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Fat Acceptance Activists Take Over Brazilian Beach Just Before Carnival

Feb 21 2017 3:13 PM
Fat Acceptance Activists Take Over Brazilian Beach Just Before Carnival

All photos by Emily Jensen

Rio's first "Day of Fat People on the Beach" celebrated bikinis and body positivity on one the city's most beloved tourist spots.

With Rio Carnival just a few days away, Brazilian beach culture is at its peak. Locals and tourists march up and down the coast dressed in costumes and adorned with glitter as they head to pre-Carnival celebrations, and Arpoadar beach is no exception. Located on the peninsula that separates Copacabana and Ipanema and with postcard views of the iconic Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountain, the Praia do Arpoador is one of Rio de Janeiro's most popular beaches.

On Saturday, local activists chose its picturesque sands as the setting for Rio's first Dia de Gordes na Praia ("Day of Fat People on the Beach" in Portuguese). Organized by the non-profit journalism collective Mídia Ninja in collaboration with local YouTubers Alexandra Gurgel and Bernardo Boëchat, the event intended to bring visibility to Brazil's still nascent fat acceptance movement. But on a smaller level, the day is also just about getting people of different shapes and sizes out to the beach—a way of combating the pervasive myth of the singular beach body. Over the space of the afternoon, 50 plus-size attendees came down to enjoy the beach and take part in group discussions on fatphobia.

Dia de Gordes is part of a larger movement across Brazil to make the beach more welcoming, with various meet-ups popping up across coastal towns throughout the summer. A similar event took place earlier this month in Florianópolis, the capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina. That particular event was met with much resistance and ridicule on social media, with critics of the movement dismissing the idea that fat people aren't allowed on the beach.

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"Of course there never existed a law to prevent fat people from going to the beach," explains Boëchat, a vlogger who discusses topics including homophobia and fat acceptance on his channel Bernardo Fala. "The issue instead is that we should be able to come to the beach without dealing with societal pressures against fat people."

Social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram have proved valuable for combating those pressures. As part of Dia de Gordes in Rio, Mídia Ninja livestreamed a group discussion about fat acceptance on the beach with the organizers, coining the hashtag #OcupaVerão (#OccupySummer) to go with the event. Traditional Brazilian media is almost entirely dominated by Globo, the mega-conglomerate that controls the country's largest television network, as well as various newspapers, magazines, and websites. Activists don't see those outlets as places to encourage change. "As [fat people] don't appear in the media, we have to do our part. It shows that it's normal. We can go to the beach," Gurgel says.

Gurgel's YouTube channel, Alexandrismos, has amassed over 33,000 subscribers since launching in 2015. There she discusses issues relating to fatphobia, such as sex and relationships, eating disorders and media representation, all with a candid sense of humor. In a recent upload, she criticized an episode of Malhação, a long-running Brazilian soap opera centered on young people at a gym, for perpetuating fatphobia and misogyny.

Many of the narratives about fat people that Gurgel and Boëchat intend to challenge can be found around the world—the myths that your life begins when you lose weight or that all fat people are unhealthy, for example—but Rio's obsession with fitness culture makes fatphobia especially difficult to combat. Programs like Malhação are just one of many that idealize a certain body type, particularly for women. That body is at once thin, toned, and voluptuous, with white but bronzed skin and long flowing hair. And—of course—clad in a bikini.

Bikinis are plentiful on Arpoador beach, with vendors selling swimwear up and down the beach, but neither they nor the majority of clothing stores cater to plus-size customers. And the problem is worse outside of major cities like Rio de Janeiro. Xana Gallo, a singer from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, told fellow attendees at Dia de Gordes that plus-size swimsuits aren't even spoken of in her hometown. "In order to get here, we first have to be able to buy something to wear," she says. "Before even getting to the beach we face a barrier."

HashTag Bazar founder Larissa Alves with her husband.

Most of the plus-size clothing available in Brazil appears to be designed with the goal of covering bodies rather than enhancing them, and plus-size women who want fashionable clothing have to create their own spaces.

Larissa Alves, who started the monthly plus-size pop-up market HashTag Bazar, and Babu Carreira, owner of the online plus-size shop Big Brechó, both hit the beach for Dia de Gordes. Alves says one of her customers didn't even know bikinis in her size existed before coming to Hashtag Bazar. "It's not just about the beach, though the beach is responsible for this myth of the perfect body," she adds.

Of course, fatphobia is about much more than just the limited sizing in fashion brands. As Boëchat emphasizes, it is important not to conflate beauty standards—which put pressure on all people, and particularly women, to be thin—and fatphobia, which specifically harms those with fat bodies.

"The biggest problem I see is that fat people are dehumanized," Boëchat says. "Others think they don't have a right to mental health if they're not in the process of losing weight."

Alexandra Gurgel, Dríade Aguiar of Mídia Ninja, and Bernardo Boëchat lead the group discussion.

Social media has allowed the fat acceptance movement to blossom, but it also creates a space for the dehumanization that Boëchat refers to. Comments on the Dia de Gordes' Facebook event page called the idea "pathetic and ridiculous." Others made jokes comparing fat people to whales, and one commenter said the day would "have bacon cheeseburgers." The organizers of Dia de Gordes fought back with humor; during their Facebook Live stream of the event, they held up a sign reading "#VaiTerX-bacon" (#ThereWillBeBaconCheeseburgers).

With the humiliation of fat people so normalized both online and off, extreme weight loss measures are encouraged in Brazil. Bariatric surgery—encompassing both gastric bypass surgery and gastric band surgery—is seen as an easy solution for anyone who is overweight, with little concern for any physical and psychological complications that could occur as a result of the operation. According to the Brazilian Society of Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery (SBCBM), Brazil has the second-highest rate of bariatric surgery in the world, with women making up 76 percent of the recipients.

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During the afternoon's group discussion, organizers asked Juliana, 29, who works with Mídia Ninja, to share her story of weight loss surgery. Juliana says she was pressured to have bariatric surgery when was 22, but the procedure did not lead to easy weight loss. "Sixty kilos was the thinnest I ever got. It wasn't magic. It was really difficult. I wasn't able to eat meat. I became lactose-intolerant." Despite avoiding unhealthy foods, she put weight on again after the surgery. "I felt beautiful at 60 kilos, and I feel beautiful now at 80 kilos. If I had the mindset then that I have now, I wouldn't have gotten the surgery."

In Brazil, some people in favor of body positivity still cringe at the label gordo ("fat" in Portuguese). Some try to soften the word by using its diminutive form, gordinha. At Dia de Gordes however, the word "fat" is used freely.

"When I say, I'm fat, people say, 'No, but you're so pretty! You're cool and nice,'" Gurgel tells the group. "I say, 'I'm pretty, I'm cool, I'm nice, I'm crass, and I'm fat.' It's a physical state, that's all."

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