By Luma Andrade
‘To be a woman, to come to light bringing the chopped soul
to the joys of life; the freedom and love;
to try from glory the ethereal and proud climb,
in the eternal aspiration of a superior dream..
To be a woman, to desire another pure and winged soul
to be able to, with it, transpose the infinite;
to feel the sad, insipid, isolated life,
to seek a companion and find a Master…
To be a woman, to calculate all the short infinity
for the wide expansion of the desired surge,
in the spiritual ascent to perfect ideals…
To be a woman, and, oh! atrocious, tantalizing sadness!
to remain in life like an inert eagle, trapped
in the heavy shackles of social precepts!’
The wise, heartfelt words of Gilka Machado, an exceptional Brazilian poet and activist. While staring at the window yesterday, I began to reflect about how I am specifically hyper sexualized in Europe, and this (much loved) poem of hers sparked in my mind.
As we can see, she captures the hardships of living with social prejudices being thrown at us. In the first verse when she refers to the soul as “chopped”, she is referring to the untranslatable word “talhada”, being “any part that was cut out of something; chip; chunk”. With this, we can interpret the soul as being limited, with opportunities and liberties being cut off from her, in contrast to the illicit liberties which men can disfruit from.
It doesn’t really matter which type of liberty I am exercising at the moment. Being the case of late night bars or early morning walks, I can not count on my fingers how many times I have had to hear “Oh I love Brazilian women. Can I see you twerk?”. This is the upsetting reality of a Latina living in the so-called colonizer’s land and getting this answer as the first response from men when I tell them I am Brazilian.
Allow me to take you on a trip way back in time
When we were little, we were mostly taught in school that our country was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral and his fellow Portuguese companions. But that is, in fact, very far from reality. The marvelous Brazilian lands were first habited by the indigenous people, and the time-frame of when this exactly happened is unknown. However, I can tell you the exact day that my people started to bleed.
The Portuguese colonizers invaded the joyful lands on the 22nd of April 1500. Throughout the painful years of the colonization process, the Portuguese Jesuits (who arrived in 1549) implemented systems which forced the indigenous people to abandon their roots in order to adapt to the morals of Europe. With this, they started to enslave the indigenous women population inside family houses and force them to generate children outside the marriage of powerful lords.
Before the Europeans arrived, indigenous women were the ones that ensured production and agriculture for subsistence of their family, and also took care of the house. The men were mostly responsible for artistic productions and transmission of indigenous culture to descendents, but then were being exploited in the fields and mills.
Sexualization of Amerindian and Black women
Even with the failed attempt to enslave the indigenous population for as long of a term as the Europeans wanted, indigenous women were still being seen and treated as sexual objects, due to the lack of sexual taboos in their culture. Through the eyes of the colonizers, they were symbols of sin, with naked bodies, black hair and brown skin waiting to serve them sexually. The collective shred of an entire culture and its habits, taking their unique beauty away and sexualizing their sole existence. It truly makes you wonder how empty one must be to do so.
As Brazil was being explored, other parts of the world were also undergoing the same pain. As demanded by the Portuguese when seeking stronger labor, the (in)human traffic of black African women and men under horrible conditions arrived in Brazilian territory. As if exploring and causing destruction to one nation was not enough, but anyways, we shall continue. Enslaved, the men were exploited in the fields with rough manual labor, and women were slaves and concubines of large social and acquisitive power families. With this, black women were not only subjected to the abominable and inhumane conditions of slavery, but their bodies were also perceived and used as sexual objects to satisfy the boss’s desires.
Gabriel de Sena Jardim and Cláudio de São Thiago Cavas, two Brazilian researchers, firmly stated in their paper Post-colonialism and decolonize feminism, when referring to the colonization era in Brazil:
“In the colonies, female bodies were often the place of a different discursive power; women were perceived not only sexually, but as reproductive subjects […] Black and indigenous women were not even considered human, but beasts or savages, their sexualities were the object of curiosity and study by naturalistic scientific discourse. In the metropolises, the exoticism of the black female body was also exhibited in shows, anatomy and medicine seminars, with comparative studies in ethnology that sought to prove its inferiority, or hypersexuality, in relation to the western white woman. The signs of racial otherness have become important in the construction of a transgressive female sexuality”
With this quote in mind, we can reflect on the distorted portrayal and marginalization of non-western women during the colonization era, according to their colors and cultural contexts in Brazil. Such factors also come along with the power of colonial speech. The Europeans upholded the power of characterizing what was human and civilized, resulting in the exclusion and hypersexualization of black and indigenous people, especially women.
The study of colonization is an immense field which requires specific analysis of different factors of Africans and Amerindians. However, the little I told you was necessary in order to provide a brief background on the roots of the issue.
Interconnection – Past and Contemporary
You might be wondering why I told you these aspects related to colonization, and my answer is that it is all interconnected, and still rooted in society nowadays. It is extremely important to recognize the relationship between colonization, and the contemporary sexualization of women from colonized countries, specifically. Of course, there are numerous other factors which also contribute to this issue, but with no doubt, colonization is one of the most decisive ones.
