Weekly newsmagazine Isto É, the Brazilian equivalent of Newsweek, dedicated its cover to the subject, so did Manchete, another popular weekly. The news garnered headlines with large colorful pictures in all major newspapers, made the prime-time news on TV, and got four pages and large revealing pictures in Veja, the Brazilian Time. The momentous subject? Topless in Rio. Época, another weekly, proclaimed over close-up female breasts on its cover: "FREEDOM".
Most people outside Brazil would think the country and certainly Rio is the uncensored paradise for those wishing to expose their bodies. Not so. It was a controversial action by the police that set in motion a chain reaction culminating with Rio's governor, Anthony Garotinho, an evangelical Christian, to allow topless bathing in beaches all over the state.
Rio's mayor Luiz Paulo Conde followed suit announcing the creation of a nude beach in the city. "It's going to be the summer of the topless bather," declared Conde. As expected, the Catholic Church is fuming and more than one person on moral grounds has already threatened with court injunctions to prevent topless bathing to become legal on Rio beaches.
It all started on January 9, a Sunday, when the police detained Rosemeri Moura Costa, 34, and her boyfriend Antônio Saraiva de Almeida, 63, at Reserva Beach, in Recreio dos Bandeirantes on Rio's west side, because the woman was sunbathing without her top. The practice of going topless on Rio's beaches has been tolerated for years and foreign tourists from Europe have being doing it without being bothered.
Rosemeri has unwillingly become the heroine of the movement. She is the mother of a 16-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy and was used to baring her breasts at Recreio dos Bandeirantes, a place where nobody seemed to pay attention to this kind of behavior anymore. But some 20 men from the military police came armed with batons, rifles and even machine guns, in response to a complaint, they say. When Almeida tried to defend his girlfriend, who refused to cover her breasts as ordered, he was slapped and the woman ended up going to jail accused of obscenity.
The violence of it all stunned Brazilians and the world. CNN carried the news throughout the planet. Less than 48 hours after the incident women across the state had won the right to walk bare breasted on all public beaches. The discussion to allow women to expose their bosoms on Rio's sands or not, split high ranking police officials. Josias Quintal, the secretary for Public Security, for example, was in favor of continuing the repression of the practice, but ended up ordering the police to adopt the new, "look-the-other way" policy.
Rio's Environmental Secretary Maurício Lobo came out in defense of the "naturalists", the name nudists prefer to be called in Brazil. In 1994 the secretary had reserved Abricó beach for those who like to sunbathe in the buff, but a court injunction prevented this from happening. In the end, Public Security Secretary, Josias Quintal, determined that police should leave topless enthusiasts alone even though he is personally against women showing their boobies in public.
Quintal tried to argue, "There are families who are more conservative and that are offended by this behavior." But he did not convince the majority. Moreover he couldn't explain why the police were in force on the beach to prevent naked breasts but incapable of explaining the origin of body parts that showed up on several beaches, that same week, apparently the result of gang feuds over drug territory.
José Carlos Dias, the Minister of Justice himself, entered the discussion. In a statement to Isto É he said: "Since when is nudity an obscene act? The police response was an obscenity. It was pornographic! It was really appalling. I saw a beautiful scene on a Grecian beach. There were women in swimsuits, others in string bikini, others going topless, and still others naked. It became funny because everybody would go the way they wanted. I, of course, kept my swimsuit on all the time."
The state of Bahia, which has been more liberal in this front, used the occasion to publish an ad in national newspapers with a topless girl on the beach and the caption: "In Bahia you can since 1500." 1500 is the date the Portuguese arrived in Brazil. Pero Vaz de Caminha, the reporter on board, wrote to Portugal's King about the women Indians showing their "shameful parts without any shame".
The controversy and the new measures, brought scores of snoopers to Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and also several women new to the practice of topless bathing, ready for any sacrifice and eager to show their mammary glands to the media cameras that showed up in the area. People like Cristina Ferraz, 21, explained her naked breasts with: "Everybody is taking it off and I'm doing the same."
In the days following the police violence, there were several protests on the beach. In one of them, in legendary Posto 9 in Ipanema, the police observed from afar, a group of students who took off the tops of their bikinis and covered their bare breasts with placards proclaiming their freedom to expose themselves as they wished. Some of the phrases on the cards: "Down with hypocrisy", "It's my body and I decide what to do with it". Some men in the area adhered to the protest donning themselves the discarded bikini tops.
Wrote Veja magazine: "To forbid the topless bathing is a contradictory stance in Brazil, country that exports images of almost naked dancers during the Carnaval parades and where the TV helps to create sexual symbols as Tiazinha, Feiticeira and the dancers from the group É o Tchan. The Globeleza mulata, the symbol of Globo network during Carnaval, is shown without anything over her skin, besides body paint in strategic places, and it never occurred to the MPs to enter the studios of Globo to detain executives of the TV station for indecency."
Mayor Luiz Paulo Conde reminded that Rio has always been the place in Brazil where behavioral changes and trends start. "Beachgoers have shown that they live at ease with topless bathing," Conde remarked. Rio never lost its position as a trendsetter even after losing the capital to Brasília and much of its glamour to cosmopolitan São Paulo. It was in Rio that the bikini was introduced in the '60s and then the tanga (string bikini) in the late '70s. The fio dental (dental floss) and the asa delta (hang glider) minuscule bottoms appeared during the '80s. Many believe that topless bathing came too late: exactly 29 years after it was introduced in France and from there spread throughout Europe.