This year, as has been the case for decades, more than three hundred beauty pageants are taking place in Colombia, a country that for more than one hundred years—as University of San Francisco history professor Michael Edward Stanfield states in his 2013 book Of Beasts and Beauty: Gender, Race, and Identity in Colombia—has been “ripped apart by violence, private armies, seizures of land, and abuse of governmental authority.” Stanfield argues that the pageants, as a public celebration of beauty, have a pacific and inclusive influence on a Colombian society “hoping that female beauty could save it from the ravages of the male beast.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, photographer Carl Bower traveled back and forth to Colombia to document the widespread tradition and found, as he says in his artist statement for Chica Barbie,*
a distilled environment for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity . . . While the inherent objectification of the contests provokes outrage and ridicule elsewhere, in the Colombian context the issue is more complicated. The millions who pack stadiums and follow the contests on television often have a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to the fantasy of magically transcending poverty. . . . The contests project an image of normalcy and vitality in the face of social upheaval, a refusal to be defined by fear or to live as if besieged. In a place rife with conflict, the pageants are a form of both denial and defiance.
Most pageants have public and private components that stretch out over several days and include parades, constant televised coverage, and coronations held in stadiums. Stepping into that multifaceted space, Chica Barbie focuses on the intense experiences of women of all ages—including children as young as five—in street crowds, onstage, and behind the scenes as they navigate the steps toward becoming queens. The women documented in Chica Barbie are not identified by name, and Bower said in a recent exchange that the anonymity is intentional: the project is meant to meditate on themes of “beauty, patriarchy, sacrifices made for conformity, the results of shedding the self, and clinging to distraction as a bulwark against a chaotic and often threatening environment. By naming people individually, I felt I would run the risk of implying that the issues presented in an image were unique to an individual, rather than being as ubiquitous as the pageants themselves.”
Bower presents the long lineage of female contestants by documenting the behind-the-scenes rituals of posture and costuming (Even Tone, Posture) as well as the public moments when the women stand apart to be judged and celebrated (Miss Coffee, Final Viewing). Then, in further juxtaposition, we are shown the women as they are guided by soldiers and policemen through adoring yet threatening crowds (Scrutiny, Safe Passage). And in Going Home, Bower takes care to show the exhaustion that these women may feel after days of operating—even if through their own agencies—within the construct of such pageantry, reminding us that under the adopted personas, each individual human is still present.