black earned 48 percent of someone who was white and someone who was brown earned 49 percent.* People in economic power often reinforce that privilege in other ways, such as with beauty.

So there are clearly economic benefits for being white, but are there also benefits in terms of beauty? This is where race still plays a part; facial features and hair are racialized often with white features and hair being seen as more beautiful than black features and hair.  Brazil does promote the ideas of a mixed race person being seen as beautiful in Brazil, but it only goes so far. While people with darker skin tones are seen as beautiful they are still held to the western standards in other regards such as with hair and facial features.

An example of how this manifests is with plastic surgery. When looking at why people get plastic surgery they are trying to make themselves more beautiful, but the kind of features they are going for is more similar to someone who is white; the features that they are getting surgery on are often the one they think they get from their nonwhite parents or grandparents. So while Brazil promotes this myth of mixed race beauty. The reality is that this myth just reinforces very similar beauty standards with a slightly different skin tone.

*Disclaimer I analyzed this data myself and did not control the data for other factors, so it can give  a rough idea of the situation, but the actuality may be slightly different.


Edmonds, A. (2007). ‘The poor have the right to be beautiful’: Cosmetic surgery in neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(2):363-381.

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística [The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics] (2010). Tabela 1.3.5 – Pessoas de 10 anos ou mais de idade, por cor ou raça, segundo o sexo e as classes de rendimento nominal mensal – Brasil – 2010. Retrieved from http://ftp://ftp.ibge.gov.br/Censos/Censo_Demografico_2010/Resultados_do_Universo/Resultados_preliminares_sobre_Rendimentos/tabelas_pdf/tab1_3_5.pdf

Telles, Edward. 2009. The social consequences of skin color in Brazil. In Shades of difference: Why skin color matters (pp. 9-24). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.