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Latina Beauty: Moving Beyond the Obvious

A new book prompts the writer to reflect and exam cultural stereotypes regarding looks.

October 10, 2000

All of a sudden, I'm being targeted.

If it's not Maybelline, it's Cover Girl or Revlon. They're after me--and all of my Latina sisters.

It seems the big secret is out: Latinas like to look good. Presentable, as our mothers like to say. (Yes, that's Spanish for presentable). So corporate America is marketing directly to us, filling up our magazines and TV viewing with ads that make us feel special and noticed.

But do these stuffy white-shirts really get this Latina beauty thing? Is it just about formulating products that cater to our yellow undertones and add control to our wayward locks? Could it be more than skin-deep?

Claro que si! (of course!)

You wouldn't know it if you depended on Hollywood and the media for your take on Latinas. On the big screen and the small one, Latinas usually are portrayed as air-headed sex kittens, interested only in polishing our appearances and pleasing our men.

Is there a bit of truth in the stereotype? Sure. Just ask the big U.S. cosmetic and hair-care manufacturers, which have finally figured out what Latinas have known for hundreds of years--the essence of our femininity has less to do with the opposite sex than with our own sense of womanhood.

So in the last year, marketers have been madly targeting my sisters, hoping to make big bucks as the brown-skinned population swells in a nation that continues to mostly trivialize us. Advice to marketers--begin with this simple question: Why is appearance so important in my culture?

"One thing Latinas all have in common is that we have a very fearless attitude about beauty," says Latina magazine publisher Christy Haubegger, whose staff wrote "Latina Beauty," which was released last week by Hyperion.

"We all know that woman who has, like the book says, ese algo (that something)," says the 32-year-old Mexican-American. "She's a size 18, and you still think she looks good! You get the feeling that her beauty is not based on her waist size. It's based on her attitude and her confidence."

Not to mention her salsa gene:

"With our myriad of hair textures, our skin that ranges from alabaster to deep chocolate to sexy, smooth honey, what makes us beautiful is an inner spirit, and we all have part of it," actress Daisy Fuentes writes in the foreword. "I call it the salsa gene. Expressing our salsa gene is the best thing we can do for ourselves. It give us permission to be as beautiful as we can be. It also defines what Latina beauty is: not a look but an attitude."

That attitude, mainstream America is slowly discovering, prompts Latinas to flock to cosmetic counters, hair salons, and beauty supply stores more often than any other group of women. According to market research firm Yankelovich Partners: Latinas make up 11% of the nation's population, but we buy 16% of the lipstick and 17.5% of the lip liner, and spend 43% more on fragrance products and 27% more on personal care products than non-Latinas. We also are 32% more likely to use nail polish four times a week and twice as likely to have spent $200 or more on hair care in the last six months.

Lessons in Latina femininity come early for most girls. Even as we're learning to walk, our mamis, tias and abuelitas (mothers, aunts and grandmothers) subtly inculcate their mantras: Be a lady. Dress for success. Look presentable wherever you go--even if it's going to the corner store.

"You don't go out to the grocery store en bata de casa (in a robe) and rollers in your hair," says 25-year-old Elizabeth Smoak-Bartolo, a Cuban-American who this year founded Ella Cosmetics, a line of makeup and skin care formulated exclusively for Latinas, in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

"No matter how poor you are, or where you come from, or whether you're educated or not, you learn to have that pride in who you are and to represent yourself as someone who can hold a conversation and look presentable," she says. Her culture's emphasis on femininity helped Smoak-Bartolo believe she could succeed at any goal. But as positive as a smooth appearance can make a Latina feel, it also is true that plenty of Americans equate our preoccupation with beauty with shallowness or vanity.

*

Growing up in Miami, my sister and I never lacked in the wardrobe department, even though my father could not afford to do the same for himself or my mother. We were Cuban refugees, an automatic stigma, and this meant the children--especially the girls--needed to be well-rounded. We danced ballet, played piano, took French lessons, and learned to dress like people who belonged here.

We were not beaten over the heads with cosmetics trays nor did we spend hours at the hair salon. The lessons came slow and steady, watching my mother's daily routine of donning nice slacks and shirts, dabbing on powder, blush and lipstick, and styling her hair even if she was staying home.

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