The ex-President’s hair: Politics and beauty in Buenos Aires

Beauty and Inequality

All five PhD researchers are now doing their fieldwork. On this blog, they share their research impressions in short vignettes. Carolina Rabasa Rucki looks at the hairstyle of former president Cristina de Kirchner to show how beauty is politics in Buenos Aires

All five PhD researchers are now doing their fieldwork. On this blog, they share their research impressions in short vignettes. Carolina Rabasa Rucki shows how beauty is politics in Buenos Aires.

Eavesdrop on any given conversation between two ‘porteños’ [person from the City of Buenos Aires] and you will hear them talking about politics. Listen a bit closely, and you might start picking up politicians’ names and their nicknames. Stay tuned for another 5 minutes and you might see them throw their hands in the air, mimicking the politician’s gestures and/or postures.  Politicians in Buenos Aires represent a well-known powerful elite whose image is ever-present in society’s daily life. They present a perfect case to study the role of beauty and the embodiment of ‘the right look’ around a culturally relevant and greatly exposed elite group.

For all of us, physical appearance becomes the card we use to present ourselves to the world and to be received by it in a certain manner. Yet, to politicians as members of the elite, the role of beauty takes center stage. Their appearance is under constant scrutiny by society at the same time as they use their embodied beauty and beauty taste to signal their membership and (re) produce their status.

Let’s take the example of one of the most controversial contemporary political figures: the Argentinian ex-president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. There are numerous mentions of her aesthetic appearance and looks in the press and on TV shows, which translate into the ordinary man’s (and woman’s) talk. Debates on how her figure and face have changed over the decades during which her image has been exposed under the public eye, questioning the use of different beauty practices – such as botox or cosmetic surgery. The suitability of her looks for her role in office has been contested. Or might I suggest to reverse the question: as if her suitability for the role has been contested based on her looks. If we take a closer look at one particular article by Ambito Financiero, an economic and finance-oriented newspaper, titled ‘Cristina can’t resist the redhead temptation’ [‘Cristina no resiste la tentación del pelirrojo’ ’] we can observe two things. Firstly, how seemingly far off the topics of hair color and finance are. Secondly, how the analysis of her hairstyle steers away from pure aesthetics and leans into a judgment of character. Some of the phrases in the newspaper article read:

  • ‘The crimson in the President’s hair complements her baroque look and goes perfectly with the lady’s permanent attempt to look ostentatious. Of course, this is not the ideal image for a woman in power.’
  • ‘Red tones are easy to wear. Throughout history, the colour red in hair has carried different connotations. It is associated with stubbornness, temperament, and strength of character.
  • ‘In ancient times, redheads were considered witches and were therefore burned at the stake. Mary Magdalene, for example, was always associated with a “sinner”. In the Middle Ages, the concept had not changed: redheads were linked to the devil.’
  • ‘The President’s choice of hairstyle to stand out in a predominantly male-dominated society is a wise one. Her attitude, her strong personality, are a symbol of great leadership skills and good strategic virtues.’

Dyeing her hair goes beyond a simple trip to the hair salon but builds up social opinion over symbolic boundaries attached to the aesthetic decision. We will know how she is when we see her, although perspectives might differ. Some may say she has aesthetic cues that signal negative connotations linked to an evil nature. Others may point out positive connotations over necessary skills for a national political leader. Whatever the case, beauty appears as ‘aesthetic evaluation of physical appearance rooted in cultural repertoires of evaluation’. In the case of politicians, their beauty is socially assessed around the roles they take up and looks they build around it. They need to show character, but not too much, especially if it’s a woman in power. They must be appropriate to the ideals of the political parties they represent.

The political arena in Buenos Aires showcases a field of politicians who avidly work to carefully curate and present their appearance to the others. As a traditional elite group, politicians’ main job is to manage multiple contradictory interests. Along with their personal press teams, they participate daily in public engagements, take pictures and work towards portraying their beauty in the most suitable way to reproduce and better their status… but, how are beauty, status and symbolic boundaries linked? Is working on the right look enough or are there limits to them subject to beauty standards and other normative frameworks that weigh into the matter? In this constant tension and scramble, the only certainty is that beauty appears to show face.

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