In Brazil, Bodies Are Personal Billboards

     In Brazil, Bodies Are 
Personal Billboards

    For thousands of Brazilians,
    driven by advertising and the
    cultural industry, the meaning of life has been reduced to the
    production of a body. The possibility of "inventing" an ideal
    body, with the help of experts and chemicals, is confused
    with the construction of a destiny, of a name, of a work.
    by: Maria
    Rita Kehl

    "The body has someone as filling". Arnaldo Antunes,
    theme for the dance group Corpo in 2000.


    What body have you been
    wearing recently? What body is representing you in the imaginary market, what
    image have you offered to someone else’s gaze to guarantee its place on the
    stage that is Brazilian public space? Pay attention, because the body that
    you wear and show off is going to say who you are. It could determine your
    work opportunities.

    It could mean a chance
    to quickly move up the social ladder. Above all, the body that you wear, painstakingly
    prepared through lots of gymnastics and diet, perfected through modern surgical
    and biochemical interventions, the body that sums up practically all that
    remains of your being, is the fundamental requirement for your happiness.

    Not because it is the
    pulsing thirst of biological life. Not because it possesses a vast surface
    sensitive to the pleasure of touch—the skin, this tense wrapper that
    protects the silent working of the organs. Not because of the happiness with
    which we experience appetites, impulses, excitement, the intense and continuous
    back and forth of the body with the world.

    The body-image that you
    present to the mirror of society will determine your happiness, not because
    it arouses the desire or awakes the love of someone, but because it is the
    privileged object of your love of self: the self-esteem that there
    is so much talk about, to which all subjective questions are reduced in the
    culture of narcissism.

    In these terms, the body
    is at the same time the principal object in which narcissistic love is invested,
    and the image offered to others—promoted, in the last few decades, to
    become the most reliable indicator of the truth of the subject, on which depends
    social acceptance and inclusion.

    The body is a slave which
    we must submit to the rigorous discipline of the "shape" industry
    (deceptively called the health industry), and a lord to which we sacrifice
    our time, our pleasures, our investments, and what is left of what we have
    managed to scrimp and save.

    These and other thoughts
    occurred to me after reading Nu e vestido (Naked and Clothed), a book
    recently published by Record, bringing together studies by ten foreign and
    Brazilian anthropologists concerning the culture of the body in Rio de Janeiro,
    today1. The title, which refers intentionally to the famous study
    by Claude Lévi-Strauss— O cru e o cozido (The Raw and the Cooked)—
    reveals the interest of the authors for the body as a complex collection of
    classificatory signs, which mark social differences in the culture of Rio
    de Janeiro—but which are valid for other urban cultures in Brazil as

    What is particularly interesting
    about the book, in my opinion, is the data and the statements collected by
    the anthropologists; as far as the analyses which were undertaken, I had the
    impression that a preoccupation with academic rigor took away from the liberty
    and creativity of the authors, who in general exhaustively described their
    respective fields of study, but did not take chances in the theoretical interpretation
    of the data.

    Nevertheless, the currency
    of the topic and the force of the information collected are thought-provoking.
    Is it correct to write that we live in a culture of the body? What body are
    we talking about? In the book in question, each researcher chose an aspect
    of the culture: gyms for working out; the cult of the beach; plastic surgery
    and silicone implants; the use of hormones and steroids; the cultivation of
    the tan; fashion.

    Taken together it seems
    monstrous. For thousands of Brazilians, driven by advertising and the cultural
    industry, the meaning of life has been reduced to the production of a body.
    The possibility of "inventing" an ideal body, with the help of experts
    and chemicals, is confused with the construction of a destiny, of a name,
    of a work.

    "Today I know that
    I can shape my own destiny," declares a young man who works out at the
    gym, associating his increase in muscle mass with achieving self respect2.
    In confusing the shape of his body with the shape of destiny, this young man
    gives to the possibility of shaping his body a sort of creative, authorial
    dimension, a poor replacement for the hopes of liberty and freedom of choice
    of the self-made-men of the beginnings of modernity.

    The body as destiny, the
    body as the work of art of the contemporary subject, reveals a significant
    dislocation of the axis of subjectivity in contemporary society. Totally privatized
    at its roots (the body is thus the most recent and most precious "private
    property" of the members of the mass culture), the contemporary man-as-body
    seems to be constructing an experience of himself alien to what was considered,
    in modernity, to be the subjective domain of the ego.

    It is as if, succeeding
    the introspective subject of psychoanalysis, conflicted and self-vigilant,
    there was a subject free of the vicissitudes of any subjectivity. Which is
    deceptive: the body is the first imaginary representation of the ego. In concentrating
    subjectivity on it, the young bodybuilder who thinks that he is free to shape
    his destiny does not realized that he is condemning himself to live, more
    than ever, imprisoned in himself.

    Or, what is still more
    bizarre: as if the unconscious subject, condemned to grapple with the enigma
    of his desire and to construct a destiny from it had been replaced by a subject
    who has chosen not to need to know anything more about "that". It
    seems as if the body is enough; the body, which was for the baby the first
    narcissistic site of the ego, continues to take care, for these subjects,
    of all the questions having to do with being and the meaning of life.

    The man-as-body of the
    third millennium could represent the death of the psychoanalytic subject,
    at least as we have known it up to now. Nevertheless, the increase in psychosomatic
    symptoms makes us question if the unconscious dimension, negated by the ideologies
    of body-building and eternal youth, is not going to make the body pay for
    this negation.

    The Sick Obsession
    With Health

    The biomedical sciences,
    (supposedly) in defense of health, occupy the space left vacant by religious,
    philosophical and moral discourses in the contemporary world. Its knowledge
    gives direction to a varied industry of the body, still expanding in Brazil,
    the imperatives of which—in the name of life, happiness and health—are
    conquering minds and markets.

    Taking care of one’s self
    has turned into the production of an appearance, following the widely held
    belief that the quality of the muscular envelope, the texture of the skin,
    the color of the hair, reveal the level of success of their owners.

    On a beach in Rio, writes
    Stéphane Malysse3, peoples seem to be "covered by an
    overbody, like a muscular garment worn over the fine and stretched out skin…"
    They are bodies in a permanent production process, which work on the physical
    form at the same time as they show the results of their effort to other passersby.

    They are bodies-as-message,
    which speak for the subjects. The "pumped" guy, the silicon-implanted
    blond, the muscular perua (overdressed ostentatious woman) show off
    their bodies as if they were those signs that sandwich-sign men carry in the
    center of the city—"We buy gold", "Telephone cards for
    sale", "Handsome human specimen on display".

    It is a fact that bourgeois
    societies, since the nineteenth century, have considered the body to be private
    property and the responsibility of each individual. The body—but the
    dressed body, tamed by bourgeois composure and wrapped according to the dress
    code—was the first sign that the self-made man ascending through society,
    without noble ancestors, transmitted to the other about who he "was".

    Appearance substituted,
    in a more democratic way, for "blood". The well-behaved and well-dressed
    body of even a few decades ago used to say: I am a decent, trustworthy, honorable
    person—and my business is going well.

    Today the buff, pumped,
    siliconized body of the new millennium only says: `I am a buff, pumped, siliconized
    body.’ It is a short-circuit. It seems like the ethics of "caring for
    yourself" studied by Michel Foucault4—but it is not.

    The meaning of the practice
    of caring for yourself to which some Greek and Roman citizens in antiquity
    devoted themselves was directly linked to the role of these men in public
    life. To be able to look after the body and mind well was a precondition to
    being able to look after the affairs of the polis.

    An ethical dimension lent
    public meaning to the responsibility of a man towards his health, his care
    for his physical and mental balance, the careful production of an esthetic
    of daily life. We can question the limitations of the ethics proposed by Foucault,
    but it should not be confused with the individualistic ethics of the mass

    In today’s Brazil, in
    which public space was at the same time both dismantled and occupied by television,
    the production of bodies is the production of empty visibility, of an image
    which tries both to blot out the subject of desire and the subject involved
    in political action.

    The culture of the body
    is not the culture of health, as it wishes to appear. It is the production
    of a claustrophobic, closed, toxic system. A circular system, impoverished
    of symbolic and discursive possibilities.

    In this broth of unhealthy
    culture, limited by the most primitive imaginary fixations, the social symptoms
    of drug addiction, violence and depression develop. Clear signs that life,
    closed off in front of the mirror, is becoming dangerously empty of meaning.

    Mirian Goldberg (org.) O nu e o vestido Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2002,
    411 pags.

    2 César
    Sabino: "Anabolisantes: as drogas de Apolo" em: O cru e o cozido
    pp. 139-188.

    3 Stéphane
    Malysse: "Em busca dos (H)alteres-ego: Olhares franceses nos bastidores
    da corpolatria carioca" em: O cru e o cozido, pp. 79-137

    4 Michel Foucault,
    "Os cuidados de si" em: O que é um autor?

    Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, writer and poet, the author of three
    books of poetry and the books of essays A mínima diferença
    – o masculino e o feminino na cultura. She was born in Campinas, São
    Paulo state, in 1951 and is a doctor of clinical psychology. You can reach
    her emailing

    from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language
    and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish,
    French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the
    librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey.
    Comments welcome at

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