In Brazil, Bodies Are Personal Billboards
by Maria Rita Kehl
Translated by Tom Moore
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. 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
The Sick Obsession
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”.
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,
Sabino: “Anabolisantes: as drogas de Apolo” em: O cru e o cozido
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.