Reflections on Bikinis and Brazil’s Bikini Culture

People in bikinis facing the ocean

Photo © Michael Sommers.

At the end of 2009, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel sorted through reams of travel stats and tendencies and came up with a list of Top 10 Budget Travel Destinations for 2010. Among those that made the final cut was Rio de Janeiro.

While the editors conceded that Rio was not exactly getting cheaper (in large part due to a devalued U.S. dollar), they did refer to the Cidade Maravilhosa as an emerging “international superstar”; an allusion to the double whammy the city pulled off last year when it won back-to-back bids to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. As a consequence, major building and infrastructure projects are being planned and it’s partially with this imminent construction flurry in mind that Budget Travel urges travelers to visit Rio now – especially since U.S. airlines have lowered fares and added new routes to Rio from cities such as Charlotte N.C. (US Airways) and Houston and New Orleans (Continental).

As part of their Rio coverage, Budget Travel asked me, as the author of Moon Rio, to write a guest blog. In the form of a Q&A Session, I was to answer common questions travelers might have about visiting the city. The blog was posted in March and immediately after the comments started trickling in.

Unlike North Americans, in general, Brazilians tend to be much more at ease about exposing their bodies, regardless of whether or not they resemble Gisele Bündchen or Jesus Luz.

It’s no secret that bloggers thrive on readers’ comments. This isn’t merely a case of having our egos stroked or being reassured that somebody out there is actually reading. In the case of a travel blog (which, itself, is an offshoot of a guide book), it stems from a sincere interest in what our readers think. Comments from readers allow us to gage what we’re doing right and where we might be falling short (or be completely off). They transform a one-way monologue into a two-way dialogue, and sometimes – when a certain statement strikes a common nerve – into a full-blown, multi-voiced (sometimes heated) discussion.

Happily, my Rio post on Budget Travel generated some interesting discussion and lots of food for thought (at least for me):

In the ego stroking category there were a couple of very nice compliments including one from a long-time visitor to Rio who remarked that the insights offered were a “breath of fresh air” compared to “the drivel” she reads on other sites.

In the bafflement category was a surprisingly outraged reaction to my advice that, in order to blend in upon arriving in Rio, visitors should hit the beach. “Not only will this immediately plunge you into Carioca culture, but a tan will give you that healthy local glow that will dispel that just-off-the-plane look,” I wrote. After expressing disbelief that I would dole out such lousy advice, the reader took me to task for not including an activity that a “real adult” would want to do – such as eating, listening to music, or people-watching.

I was sort of floored by this reaction:
1. Because I had no idea that beaches were only for kids and immature people.
2. Because the reason Carioca adults swarm Rio’s beaches – which truly constitute an indispensable element of the city’s life – is precisely to eat, listen to music, and watch people (as well as to read, flirt, gossip, tan, swim, play soccer, do yoga, etc.) – a point made very succinctly by another commenter who was moved to join the discussion.

In the “hmmm… I didn’t know that, but I wonder if this is a major phenomenon or an isolated case” category was an interesting observation from a former resident of Rio who warned beachgoers to always don “hard sole sandals” when walking on the sand due to medical waste, such as syringes, washing up on the beach (the commenter had a co-worker who had been hospitalized after stepping on one such syringe). While I appreciated the commenter’s tip, I’m not sure if I would echo his/her advice against going barefoot (Rio’s beaches are not exactly minefields of detritus), although I might consider warning readers to watch out for litter (a potential problem on any urban beach). Actually, for the most part, I think Rio’s beaches are quite clean (municipal crews maintain them).

The comment, however, that made the greatest impact was in the bikini category. It was from a 64-year-old woman who had visited Rio recently and objected to my suggestion that, in order to blend in, women should wear bikinis at the beach and leave their one-piece bathing suits at home. The commenter confessed that, due to her age, she wouldn’t be “caught dead in a bikini.” She pointed out that she felt very comfortable strolling through Copacabana and Ipanema in her one-piece while observing that too many women looked like “idiots” in “those brief suits.”

This feedback made me seriously wonder if I had being guilty of “age-ism” (a fact that was reinforced by my 70-something-year-old mother chiming in that she too would “never” wear a bikini). To tell the truth, chalk it up to media conditioning, but when I conjure up visions of bikini-clad females in my mind, the images tend to be of younger women. In imparting this sweeping advice that all womankind should don bikinis in Brazil, was I excluding a whole segment of travelers by being insensitive to their concerns/realities?

The comment stuck in my head like a burr – so much so that, yesterday, when I went to Salvador’s (fairly cosmopolitan) Porto da Barra beach, I made a point of walking up and down the length of the beach, while discreetly checking out women and their bathing attire. Here’s what I discovered:

Around 99 percent of women from their 20s well into their 50s were clad in bikinis. The more mature set – I would say from mid-50s on – were split between bikinis and one-pieces. Body type seemingly had no influence on a woman’s choice of swimwear – indeed, there were plenty of bikini-clad woman of all ages happily and unselfconsciously sporting bellies, flab, and cellulite. Unlike North Americans, in general, Brazilians tend to be much more at ease about exposing their bodies, regardless of whether or not they resemble Gisele Bündchen or Jesus Luz.

Back at home, the burr still lodged in my brain, I called up my friend Myra, a woman of many bikinis. In her early 40s, Myra has borne children and, like many Brazilian women, describes herself as vain (in Brazil, vanity is not a deadly sin, but an attribute).

What she pointed out is that bikini-wearing in Brazil is not a question of age, or body type, but of mentality. The fact that there are some 60 and 70-year-olds on the beach in one-pieces is a reflection of the times and cultural codes in which they grew up, many of which were shattered with the feminist revolution that hit Brazil in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Interestingly, the most media-worthy manifestations of these transformations were played out on the sands of Rio’s Ipanema Beach, where bikinis – and all the free-wheeling liberation they represented – took a hold on the cultural consciousness.

Myra also swore to me that, no matter what, even if she lives to be 100, she’ll be wearing a bikini until the day she dies.


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