Barely there in Brazil

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FORTALEZA, Brazil — I bought a Brazilian bikini yesterday.

I think it’s a thong.

OK, it is a thong.

At the behest of my host parents, who said that my American bikini looked like swimwear for men, I dragged myself to a street vendor fair and bit the bullet.

Women of all shapes and sizes wear the hallmark bikini — known as fio dental, or “dental floss” — here in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, where I’ll be living, studying and reporting for the next three months. I don't think its mass would register on an atomic scale.

While I’m all for experimenting and immersing myself in new cultures, I arrived completely prepared to receive as many funny looks as necessary to maintain my dignity and very American bikini tan. The bikini issue was superficial, extremely irrelevant and unimportant to me.

It began on Brazil's Independence Day, Sept. 7. I wore my American bikini my first day at the beach with my host parents. Besides strange looks and laughs, strangers gave me plenty of advice: “Gringa (white girl), you need a fio dental!”

Dramatic, isn’t it? I dismissed this commentary and maybe even judged it. What’s up with this hyper-image-conscious culture? Can’t they just let me be?

Discussing sexual harassment in Brazil with my host parents, I confided that I had experienced cat calls, intimidating stares and perverse comments while getting around the city. Thus, I was apprehensive about baring so much of myself in public.

We talked about similar harassment in New York City and Boston where I'd worked the past two summers. Men could be aggressive and threatening. I'd been taunted and groped on public transportation. It seemed to pass with little notice, and I felt isolated that no one paid much attention or tried to help me.

They seemed mortified.

“You gringas are so cold. That would never happen here," said my host father. "If anyone so much as touched a hair on your head, and you drew attention to yourself or solicited help, he would have 10 people on him. “And if he violated you in any way, he would be ostracized from society — called the worst of the worst."

I wondered if that was like saying we had no racism in the U.S. just because we disdain it publicly.

 

Our society back home seems convinced that women, by dressing, walking or holding themselves in a provocative way, deserve the harassment they generate. We have been socialized, upon hearing that a woman was raped or assaulted, to ask what she was wearing, how she was walking, and how much makeup she was wearing.

“Maybe that’s why you all dress so conservatively,” reflected Adriana. “You believe that society will blame you for men’s actions.”

So how is it that women are nearly naked on Brazilian beaches without a similar response? Does this country serve as some beacon of feminism, and I just missed the point? And is the freedom of fio dental part of the solution, or is it part of the problem?

Brazilian society, by and large, is profoundly sexist and patriarchal. And yet, it defends the notion that women can safely and casually bare their body parts in public without fear of retribution. We talk about this in the States, as well, but does it really work in practice?

This paradox fascinates me. Until a few years ago, Brazil maintained a practice called the "honor defense." Men who killed their wives were absolved if the woman "provoked" him — from having an affair to refusing to cook a meal. Gender relations are deeply unequal in Brazil. As I spend more time here, I am uncovering this reality more each day. The sex trafficking industry is burgeoning. Society brims over with objectification, paternalism and a profound abundance of domestic violence. And then there’s slew of unsolicited and sexually charged commentary playing in an endless loop on Fortaleza streets.

I am curious about these contradictions. Baring one's bum here seems more likely to me to be  objectification and oppression than liberation. I do it anyway, feeling partly ridiculous, partly objectified.  The peer pressure of adolescence was nothing compared to this. 

This report comes from a journalist in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad.