To be Beautiful in Brazil
So, this is different. And difficult.
For the past few years, I’ve struggled with chronic anxieties and frustrations related to my body. Having been raised in Asian cultures where being slim is not only celebrated, but also expected, I’ve practiced more self-criticism than self-love in relation to how I look. When certain family members would jokingly comment on my weight, or when I’d constantly notice how slim my friends were, I’d look at myself in reflective surfaces and grab the areas which held the most fat, or glare at the parts that, despite the diet attempts or recent workouts, wouldn’t change. Over the course of several years, I’d say the time spent visually evaluating myself would accumulate to several hours— which is a long time when you consider how empty these hours were. Add in the hours’ worth of mental energy spent worrying about food, their caloric level, their perceived ‘health’ benefits, about social events involving food, about my workout schedule, and about the constant pity parties and guilt-trips, the final calculation would reveal days, perhaps even weeks, spent hating how I looked.
But the scariest thing about disliking your own body is how insidious it is — mentally. It’s never just about disliking your physical appearance. At one point it becomes pure dislike for yourself, spurred on and exacerbated by the thought that you’re ‘failing’ yourself when you make a certain dietary decision, miss a workout, or see stimuli — like photos online, on the streets, or people in general — that remind you of what you should look like, at least to yourself.
I’m already very self-critical. I also have one of the worst guilt complexes known to mankind. Even the smallest glance from an unhappy stranger can leave me paralyzed with shame — even it has nothing to do with me. So imagine what it must’ve been like to criticize the only person for whom there exists no limit for criticism, and how much guilt I felt about things that were completely normal: like drinking an extra cup of soy milk at breakfast, taking a large slice of cake at a birthday party, or not running an extra kilometre even if my ankles were giving in.
The night before I left Hong Kong for my Bridge Year orientation at Princeton, I remember curled up in bed, crying. That evening, after a long day of shuttling to and from last minute appointments and shopping trips, I was so filled with self-loathing I didn’t even have the words to be coherent. My mom was beside me, asking what was wrong, and when she told me I was thinking too much about something that didn’t matter I cried even more. Of course it mattered; these thoughts had mattered to me for years. They’d begun mattering even more in recent months, after I lost a lot of weight between March and July, which, in some small way, made me believe I felt a little better about myself.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case; rather, it had made me even more fragile than I was.
That night, as I finally fell asleep, I decided I was sick of being sick. Because something was wrong, for sure, and it wasn’t doing me any good.
I decided, that night, that Brazil would be my chance to change things.
Yup, gap years can be pretty quixotic. Before one heads off to a distant land, where he or she is no longer bound by the obligations or the expectations that stem from familiarity, it is inevitable that there be a series of goals and thoughts that runs through one’s head. For example, I wanted to become proficient in Portuguese. I wanted to learn to be more spontaneous, à la the typical Bahian (for whom there are always enough hours in a day). I wanted to learn selflessness from an adopted family who would take me in as their own.
Now, I wanted to learn to love myself.
Halfway through the program, I find myself sitting in my room writing this post and thinking what has changed — and what hasn’t, because change (like a typical Bahian) takes its sweet, sweet time to make itself known. And the truth is, I’m feeling very warm inside (and not just because my homestay mother, Inés, unexpectedly entered my room earlier and handed me a spoon and the remains of her passionfruit and condensed milk dessert concoction in a blender).
This morning I looked in the mirror and felt content. I’ve looked in a mirror every day for the past two or three months and had more days where I felt happy with my reflection than unhappy with it. I just had something sugary at nine in the morning, but I’m fine with it; I’m also fine with the fact that last night I had all the foods that I wanted and didn’t feel guilty about it at all. Nowadays I see and feel food as fuel for my daily activities, which on some days includes barbells and other heavy things — new additions I’ve made a part of my life upon coming to Brazil, as inspired by other members of the program (hey David!) and a general willingness to try new things.
Why is this? In the spirit of the title, I can’t neglect the impact being in Brazil, specifically, has had on my new attitudes towards my body image.
Here in Brazil, I feel more empowered, visually-physically that is, than I have in my entire life. Why? Well, walk down the street and you’ll see women of all shapes and sizes in the unabashedly colourful and revealing clothing sold all throughout Avenida Sete and beyond. Go to the beach and you’ll see the same, but with even more revealing bikinis typically associated with Brazil. But beyond the openness with which people present themselves, the way people look at and talk to each other also inspires confidence:people are unafraid to tell one another that they are looking good, and receiving these compliments has always made me walk with an extra bounce to my step.
The gym culture here, however much I may satirize it at times, is also very special. Working out is a big thing in Brazil, perhaps bordering on status-symbol level: everyone owns some form or another of floral or garishly patterned spandex (yours truly included) (yup, I relented) and the gym is almost always active with both men and women. Until now, I’ve almost always associated being ‘fit’ with being ‘skinny’, but being in a Brazilian gym has taught me otherwise. Now I know that ‘fit’ essentially just means ‘healthy’, and different people wear ‘healthy’ in different ways — rock it, even, in the skin-tight spandex and colorful gym gear.
It also helps that my homestay mom seems to want to make me as ‘forte’, or strong, as possible, as is the case with Brazilian hospitality in general. Everyday she offers me a constant flow of good, rich, food, like sweet potatoes and plantains and cassava and beans and — the best of all — chocolate and banana milkshakes. As a mother, she finds joy in seeing others grow, and, as a daughter (however temporary), I find joy in her experience of the sentiment. It is also heartening that food, to her, is an extension of her care and love, which harks back to the integral role food has in the human experience — a role I neglected for years, when I was afraid of what food could do to my body. Beyond the house, when I visit other people’s houses or go to events, there is always an offering of food and drinks…
…which come part and parcel with a culture that celebrates being in the company of others, as well as working to live as opposed to living to work. I’ve learnt that life really is too short, and that we need to aproveitar (take advantage) of a little spontaneity — like a surprise piece of bolo — every day.
And finally, the part of Brazil that makes me feel most beautiful is how Brazilians see beauty. Sure, it’s true that Brazilians are quite invested in their outward appearance. After all, there’s a reason why I see eleven year olds walk to school with brightly colored lips or men strutting about town with impeccably groomed heads. It’s true that looks, to a certain extent, play a part in how one is evaluated in the eyes of others.
Yet the best compliments I’ve received from strangers have all been to do with my jeito, or the way in which I comport myself. My neighbour down the street often takes my hand, kisses it, and thanks me for being so open to a man like him. My other neighbour salutes me on my way to work and tells me that he admires my warmth. Down the street, others comment on my Bahian heart, at the way I stop to talk to strangers, do a little samba for the kids, and smile at those who walk my way. One time, the man who drives around selling canisters of gas stopped his car beside me to tell me he admires my jeito. What I didn’t tell him was that I admired his, too, what with the whole car stopping just to express a kind thought.
All this and more have made me feel more wonderful, more appreciated, than I ever have — not only by others, but also by myself.
So thank you Brazil. Thank you for being beautiful.