Race, beauty, representation and black invisibility: how two recent beauty contests represent Brazil’s racial ideology

Elisa Freitas was recently elected Miss Florianópolis 2013
Elisa Freitas was recently elected Miss Florianópolis 2013

Note from BW of Brazil: Two beauty contests, two different states, and two different histories serve as good examples of Brazil’s historical racial ideology. In the southern state of Santa Catarina, 24-year old Elisa Freitas was elected to represent her city, the capital of the state, Florianópolis, in the upcoming state competition. Meanwhile in Bahia, in the country’s northeast region, a beauty contest that was narrowed down to 30 contestants out of more 700 registrations, caused a stir for a different reason. First, let’s get to the details of what happened. Following is how the two events were reported.

Elisa Freitas is Miss Florianópolis 2013; she will represent the capital city in the Miss Santa Catarina Contest

Miss Florianópolis 2013 contest
Miss Florianópolis 2013 contest

The Municipality of Florianópolis through the Secretaria Municipal de Turismo (Municipal Secretariat of Tourism or SETUR), held last Monday, May 13th, in the UBRO Theater Miss Florianópolis 2013 Contest. Elegance, beauty, kindness and agility on the catwalk were some of the requisites analyzed by the judges. The  Florianópolis native and student of Advertising, Elisangela Freitas Costa, was elected Miss Florianópolis 2013. Elisa will represent the capital city of Santa Catarina in the Miss Santa Catarina Contest which will be held on May 30 and June 1 in the cities of Itajaí and Balneário Camboriú.

Elisa Freitas with Florianópolis mayor César Souza Junior
Elisa Freitas with Florianópolis mayor César Souza Junior

Mayor Cesar Sousa Jr. received the 2013 Miss Florianópolis, Elisa Freitas, in his Cabinet. “Congratulations for the title and we are rooting for you to win the State Competition,” said the mayor. More than 30 candidates participated in the contest, but only eight candidates were in accordance with the State Contest Rules. 

Meet the 30 candidates for Miss Bahia 2013; the final of the contest will be held on May 25th in Salvador

30 candidates of the Miss Bahia 2013 contest
30 candidates of the Miss Bahia 2013 contest

The traditional Miss Bahia contest has already chosen its finalists. The 30 state representatives, 11 from the capital of Salvador and 19 from the interior of the state, were chosen from more than 700 registrations. The final of Miss Bahia takes place on May 25th at the Sheraton Hotel in Salvador. In July, the representative of Bahia will face other competitors in Rio de Janeiro and will have the chance to be voted the most beautiful woman in Brazil.

Note from BW of Brazil: OK, so two beauty contests, what’s the big deal, right? Take a look at the photos. On the surface without any historical or demographic information that’s probably how anyone would react to the news and photos. But consider this background data. The black population of the city of Florianópolis is only 12.6% and the state where the city is located, Santa Catarina, in the south of the country, is only about 11.7% black. On the other hand, the northeastern state of Bahia was last estimated to have one of the three largest populations of black Brazilians in the country, 76.2%. Thus, in Florianópolis where persons of African descent are an extreme minority, a black woman will represent the city in the state competition, while in Bahia, where persons of African descent are the overwhelming majority, it seems that a large majority of the 30 participants are not visibly black. Here, it is necessary to say “not visibly black” because, when one considers Brazil’s long history of miscegenation, any of the women in the photo could have African ancestry even having a more European appearance. Take a look at closer photos of the 30 participants below.

Contestants of Miss Bahia 2013 contest
Contestants of Miss Bahia 2013 contest



The low representation of black women in the contest outraged many internet users. Here’s how the controversy was reported at one site:

Small number of black participants in Miss Bahia 2013 generates discussion on the internet

by the newsroom of Lifestyle Virgula

The contest to choose Miss Bahia 2013 mobilized internet users and the public that lamented and contested the small number of black candidates, as shown in the photo. According to the Lifestyle website, a petition was released on the website Change.org requesting an immediate explanation from the contest organizers and also proposing a change of the judges, the formation of a supervisory committee, efforts to increase the representation of black girls and a review of standards beauty adopted by the current panel of judges.

“The ethnic representation of finalists leaves no doubt that there is an obvious preference for a biotype on the part of the judges. So let’s do justice for all the beautiful black girls, they have the right to dream of one day being Miss Bahia. Or Miss Brazil and who knows, Miss Universe. Let’s sign so that the face of Miss Bahia 2014 is very different,” says the petition.

However, there are those who do not agree with the proposals. Some feel it is an exaggeration. Others go further and accuse the authors of the petition of committing racism, only by other means.

“You’re a racist! Why? Does Bahia have only blacks? Want do you what? Apartheid? Let’s just leave Bahia as only black and only white in Rio Grande do Sul? Of course a white girl can represent Bahia, because she is a Bahian citizen in the same way! You are a racist in reverse,” someone wrote on petition’s page itself.

“Do they want quotas for what people think is beautiful or not? Do they want quotas for how people feel or not? They want quotas so that people feel horny or not? Quotas for my subjectivity? You’re nothing but Nazis! Afronazis! They want to subject a whole nation to its inferiority syndrome,” wrote read another comment.

