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Beauty that Matters: Brazilian “Travesti” Sex Workers Feeling Beautiful

by Julieta Vartabedian

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Drawing on fieldwork experience with Brazilian travesti sex workers in Rio de Janeiro, Julieta Vartabedian argues that travestis’ desire for beauty both structures their daily experiences and empowers them. Travestis have to engage with a complicated, dangerous, and expensive career in order to construct their identities. The attainment of a beautiful body is at the heart of their interest. Travestis seek a sense of ‘perfection,’ that is, they strive to be like women, but beautiful and desirable ones. Their aim is to create bodies that can achieve feminine and glamorous shapes. Every bodily improvement reinforces their self-identity and status within the group. Although their lives can be very hard – it is difficult to be a travesti in Brazilian society, which is rather intolerant of sexual and gender diversity – it is through the processes they engage in to produce beautiful and feminine bodies that travestis give meaning to their existence and find a place for themselves in their communities and in the world, despite that place being uncertain and marginalised. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, the article focuses on the embodied experiences of a group of Brazilian travestis. Instead of considering travestis’ beauty as a mere imitation of normative femininity, the goal is to redefine beauty in relation to its capacity to create identities and subjects who feel empowered and desired. Finally, travestis’ creation of agency through beauty is analysed against the background of heteronormativity and ongoing transphobic violence in Brazil.

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