‘Beauty and the Beach’: Power and Designs for the Female Body in Rio de Janeiro
“For hundreds of years, Brazil has symbolised the great escape into a primordial, tropical paradise, igniting the Western imagination like no other South American country. From the mad passion of Carnival to the immensity of the dark Amazon, it is a country of mythic proportions . . . Which is wilder – the jungle or the people?”
So pronounces the Lonely Planet Guidebook, and indeed, since the fifteenth century, Brazil has been portrayed as the tropical Eden of temptation in the New World; something sardonically presented by Brazilian singer Chico Buarque in his song ‘Não existe pecado ao sul do equador’ (‘South of the Equator sin does not exist), in which the equatorial line becomes a double entendre symbolising a woman’s waistline:
spread open, sweaty, all steamy
Let me be your depraved doormat…
come to eat, dine on me…
your mixed-blooded woman can’t wait.
In the twentieth century, corporeal beauty became a trope in the ongoing political and cultural re-imagination of racial mixture (mestiçagem) as crucial to the project of inventing a modern Brazilian identity. The brown, rounded bottoms portrayed by Brazilian modernist painters such as Di Cavalcanti were seen as a subversive attack on Europe’s Apollonian aesthetic values.
This imagery, linked to a history embedded in issues of racial mixing, colonialism and slavery, then became associated with resistance during the Military Dictatorship. The tropicalismo movement in the 1960s highlighted nature and the liberated (i.e. unclothed) body as expressions of beauty and freedom in the face of authoritarian political repression. The heavily pregnant Brazilian celebrity Leila Diniz (pictured) quickly became a symbol of the women’s movement against the military dictatorship by daring to expose her belly in public.
As a result, the beach has come to be seen as a site of democratic freedom; indeed, most of Rio’s protests manifest themselves there, while the ever-shrinking bikini has further added to this perceived space of resistance and assertion of the self. It is arguably in this way that the female body has become a surface on which both masculinist and nationalist desires are played out, and the politics of appearances is so fascinating precisely because of the creative way in which the body has been used both to impose identities and subvert these intentions.
For Foucault, the body is the primary site in which power is practised and perpetuated; as we grow up, we imitate those around us- how they walk, talk, and dress- and in this way we learn to distinguish ‘right’ from ‘wrong’, ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’. Through fashion choices, or even through plastic surgery, the body becomes the locus of social and individual control, a means of achieving ‘normality’.
Rio de Janeiro’s citizens are arguably subject to two parallel systems of beauty and body norms. On the one hand, the city is home to Brazil’s Fashion Week and many of the nation’s famous international models, who exude the slim, white paradigm of beauty that glares down from the catwalk. On the other, Brazilian TV programmes, adverts and magazine covers everywhere use the trope of the ‘sensuous’ and wild Brazilian woman of the imagination:
‘It’s by the body that the true black woman is recognized. Devassa Negra. Full bodied, dark style, highly fermented ale. Creamy with toasted malt aroma’.
‘If the guy who invented the sarong drank Skol, it wouldn’t be like this [see left], it would be like this [see right].
In 2013 Rio’s municipal government introduced a campaign, targeting cigarette littering on beaches in the city, which focussed upon the widely recognisable ‘ugly’ symbol of a ‘saggy bum’. The advert utilized a pun (also possible in English) on ‘falling’ and ‘cigarette butt’, and was widely distributed across the city during the summer season. One of the main slogans accompanying it was ‘Let’s talk about something really ugly. Let’s talk about falling butts’. Here then, through popular media, the municipal government itself propounds ‘norms’ and ‘deviants’ through its own definitions of what makes Brazilian beaches beautiful: the disciplined and gendered female body.
Rio is home to the largest number of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world, yet in many cases, this surgery differs considerably from its North-American or European counterparts. In Brazil, surgery is typically not to make the patient skinnier, but to relocate fat to areas where it is prized, namely, the breasts and the buttocks. In particular, silicone implants of up to 500ml in each buttock are a growing consumer good in Rio, often at considerable risk to health, as caricatured in this newspaper:
Comic in Folha de São Paulo, Wed 30 July 2014.
‘The f***ing surgeon injected cement in my bum!/ Mine filled it with bricks’.
Ethnographic research amongst female Brazilian cosmetic surgery patients reveals that the majority undergo it to correct traits they believe make them fall outside the accepted norms as seen on the beach or in the carnival parade.
