For the girls and young women who compete in Venezuela’s beauty pageants — or those who aspire to — beauty is more than skin deep.
Venezuela may be thought of as one of the most beautiful countries in the world when it comes to producing pageant queens. Six Miss Worlds, seven Miss Universes, six Miss Internationals and two Miss Earths have all come from the South American country.
But winning these titles comes at a serious price for these girls and those who are younger than the average pageant contestant. Cosmetic procedures like butt injections, breast implants and nose jobs are commonplace among the country’s crowned and wannabe titleholders.
Many women use chemical peels, Botox and other cosmetic procedures as they age. But these treatments are big business, and in 2013 alone, more than 10.3 million cosmetic procedures were performed, amounting to 90.6% of total procedures performed for that year.
Yet the girls in Venezuela who want to win big are doing more than getting facials and laser treatments. Girls as young as 12 who attend the country’s modeling schools have been told to get butt lifts or nose jobs, and 16-year-olds have been advised on getting breast implants if they want to compete.
For weight loss procedures, it gets even weirder and more painful: some girls have had their lower intestines removed in order to process food faster.
One 2013 Miss Venezuela contestant, Wi May Nava, admitted to the BBC that she had plastic mesh sewn to her tongue to keep her from eating solid foods; she went on a liquid diet to lose weight. She’d also had breast implants, cosmetic dental work and rhinoplasty to help her compete.
Girls as young as eight or nine years old are even injected with hormones by their parents, so they can delay puberty and grow taller.
About 600 of the young women in the country who dream of winning a pageant attend Belankazar, the oldest “Miss Factory” in Caracas.
Many of the girls’s parents have low incomes — about $50 a month, usually — but will spend half of that on their daughters’ school fees, dresses and makeup.
The school’s director, Alexander Velasquez, said that the schools help to “promote a good self-image.” Yet these schools are notorious for telling girls without flat stomachs to get liposuction or teens without the perfect curve to their noses to get surgery on that, too.
Activist Taylee Castellanos, who is a spokeswoman for the group NO to Biopolymers, YES to Life, warns girls about the dangers of liquid silicone injections and crusades against pageants like Miss Venezuela, which has been held since 1952. She says there’s something wrong with a country where girls as young as four attend boot camps to learn how to strut on a catwalk.
“The dream of every girl in Venezuela is to be Miss Venezuela,” Castellanos said to the New York Post. “They don’t promote natural women anymore. They are promoting women who are completely fake, who have had their whole bodies redone.”
Sarah Hillware, a former America’s Miss District of Columbia, would agree. Although she said competing in U.S. beauty pageants gave her some confidence and allowed her to promote a platform of healthy eating and fitness to the country’s youth, she saw the industry’s negative influence on young girls, too.
“During a school presentation, a girl once asked me if she could ever be as beautiful as the women she saw competing in pageants on television,” Hillware wrote for the Huffington Post. “I told her of course she could, but the question itself made me cringe. I was saddened that this girl didn’t already see herself as beautiful.”