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Brazzil - Behavior - May 2004

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.

Maria Rita Kehl

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


Picture 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 well.

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 culture.

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.

1 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 brazzil@brazzil.com.
Translated 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 mooret@tcnj.edu.

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