Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil

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Volume 28 , Issue 1.

Alexander Edmonds

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Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Volume 28 , Issue 1 Spring Pages Related Information. A hundred shades of brown and pink contrast with wet nylon in primary colors. Waves slap lightly on the wet sand. Children laugh, their mouths smeared with ice cream.

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Men from the Favela Surf Club lie out by the break point, bobbing in the not- quite-clean sea. They rise one by one, and for a moment they seem to mi- raculously stand on the water in a long arc facing the condos and, higher up, the rocky ridge dotted with brick shanties.

Amid the hedonism, there is urban order: tribal divisions, rules of eti- quette, rituals of courtship. Far- ther south lies the brilliant white sand beach of Copacabana, a former resort for the sick. Sea bathing was once permitted only for the ill, and then only before eight in the morning. But the opening of the art deco Copacabana Palace in inaugurated a new era in which Rio de Janeiro would become a symbol of tropical cool and sensuality. Now the chic reputation of Copa- cabana has faded like the pastel colors of its poorly built condominiums.

A couple with skin the color and texture of leather come in nothing except thongs and bathing suit for a quick dip. They are irritated by the family next to them, farofeiros, they say, who break beach etiquette by eating meat dipped in manioc flour. Many of the elite, who once lived in mansions built on the cooler, forest- covered hills, now occupy Ipanema and Leblon.

Far south from the old city, these narrow strips of land thread through steep rock faces and the ocean. The beaches here too are divided into microhabitats. On the quiet south- ern end, Ester takes her two kids to play in the sand. Against a backdrop of tropical landscape, playboys and pitbulls survey the field like generals, their brown smooth chests sculpted by the bench press. Here the custom is to stand, not lie on the sand, the better to see, and be seen. A few yards away, and no less interested in the display of flesh, two other tribes gather, the gais and intelectuais.

Surf pounds long swathes of sand running parallel to strip malls. This is the land of the emergentes, those newly arrived to the middle class. They left murderous and congested urban neighborhoods to live in condos that rise up eerily out of cleared swamp- lands by the edge of the rainforest. The transition from ocean, sand, and rainforest to life on the asphalt is gradual. Bodies generally become more clothed the farther they are from the beach, though occasionally a man, tan and naked except for a Speedo, can be seen on a busy avenue, like a lone figure wandering through an em- barrassing dream.

Closer to the center the city becomes decadente. The Por- tuguese word describes not luxury but rather a tragic process of decay and neglect.

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The old neighborhoods in the center, though, show another kind of life in their dying. Tropical vegetation thrives amid rotting infrastruc- ture.

In one square, meat warming in the sun is sold from wooden wag- ons. A man with a stump gives out political pamphlets with his good arm. The trees line the streets like soft, warm curtains. Maids on their day off begin to go home.

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Most are dressed in heels and jeans, tan too like their mistresses. One mother goes into the street to pick up her child, who is still young enough to be allowed to kick a ball with the kids who live in the building. The pair stroll hand in hand to the gypsy van that will take them an hour or two through the Saturday night traffic to a suburb with muddy roads and tiny, whitewashed churches, arriving late, but in time for a mid- night dance. Two teenage boys drink muscle-enhancing bombas, while their girlfriends savor a pale green vitamina made with avocado and milk.

The foursome walk toward Arpoa- dor. Fishermen stand on the edge of the outermost rocks and cast into the darkness. The glowing bobs make a long wobbly arc into the black sky.

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On one side of the break point a simple gym has been improvised. They do neat repetitions on the chin-up bars, the sea breeze drying their sweaty backs. For those who will go out, preparations begin. Dona Iraci returns home from the funeral of a neighbor, a teenage boy. Already the rumbling bass of a baile funk can be heard mingling with the sharp reports that locals expertly identify as firecrackers or else gunshots. One sits alone writing science fiction stories featuring mulata cyborgs while others drink shots, sweating into their beards.

As the night progresses, it takes on an apocalyptic feeling. Unlike in New York it is the buses, not the taxis, that are reckless, windows rattling as they careen down the wide avenues. At a thousand parties, conversations break apart at the first chords of a classic by Gilberto Gil or Jorge Ben. Grand- mothers and children imitate the racy choreographies of TV dancers. Fights break out, entertainment for soccer fans or the thieves who hang out in the shadows of discos.

On one ocean avenue they stand in the glare of the oncoming traffic.


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Boys in more discrete positions occupy the street behind, while a neighborhood in the old center is the turf of the travestis, transvestites, who know better than anyone the pain—and rewards—of beauty. How did plastic surgery—a practice often associated with body hatred and alienation—take root in this city known for its glorious embrace of sen- suality and pleasure?


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He meant that in leaving their own society they often acquire a higher social status. Yet some of my infor- mants are in fact my social superiors. Many are wealthier. I only met Ester in a later period of fieldwork. When I first begin research in , I find myself in a milieu closer to that inhabited by her former employer, Dr. Soon after arriving in Rio I interview a plastic surgeon, Dr.

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