The objectification started way back then, and thousands of years passed by. Yet, some European people still look at us as nothing more than mere sexual objects. It is undeniable that the existence of such stereotypes of women in contemporary society reflects how our entire system fails us. Not only is this the case, but it also showcases how media propaganda finds room in our subconscious. With this in mind, I created a Google Form in order to gather a tiny sample of different perspectives of Brazilian women in the mind of Europeans.
Of course, we need to take into consideration the numerous limitations of this form due to the lack of appropriate measures. In the anonymous form, I asked the respondent to list some words which come to mind when thinking about Brazilian women, and there was a wide range of different responses.
The importance of being confronted with our own biases
Out of 203 European male and female respondents, 94 listed words related to sexualized views of us. Some of the most common associations were:
- “Big uncovered jiggly butt”
- “Big butt, dancing a lot, minimal clothing, a very biased view”
- “Tanned skin, wavy hair, bikinis, and Brazilian butt lift”
- “Carnaval, dancing, big butts”
- “Sadly tiny bikinis, big boobs, big booty”
- “Big butt, tanned (oily) skin. Poverty”
Even though this is an extremely limited way of gathering information, it still gives us a basic notion of the contemporary perception of Brazilian women through the eyes of European people. An interesting factor is the various responses of people realizing that they sexualized Brazilian women more in comparison to other nations, and that’s important too!
No matter how bright the sun is shining, we do not just wake up with our thoughts and perceptions decolonized. To understand the importance of paying attention to our own biases and stereotypes is to understand the knowledge process. Although, I hate to tell you that this is not a calm process.
I received many messages from friends saying ‘OMG I’m so ashamed that I unconsciously eroticized your people and wasn’t even fully aware of it.’ And that is completely normal. I do not blame you for not realizing this, since propaganda in the media is intensely rooted in our minds, unfortunately. We do not even have to think much to realize that colonized and misogynistic views are what we see everywhere, even if we do not notice it at first glance. Therefore, the urge to battle against those perceptions needs to come from each person and their willingness to do so as well, because no one can decolonize your perceptions for you.
I just want to tell you: there is plenty of time, room and resources for you to start this process. Do not realize your own biases and do nothing about it, because there are millions of women who suffer from it on a daily basis.
Colonial patriarchy still present in society
One of the problems behind this immediate association of an entire female population with eroticized stereotypes is the creation of unrealistic “beauty” standards which Brazilian women will further be expected to meet, and will be explored upon. An extraordinary analysis of Maria Inácia D’Ávila Neto (1994) provides us an enriching insight on sex and race disparities in Brazil in a postcolonial psychosociological reading. One of her conclusions was that the roots of colonial patriarchy are still present in gender relations, where the “women’s body would be the point of convergence of power strategies, indicating women not as a single category, but with generational, ethnic and cultural capital differences”.
The existence of a patriarchal and capitalist system, in which companies and whole misogynistic industries make profit from the sexualization of female bodies, only reinforces all of the preconceptions we live under. According to a well-known researcher, Kelly Akemi Kajihara, there was a huge dissemination of the figure of the sensual woman as a national tourist product of Brazil, coming from the government during the decades of 1960 and 1980. This was also done by independent agencies of tourism, and only stopped in 2003. We are talking about more than 40 years of international portrayal of women as sexual objects as a way to attract tourists.
The end product of this is still alive and can be seen until today, the so-called “collective imaginary of the sexualized Brazilian”. But how could it not be? Our president, Jair Bolsonaro, explicitly said “Anyone who wants to come here to have sex with a woman, feel free. Now, [Brazil] cannot be known as a paradise of the gay world, of gay tourism.” The hardships of battling against stereotypes when your own president reinforces the dissemination of them is, clearly, one of those moments where you try to see a light at the end of the tunnel in order to continue but the void is nothing, but painful.
“I like Brazilian women” – But we are tired of you
One day, I was at The Student Hotel in the Hague, and I had the following dialogue:
“Yoo, nice to meet you! Are you also an international student?” he said.
“Hey, nice to meet you too. Yeah, I’m Brazilian but started my bachelors at Leiden now. What about you?” I replied.
“What? No, you are too white to be Brazilian. Even though your body tells me you are indeed a Brazilian woman.”, he said with a smile on his face, probably thinking he was rocking it. This leaves me wondering in which world this would be the case.
All of the sudden, I was not really there anymore. My mind went back to all of the achievements of our feminine population, all of our collective fights, all of our intellectual power, our discoveries. I wish people talked and knew more about this. I wish people heard our voices more often.
To acknowledge that Brazilian women are of all colors, shapes and forms is to acknowledge Brazilian women. With this, no one has the right to place an entire community in a box, checking if they fall under the stereotypes you might have on your mind.
I wonder if men who came to me and said that they liked Brazilian women really do like us. Do they read the work made by Brazilian women? Do they consume Brazilian artists’ products? Do they listen to Brazilian women? Do they buy from Brazilian women? Do they support Brazilian women? Or do they only like to sexualize Brazilian women?
I speak right now for all the ones who came before me, and to all the ones still to come, we are not at your service.
Edited by Mia Black, artwork by Kim Ville