The beauty ideal in Cali, Colombia is extreme. It’s virtually unattainable, without a little help at least.
Cali’s a city renowned for salsa, violence and beautiful women. It’s not hard to understand why, to varying degrees, on all accounts. Beauty’s big business here and as far as I can see, the pressure is seriously on.
According to colombiareports.com a whopping 200,000 cosmetic surgery procedures are carried out in Cali every single year. With a population of 2.04 million residents, that equates to almost 10 percent of people having one cosmetic procedure per person, per year.1
The ideal Caleña (woman from Cali) is short and curvy with pale skin and poker straight black hair down to her ample butt. There are of course a variety of other beauty types but the prevalent one sought after by the majority is undoubtedly this. Nowhere else in Colombia have I seen such a specific interpretation of beauty aspired to and emulated on such a large scale.
A basic expectation of women in Cali is a good manicure. You’d be hard pushed to find a street without a nail salon. Lounges, balconies and porches all qualify, meaning low cost manicures are available anytime, any place. Caleña nails are always on point. The rest of the ideal look can be a little more complicated to attain.
‘Nearly $120 million is spent annually on plastic surgeries in Colombia, with much of the industry concentrated in the cities of Cali and Medellin. Over the past five years, the number of clinics in Valle del Cauca — of which Cali is the capital — has tripled to include 60.’1
In the same 2015 article, Colombia Reports stated that 4 women died from plastic surgery complications in Cali in 2015 and 7 in 2014.1
These statistics don’t seem to be deterring people from going under the knife though. whatclinic.com, a website providing details of medical professionals around the world, currently lists 83 different ‘clinics that provide plastic surgery’ in Cali alone.2 An extra 23 clinics since the report in 2015.
There’s a massive value on beauty here. In an environment where it’s perfectly normal to hiss, whistle and very visually ‘compliment’ passing women on their physical forms, how could there not be? The commonplace objectification in Cali is more extreme than I’ve experienced anywhere else. Gender roles are clearly defined here and there’s nothing odd or unusual about teenage girls twerking in school talent show performances while their peers and teachers look on.
When considered as an extension of the wider culture, it makes sense that plastic surgery is so popular here. But, in my opinion, it’s not the surgery that’s the problem.
Cosmetic surgery can be an amazing thing. It can reconstruct body parts after injuries or medical procedures, build confidence after years of insecurities and help people to be recognised by the world around them as the gender they’ve always been inside.
The problem here, as far as I can see, is the idea held by some that females should have enhancing surgeries as a standard requirement rather than a personal choice. If a woman feels obliged to go under the knife, and in this patriarchal society it is predominantly women who fall under these expectations, then that is an issue.
During a recent 9th grade class on the subject of ‘What makes you happy?’ my students discussed the subject in groups then shared their answers. One 14 year old girl told me, with no hint of irony or humour, that she will be happy when she gets her butt and boobs done like Nicki Minaj. Of all the things in her life she could list as making her happy, the prospect of modifying her body was all she considered to be the cause of her future happiness. In the context of very low-income families where dangerous backstreet injections and fillers are the only alternative to expensive professional procedures, this thought process becomes worrying.
I’ve been told the roots of Cali’s specific beauty ideal lie in the narco-trafficking days of the 80s. Within that environment, plastic surgery and quick ‘fixes’ to a woman’s appearance meant the opportunity of leaving her barrio behind and finding a way out of poverty. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I do know the pressure on young Caleñas to be considered beautiful seems much higher than any I’ve ever experienced.
These views are changing though. In an 11th grade class about future plans, the responses from some of my female students showed progressive attitudes to the gender roles they have seen played out by the women in their families. Their presentations showed futures involving complex and challenging careers; achieving their goals on their own merits. Many specified they will not live a life dependent on a man like their mothers have before them.
These students aspire to start their own businesses, study as doctors and become human rights lawyers. They are not considering themselves as just women, but as human beings with equal capabilities and opportunities as anyone else in life.
Cali’s infatuation with plastic surgery seems like a potentially dangerous environment for young girls and boys to grow up in. Some are developing ideas that they will only be truly happy once someone has carved them a new outline in this world. Hopefully the other viewpoint, that of the future female entrepreneurs, medics and lawyers will prevail. After all, they’re already so beautiful, not just because of their looks, but because of their intellect, creativity and love for life.
1Gruenwald, T. (2015) This year alone, 4 Cali women died from plastic surgeries. Available at: http://colombiareports.com/this-year-alone-4-cali-women-died-from-plastic-surgeries/ [Accessed: 03 September 2016]
2WhatClinic (2016) Plastic surgery Cali – find a better cosmetic surgery clinic in Cali. Available at: http://www.whatclinic.com/cosmetic-plastic-surgery/colombia/cali [Accessed: 04 September 2016]