What does calling Brazilian women “sexy” actually mean?
An article on the impact colonialism has in the lives of Brazilian women today.
By Mirna Wabi-Sabi
Niterói is the city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, and its name means “hidden water” in Tupi. The leader of the now extinct Temiminó tribe, Araribóia, founded Niterói in the late 1500’s. It’s the only city in Brazil to have been founded by an Indigenous person. In the 16th century, Portuguese settlers married Indigenous women and rewarded Indigenous leaders, such as Araribóia, with expensive gifts and prestigious positions. In return, the Indigenous tribe would join the fight against other Indigenous tribes, and European settlers from France and the Netherlands.
These other European countries that fought Portugal for control over the colony were not as successful in collaborating with the locals. This was because they preferred to preserve the racial, religious and cultural segregation for racist reasons. Despite the Pope’s claim that Indigenous people had a ‘blood defect’, Araribóia eventually converted to Christianity and changed his name to Martim Afonso. Portugal’s ability to convert the Indigenous to Christianity, and to have mixed marriages and offspring, lead to ‘successful’ alliances in war and land development. Of course, these alliances were not motivated by sentiments of equality, but instead by patriarchal capitalist interests.
Today, the few people in Niterói who remember Araribóia consider him a traitor for converting to Christianity and for allowing the Western domination of his tribe. It’s becoming widely known, though, that Indigenous collaboration with Europeans was done ‘at knife point’, and was also a survival strategy that allowed for the preservation of a small portion of the Indigenous population. My great-great-grandmother was an Indigenous woman who was ‘hunted down by lasso’ by the much older white man who was my great-great-grandfather, and I can safely say this is a common tale among Brazilian families. Whether this story can be taken literally or not, Christianity, marriage, sexual assault, and slavery were a brutal reality for Indigenous women nevertheless.
Mixed marriages, or miscegenation, became an unavoidable part of Brazil’s sense of identity. It’s been considered a weakness to be fixed through racial cleansing, or a source of power, beauty and pride if well managed. Unlike the United States’ ‘one-drop rule’, white Brazilian men tried to claim that they could genetically ‘fix’ the ‘lower’ races. This concept came from white European men who wanted to justify their sexual relationships with women of color, and their emotional attachment to the families they were creating. “The sexual fantasy of the erotic encounter with the Other is simultaneously the fantasy of whitening/browning the nation by eliminating “Africanoid exaggerations”” (Alvaro Jarrin, 2010). This was the beginning of Brazil’s mingling of medical research, race, and beauty.
“Cosmetic citizenship” is a term used by Alvaro Jarrín in 2010 to describe Southeastern Brazil’s relationship with beauty in connection to race, class and gender hierarchy. We still struggle with the white supremacist ideology imposed on us during hundreds of years of colonization, and we hold the Brazilian working class (economically) hostage to white bourgeois beauty (and behavior) standards. We associate beauty with health, wealth, white(er)ness.
Too many people talk about the plastic surgery phenomenon in Brazil and the sexualized exoticism of Brazilian women as something we brought upon ourselves, claiming Brazilian women have nice asses and are wild in bed because that’s what they are ‘by nature’, as if that statement was an objective fact (the neutral gaze). This idea is reinforced by the media and by popular culture, which is dominated by white capitalist patriarchy in Brazil and abroad.
Whoever makes claims that Brazil is past colonialism because we’ve become some kind of superpower needs to stop listening only to the Brazilian elite, and start listening to the Brazilian masses. We have an incredible amount of resources, and we struggle every day to seize control of them. We are not an American style imperialist power, even though the Brazilian elite might want that. They are mesmerized by the American dream of financial success and by the European dream of white supremacist racial cleansing, while the majority of the population is held financially hostage and struggles to survive.
Even though the Brazilian elite participates in this oppression, it doesn’t mean Western powers aren’t responsible. In fact, they are responsible for the destabilization of all of Latin America for hundreds of years, and still are today. Brazilian women should not and will not be reduced to the stereotypes of being sexy and spicy, nor subjected to exoticism and harassment. As a Brazilian woman, I’m tired of white Western Europeans trying to educate me about my own country, and even on how I should perceive myself.
Niterói is my hometown. Much of our Indigenous heritage has been devalued, destroyed and forgotten. The legacy of this destruction defines us today. The white supremacist sexual assault of Indigenous and African women, the slaughter of Indigenous peoples, languages, spirituality, and culture; these are all still part of our lives whenever we see a Christian church, whenever we forget what the names of our neighborhoods mean, whenever a woman feels pressure to conform to an elitist and racist beauty standard, whenever we reject our Indigenous blood and heritage, and whenever we worship foreign currency over nature.
So, next time you see the “Brazilian Issue” of something with a picture of a big ass on the cover, see it for what it really is: the colonized female body being dissected, analyzed, criticized, sexualized, and sold.
(Additional references: bell hooks, Angela Davis, Gloria Wekker)
 TW: rape. This is not only true in Brazil. “Indigenous women in the US experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country” (Aljazeera). See Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast on Pocahontas and Rape Culture.
is an intersectional feminist and decolonial activist from Brazil currently investigating Indigenous heritage. She publishes zines (Something Printed for Reading), and organizes educational events (DIY Workshop).