The blog Acid Black Nerd made an analogy of the contest with the system of quotas for blacks in universities: “If the composition of the contest was established by racial quotas, at least 24 candidates of Miss Bahia would be negras (black women) or pardas (brown women),” (1) writes the author.

Note from BW of Brazil: A little background on some of the comments from above. The discussion of black representation in all areas of Brazilian society has intensified since the turn of the century perhaps spurred on most by the implementation of quotas to make a college education more accessible for Brazil’s population of African descent. While Brazil has long seen and promoted itself as a “racial democracy”, literally hundreds of studies since the 1950s have proven a deep racial divide in the country. The affirmative action system has forced Brazilians to discuss the topic of race more openly since the abolition movement between 1850 and 1888, the same year that slavery actually ended in Brazil. What continues to amaze this writer is the way that people seem to totally ignore the depths of black invisibility in Brazil. Speaking of Bahia, the 76% black state routinely chooses candidates and winners of a decidedly more European phenotype to represent the state in national competitions so this is not an isolated incident.

Miss Bahia winners, 2012 - 2007: Top (left to right): Bruna Diniz, Gabriela Marcelino, Rafaela Marques. Bottom (left to right): Paloma Garzedim, Daniela Valadão Pinto, Renata Marzolla
Miss Bahia winners, 2012 – 2007: Top (left to right): Bruna Diniz, Gabriela Marcelino, Rafaela Marques. Bottom (left to right): Paloma Garzedim, Daniela Valadão Pinto, Renata Marzolla
Miss Miss Florianópolis winners 2012-2007. Top (left to right): Manoella Deschamps, Ariella Carioni Engelke, Alessandra Savero. Bottom (left to right): Juliana Lohn, Cassia Hipolito, Jaqueline Aranha
Miss Miss Florianópolis winners 2012-2007. Top (left to right): Manoella Deschamps, Ariella Carioni Engelke, Alessandra Savero. Bottom (left to right): Juliana Lohn, Cassia Hipolito, Jaqueline Aranha

As you can see in the photos above, in the previous six competitions for both the state of Bahia and the city of Miss Florianópolis, a woman of visible African ancestry won the crown only once. Even as one goes further back one in these competitions, the results for a city that is only 12.6% black and a state that is 76.2% black are usually the same. One could actually understand how the city of Florianópolis and also the state competitions of Santa Catarina are usually represented by white women, but how does one explain the over-representation of white women representing 76% black Bahia and also, I might add, often also representing the 80% black capital city of Salvador, a city known as “Black Rome”? This can only be understood in the context of the national beauty competitions and the country’s political agenda for its ethnic representation.

In more than 50 years of the Miss Brazil contest, only one black woman has ever worn the crown. And this doesn’t speak of the overwhelming whiteness of Brazil’s media in general and the experiences with racism that black beauty contestants encounter when they do get further than expected (See here the stories of Apelonice Lima, Vera Couto dos Santos and Emanuela de Paula for example). And that’s just in the area of beauty contests. There is, after all, a reason why now, in the 21st century, there is still a need to proclaim someone to be the “first black woman” to accomplish something in Brazil.

But this recent open display of black invisibility is not just something that happened this month. There is a historical precedence that one has to understand when dealing with this topic in Brazil.

Historically speaking, different images of what a typical person from Santa Catarina or Bahia looks like would come to any Brazilian’s mind when thinking of the two states. Bahia is considered the center of Brazil’s vibrant African cultural traditions and largely black, while Santa Catarina is considered to be an extension of Europe in the tropics. And what is the origin of these differing images and populations? Well, in the case of Bahia, during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the capital city of Salvador was a major port of entry receiving more than 1.2 million of the estimated 4-5 million Africans that were shipped to Brazil. Overall, the country received 38% of about 12 million Africans distributed throughout the Americas and around 10 times more than the 450,000 sent to the United States.

State of Bahia in Brazil's northeast
State of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast

With slavery being practiced throughout the Americas, the ideal model of civilization was attributed to Europe while Africa was associated with all things barbaric in a racist “civilizing white”/”primitive black” comparison. As Carlos Augusto de Miranda e Martins (2012) explains:

“for national elites of the 19th century, the big problem was the negro. Even before the penetration of scientific European racism in Brazil, the images of the immoral, plaintive and ignorant that had been constructed in the colonial period were already sufficient in order that many attributed to the slave, and not to slavery, the cause of Brazilian backwardness in relation to Europe.”

In the minds of these elites, there was no way that a nation could prosper being composed in its majority by people of color. Thus, the solution was European immigration as it would bring to Brazil, “individuals of a race that was considered superior and more predisposed to free labor” that would replace the nation’s slave workforce and also bring the desired whitening effect that was so urgently desired (Martins 2012).

