Narco-aesthetics: How Colombia’s drug trade constructed female ‘beauty’
“The body either saves you or condemns you. The motto is: Have the body you desire, not the one you were born with.”
“Narco-aesthetics”: the word encapsulates the phenomenon that is the Colombian perception of beauty, a world-famous sex-appeal that has a much darker, criminal story behind it than the image of the country’s women — with their perfect breasts, voluptuous curves and sizable behinds – would suggest.
The drug-fueled war that has had Colombia in chains for the past few decades has not only tarnished the image of the nation to one of bloody crime and dirty money, but entirely molded the image of its women – more often than not aided by its proliferous aesthetic surgery industry – into that of the perfect female form, and the object of universal male desire.
A history of sex, drugs, and rock-star Escobar
“This goes back to the 70s, when the first Colombian drug traffickers went to the US to make contacts for their exports,” so begins the history of narco-aesthetics as told by Ilvar Josue Caranton, a lecturer at Medellin University and a specialist on the topic.
The professor recounts how, during the dawn of Colombia’s illegal drug trade industry, brothels became the natural meeting place for North American and Colombian “business-doers” looking to expand their drug trafficking horizons.
Combined with the peaking popularity of men’s magazines such as Playboy and Hustler, the South American criminals were exposed to a novel, highly sexualized image of womankind.
“The female ideal that they found had voluptuous buttocks, voluptuous breasts, [and] was blonde,” Caranton tells Colombia Reports. “[This] was the prototype of prostitutes at the time.”
It was exactly this prototype that the drug traffickers would then bring back to Colombia. At that point in time, they knew exactly what they wanted, and their increased wealth and power meant they knew exactly how to get it.
“Drug trafficking has the money and it writes the rules: what kind of woman we like … the aesthetic of the desirable woman.”
The key change that took place as this aesthetic ideal bloomed, was that the millions of dollars flowing into the hands of Colombia’s drug barons made this body so easy to obtain by plastic surgery that those who wanted their perfect woman could easily “pimp out” – in vulgar but popularly used terms — any girl they wished, rich or poor.
“This idea of godliness almost, that they [drug traffickers] can create the woman, the female form, we also call the ‘Frankenstein,’” Caranton explains.
This very arrogance, some believe, is one of the essential pieces of the puzzle linking the country’s narcotics trade to its beautiful but highly “fabricated” women.
“Sex and drug trafficking have always gone hand in hand,” Diana Patino, political expert living in Medellin, tells Colombia Reports.
This marriage has come about because – as Diana explains – the highly sexualized, trophy-like and artificially curvaceous female image is a reflection of the showy, lavish attitude and essentially macho mentality innate to the drug baron lifestyle.
And the most “showy” of them all was none other than the legendary Pablo Escobar.
“The fact that he has that much infamy, that much notoriety, that’s how [the drug trade] shaped things,” states Kristin Eckland, a nurse practitioner and writer on surgery in Latin America, tells Colombia Reports. “Photos of him, his cronies, his women, his lavish lifestyle were pasted everywhere. He was the super rock-star of the day. Anything he did became that big and lavish.”
Pablo Escobar liked his ladies, and he often liked them “operadas,” or “[aesthetically] operated.” In a sense, the biggest drug baron in history set an example to follow for those who had the means to do so.
“Pablo Escobar made [aesthetic surgery] more socially and culturally acceptable,” Eckland says. “He almost made it unacceptable to not change.”
Plastic surgery’s increased accessibility and rock-star appeal may indeed explain just how the “prostitute” aesthetic, as Patino calls it, eventually transcended the borders of the illegal trade and became a nation-wide phenomenon.
“The body is becomes their reason for living, their salvation from this society”: self-objectification
Beauty as consumable, commercial, profitable, and a ladder into higher society – some may say that in no place is this phenomenon felt as strongly as it is in Colombia.
A perhaps hard to believe but undeniable truth is that many of the country’s women (consciously?) do all they can – meaning taking out loans to get a boob job or spending all their savings for a Western-style extreme makeover — to live up to the narco-macho-version of how they should physically look.
Whether or not this conformance is voluntary remains debatable – as Caranton says, “the entire [aesthetics] industry is a brainwash.” What is certain, however, is that many Colombian women have “embraced” the prototype and actively use it to their own advantage.
“Contemporary society has told the woman that everything lies in her body,” explains Caranton. “They themselves assume their role as an object … They want to have the body that is desired, otherwise it won’t have people providing them with economic prospects.”
The exploitability of Colombian curves is perhaps exemplified in the example of Karen Upequi Araque, a 28-year-old Colombian woman who only recently had liposuction and gluteal (buttocks) reduction for work-related reasons.
A professional night club dancer, Araque was almost compelled by her managers to take the plunge two years ago.
“I felt pressurized by my bosses. [They’d say things] like: ‘Caren, you’re chubby,’” Araque tells Colombia Reports. “[So I got] lipo.”
Despite being only 28 years of age, Araque had her first breast enlargement at the age of 21, and assures us that the majority of the girls she knows have also gone under the knife.
And, unlike her, most of them undergo surgery with one sole aim.
“I know many friends, including young girls … [who do it] with nothing but money in mind,” she says. “In finding a rich man, a drug trafficker.”
Often as a result of “no way out” poverty, many affirm that it is common practice for girls to enter certain prestigious universities just to gain access to the upper classes of society – and those frequently linked to the illegal drug trade – by using their body to try to achieve a better quality of life.
On many occasions, these girls come to be “prepagos,” – the country’s most “exclusive” and desirable prostitutes.
While Caranton also believes that plastic surgery in Colombia has taken the darker route and become women’s literal “invest[ment] in their body,” he also uncovers a somewhat eerier side to this narco-aesthetic trend, one which targets society’s most vulnerable.
The snatched daughters
“Men will grab a young girl from any community, tell her mum that they’re taking her away, and she becomes his object, his trophy, his exhibit,” Caranton explains.
“This is a narco phenomenon.”
This less sophisticated, small-scale form of human trafficking is very much common knowledge in Colombia. Many girls from rural villages, or even from the lower-class neighborhoods of cities such as Medellin, either voluntarily leave for the city in the aim of being picked up by drug traffickers or other wealthy men, or these people come to them.
The final objective is, of course, for them to be transformed into the picture-perfect model.
“You know that they buy girls, as long as they’re ‘operated,’” Araque says casually. “The majority of operations are down to this.”
Whether these girls are taken by force or in agreement with prospect-less parents to then be “pimped” to perfection; or whether they themselves take the initiative to go to the big city in an attempt to “make it big” and eventually have their economic issues resolved by a rich man, they exemplify the underworld-fed aesthetic that permeates society today more than ever.
- Interview with Ilvar Josue Caranton
- Interview with Karen Upequi Araque
- Interview with Kristin Eckland
- Interview with Diana Patino
- Narco.estética y narco.cultura en Narco.lombia – Omar Rincón (PDF)
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