Last time I was in my native Caracas, a couple of years ago, I was shocked by how ubiquitous cosmetic surgery had become among women.
Since then, I have given some thought to the plausible origin of the trend and was surprised to find myself in agreement with what William Neuman’s recent piece for the New York Times has to say about it.
The reason I was surprised is that unlike most analyses of this sort, which tend to assume a false dichotomy between social and economic problems, Neuman’s piece addresses the structure of Venezuela’s economy as a key causal factor:
“… the same resource that the government relies on — the world’s largest estimated petroleum reserves — has long fed a culture of easy money and consumerism here, along with a penchant for the quick fix and instant gratification.”
Still, what the piece doesn’t do is apply Occam’s Razor thoroughly enough to clarify the role of oil as the fundamental cause of Venezuelan women’s particularly aggressive fixation with plastic surgery.
For instance, Neuman quotes Lauren Gulbas, a feminist scholar and anthropologist at Dartmouth College, who has studied attitudes toward plastic surgery in Venezuela, saying that,
“There’s this notion in Venezuela of ‘buena presencia,’ ‘good presence’… that communicates that you have certain aspects that say you are a hard worker, a good worker, an honest person …. there’s a virtue associated with looking a certain way.”
But while Neuman points out oil as as the plausible main cause of the phenomenon, the culture of easy money, consumerism and instant gratification that he claims it creates is not sufficient to explain the fixation of women with cosmetic surgery rather than with any other status good. And I frankly don’t understand how Gulbas concludes that the reason women choose to enlarge their breasts, inflate their buttocks and thicken their lips is to signal they are honest, hard workers — clearly, the main reason they want to perform this sort of changes to their bodies is to enhance their sexual attractiveness.
The clearest consequence of the enormous power that the state has historically accumulated through the oil monopoly in Venezuela is, unsurprisingly, a particularly strong capacity to control and distort every aspect of the economy and, increasingly, foreclose avenues for people to pursue genuinely economic means to wealth.
Now, the foremost non-economic means to wealth in such conditions are political. But because these are necessarily few in comparison to the economic opportunities that would prevail in a free market, people will also increasingly seek to affiliate as close as possible with those who have a more direct access to political power. One effective way to create such affiliations is through marriage.
Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that people engage in all-out, zero-sum, arms-race style competition to increase a perceived attractiveness to the opposite sex. In the case that they don’t succeed in the high-stakes, risky game of the political means to a comfortable standard of living, the second-best alternative is to marry one who does.
(As a side note, that such highly stereotyped standard of physical attractiveness prevails in Venezuela starkly contradicts the mainstream progressive notion that such stereotypes are created by free markets.)
And there would be no reason to expect women to be more prone than men to fall into this social dynamic if it weren’t for the inescapable grip of patriarchy, which slants economic opportunities in favor of men to the detriment of women even in the absence of the rocambolesque obstacles created by economic policies like those currently in place in Venezuela.
There’s a prejudiced notion both in and out of academic circles that might lead some to argue that the whole thing boils down to machismo, a term frequently used to denote the supposedly stronger patriarchal nature of Latin American cultures when compared to other Western societies.
But patriarchy is as pervasive as it is a perverse, universal social legacy. And while many other social factors might strengthen its pathological consequences, statist economies put them on steroids. In Venezuela, or elsewhere.
Alan Furth is an economist, entrepreneur and freelance writer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.