To assure the “embranquecimento” (whitening) of the country’s population, Article 1, Decree no. 528 of July 1890 decreed that persons from Africa or Asia could only enter the country through authorization by the National Congress, thus in essence, “prohibiting undesirables” and opening the country’s doors to Europeans (Martins 2012). According to Martins, “what was at play was the implementation of a eugenics policy that sought the physical elimination of the black and mixed races, guaranteeing, thus, the prevalence of the white race in the conformation of Brazil society” (Martins 2012). With the mass influx of European immigrants and the spread of the idea that blacks could “improve their race” through inter mixture with whites, prominent elites began to predict the imminent disappearance of all traces of African ancestry from the midst of the country.

Thus, in the 19th century, Brazilian elites realizing that the abolition of slavery was only a matter of time, developed policies that would whiten a population that was estimated to be 62% non-white in 1872. Between the years 1880 and 1930, about 5 million European immigrants, mostly of Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and German descent, entered the country with a large majority settling in the most southern states of the country, Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul. Today, 79.6% of the residents in these three states define themselves as white. The whiteness that is associated with these three states are the result of an “interest of disseminating in Europe a civilized and whitened image of a country that always was described by Europeans as a piece of Africa in the Americas” (Martins 2012).

Top to bottom: Southern Brazilian states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul
Top to bottom: Southern Brazilian states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul

In reference to these three states, various studies demonstrate that the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul have had a friendly rivalry over the years for the title of “whitest state” in the country.  The idea was that “blacks had a rare, inexpressive or insignificant presence due to an “absence of a large slave-based system” (Leite 1996). This same argument also applies to the state of Paraná. The argument also follows that these states, being the whitest of the country, were also the most “civilized” and “advanced” and thus most resembling countries of the “first world” in a Brazil that struggled with its Third World status for much of the 20th century. This ideal that southern Brazil is a “different Brazil” has from time to time also led to calls from segments of the populations of these three states to secede from the rest of the country.

Today, when one looks at the image that Brazil sells of itself through its media, it is clear that the desire of Europeanizing the country is still a work in progress. Looking back on the representations of the beauty contests in Bahia and Florianópolis through this historical perspective it is easier to understand the forces at play. In the case of Florianópolis, southern Brazil is already recognized as a piece of Europe in Brazil thus a black woman winning this contest doesn’t jeopardize the image of the region, which remains white. Bahia, on the other hand, as well as other states in the northeast of the country, is a constant reminder of the country’s non-white roots, thus it is always necessary to try to put a “white face” on the region’s “black body.”

Sources: VirgulaPrefeitura Municipal de Florianópolis, JusBrasil, Leite, Ilka Boaventura. “Descendentes de africanos em Santa Catarina: invisibilidade histórica e segregração”. In: Leite, Ilka Boaventura (editor). Negros no sul do Brasil — invisibilidade e territorialidade. Ilha de Santa Catarina/SC: Letras contemporâneas, 1996. Martins, Carlos Augusto de Miranda. “Racismo científico e os projetos políticos de nação brasileira” in As veias negras do Brasil: conexões brasileiras com a África. Lourdes Conde Feitosa, Pedro Paulo Funari e Terezinha S. Zanlochi (editors). Syllabus, 2012


1. In Brazil, negros (blacks) are considered persons who declare themselves to be preto (black) or pardo (brown) either personally or in an official capacity such as the census or entering a federal university through the system of affirmative action. For more detail about the pretos and pardos making up Brazil’s black population, see here.

About Marques Travae 3413 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. I was very happy to find this frank, balanced and informative post. So much unthinking fear usually motivates hysterical comments in discussions on this matter. Many Brazilians I speak with have no access to the long and profound discussion about race that the US has had throughout my lifetime (I was born in the US in 1969). Europeans also surprise me with how unfamiliar they are with these issues — and so it’s no surprise that the EU is plagued now by right-wing racist groups battling with leftists. Brazil will probably avoid the politicization of these issues that the EU is facing, but that leaves this important discussion in the hands of responsible people like the writers behind Black Women of Brazil. Which means your work is incredibly valuable — keep it up!!!

  2. Yes. Keep it up! As an African- American I always love reading factual as opposed to emotionally based exposes of this sort of stuff. Shame on those who would rather avoid the the elephant in the living room with these see through claims ‘can’t a white woman represent her state?’ Well of course she can but that right there, 60 finalists out of 700 entrants from a pool that is 76% of African descent and you end up with 5% African representation (from my glance at the pics).. Ummm yes. There is something fishy about those numbers. Some variable is out of wack.

  3. I commend you on a very well written post. I wonder if this representation can be extended beyond Brazil, would the statistics be similar? I would like to point out that the perception of lighter pigments as being favorable permeates all societies; African, Asian, European, and American. What does the representation of candidates look like in Nigeria, for example?

  4. I’ve had frank discussions with black – and I suppose not so black Brazillians (honestly, they would all pass for black in America) here in the states. What I found most encouraging, is the fact that black Brazilians are suddnely not so ashamed to be called black. Before people would bend over backwards to assert that they aren’t black, even though it was obvious they were.

    What I always thought would help bring black Brazilians into the forefront of society, was a civil rights type movement that we had during the 60s in America. Granted, I’m not referring to the violence – but moreso an awakening and a proud to be black Brazilian type movement. Its happening, slowly but its there. I’m happy and proud to see it.

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