Femininity, within the tight remit of what is considered ‘Brazilian’, becomes something to be achieved then, in particular, through clothing choices to ‘set off’ one’s ‘assets’. The beach is where everyone goes to show off their bodies, and so bikinis are used to ‘perform’ a particular notion of femininity. The most popular designs with Cariocas are the famous ‘dental-floss’ bikinis (which are as skimpy as the name suggests), and the most popular trend in tops is for a patterned and ruched fabric in neon or bright colours. ‘The ruching and the patterning is like an optical illusion you see’, Júlia, a bikini vendor, tells me, ‘it enhances the curves, and the bright colours set off tanned skin. A woman with dark skin should wear white, and white skin is improved by darker coloured fabric’.
It is on the beach that it becomes clear once again just how inseparable notions of the ‘Brazilian female body’ are from wider national and historical issues of race and class. Walking between the postos (lifeguard posts) delineating Leme from Copacabana from Ipanema from Leblon, one crosses invisible yet totalizing lines; lines which demarcate boundaries between bodies and fashions, and which declare social identity. Despite Rio’s status as one of the most socially unequal cities in the world, Cariocans still widely regard the beaches as public democratic spaces, where classes and races mingle freely. Such harmony is itself evoked by the black and white mosaic pavements which have now become emblems of the city.
The reality, however, is that different parts of the beach are frequented by very different groups of people from a wealth of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds; a crude summary is in the table below:
Thus, in this supposedly democratic public space of equality, lines delineate different bodies, and regular beachgoers have a sophisticated understanding of the sociocultural landscape to be navigated. For example, at Posto 4, vendors typically sell biscuits, sun cream, and other inexpensive items, while at the more affluent Posto 9, vendors sell sunglasses, hammocks, and clothing. Carlos and Catya (beach vendors) told me that ‘to have success selling from your stall, you have to pick your market, and get the right spot. Over there [Ipanema and Leblon] they’re wealthier, they look different to us [i.e. the favela inhabitants on Copacabana beach]’.
From Posts 9-13, frequented primarily by wealthy (typically white) young residents from the area behind, the bodies on show are visibly toned by expensive private trainers, many of whom accompany their clients to the beach to drill more exercises. ‘They look like Gisele, or those other models from the South’, Catya tells me, ‘you’d think they were European’. When asked if she would like to look like them, Catya replies ‘No! That’s a European thing. We’re different here in Rio, we’re tropical’.
Curvaceous, and sporting neon dental-floss bikinis, yet with tightly sculpted bodies not infrequently resulting from plastic surgery, these bodies arrange themselves like sunflowers, turning towards the sun, as black bodies pass by calling out sales pitches. Meanwhile further upshore, at Copacabana, the bodies are more mixed: old and young, black and white, overweight and muscle-packed. While the bodies here are clad in equally slight bikinis, they are in different colours, and many of the curves flaunted reveal underlying fat from a poor diet, rather than silicone or muscle crunched in gyms. Again, save excitable children running up and down playing in the sand, the bodies traversing these ‘zones’ are the vendors- often skinnier, barefoot, clad in protective long sleeves and wide-brimmed hats, calling out their wares.
So the moreno (tanned) bodies appropriate the socially marginal yet symbolically central qualities of being mulato (mixed-race), in so doing bestowing themselves with higher social capital and embodying the social ideal of the ‘true’ Cariocan lifestyle as epitomised by ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. They have the curves, but are muscular; they are tanned, but Caucasian (and so likely achieved their hue relaxing on the beach, not toiling in the sun). It is this kind of body which is promoted through Brazilian models of international renown in expensive fashion magazines, and which holds on to the sensual appeal evoked by the mulata, seen as ‘tropical’ and symbolically Brazilian.
Thus there are arguably two parallel body politics within Rio- the tropical samba-dancing mulata of Carnival, and the tall and tanned morena of Ipanema- which, through combination, signify the ‘ideal’ Cariocan body. Beachgoers position themselves physically on the beach, declaring their public identity according to this ‘ideal’ as a floating signifier between these two norms, shifting according to spatial relation. Any notion of the beach as a ‘great leveller’, or that people might shed social status as they shed clothing, is disrupted by a walk along the shoreline in Rio’s South Zone. Indeed, clad in only bikinis, the performance of the body in this socially constructed space arguably reveals to an even greater extent the identity of the subject, and the social relations at work in constructing space. Here, the female body declares not only race and class, but masculinist and nationalist desires as well.