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Beachwear crackdown bares paradox in Brazilian culture

By Kevin G. Hall, Knight Ridder, The Seattle Times, Thursday 20 January 2000, 06:59 a.m. Pacific

RIO DE JANEIRO - The city known for its scantily clad Carnival dancers and anything-goes approach to sexuality is abuzz. Rio de Janeiro state police arrested a couple over the weekend after the woman refused to cover up her breasts on the beach. They clubbed her boyfriend - in his 60s - when he tried to intervene.

While the scandal ostensibly is over toplessness, the incident is a window into Brazilian culture, where religion and pleasure collide and arbitrary actions by police largely go unpunished.

Brazil boasts the world's largest Roman Catholic population but is constantly at odds with the Vatican over television ads promoting birth control, wide acceptance of the African-origin Candomble religion and sexual liberalism.

Brazilians were surprised when police began cracking down on topless sunbathing last weekend - something the governor of Rio state says will not be repeated. Many Brazilians were outraged and complained of hypocrisy, noting that in early March many Carnival participants will be wearing only a tampa sexo, or organ cover. How can they prohibit it on the beach if they don't at Carnival? asked Marcella Jorge, a publicist who was sunbathing Tuesday with a top on at Rio's famed Ipanema Beach. It's high summer right now in Brazil, which is south of the equator.

Women have been going topless at Rio's beaches since the 1970s, and although the practice is not as widespread as in Europe or even Miami's South Beach, it has been accepted for decades.

Everyday life in Brazil is far from the conservative Catholicism of other Latin American countries. Showing almost everything is common in Rio. Nudity is on display at all newsstands and early evening soap operas frequently contain nude scenes.

Worse things are on television, said Adrian Oliveri, an Ipanema lifeguard.

No clear reason emerged for the sudden prohibition. Some speculated that a dozen officers walking the beaches were simply overzealous.

Among the ironies in the controversy is that many Cariocas, as Rio natives are called, wear thread-thin bikini bottoms called tangas, jokingly referred to as fio dental, or dental floss.

In Brazilian culture, the rear end is the object of sexual attention, not a woman's breasts. Many Brazilian women spend hours on Stairmasters and stationary bicycles - and plenty of money on liposuction - in search of a better bum bum.

Roberto da Matta, a Brazilian and professor of anthropology at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., said the incident may show that while some women do not view breasts as sexual objects, policemen could.

They don't want to desexualize breasts, da Matta said, adding that some men see women baring their breasts as a sign of aggression.

Luiz Paulo Conde, mayor of tourism-dependent Rio de Janeiro, is personally guaranteeing people will be able to sunbathe topless without fear of state police. In fact, Conde has declared this summer in Brazil to be Topless Summer.

The topless issue has spotlighted what many say is a problem in Brazil: abusive police. Many people were especially angry at police clubbing a sunbather in his 60s in front of television cameras.

But James Cavallaro, executive director of the Global Justice Center, a Brazil-based human-rights group, said such police behavior is common.

The beach beating follows recent incidents in which police severely beat a military officer and military police beat a Brazilian photographer on New Year's Eve.

But brute force is generally applied in the favelas, or slums, Cavallaro said, not on the beaches frequented by tourists and wealthy Brazilians.

What is surprising, he said, is they would use their standard tactics of aggressive violence in such a visible place.