I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, bikini in hand, anticipating how I’d look once I put it on, as if wearing it in a foreign country was different than wearing it back in the States. “I don’t think enough of my butt will show,” I thought. “They’ll definitely be able to tell I’m a foreigner.” My girlfriend and I had arrived in Rio de Janeiro the day before, Christmas Eve, and would spend Christmas Day at the beach.
The moment we stepped onto the scorching sand of Ipanema, I searched out an opportunity to buy an authentic Brazilian-style bikini (i.e., minimal coverage of butt and breasts). We quickly found a vendor, a man in his 40s, who encouraged me to buy nipple-sized triangle pieces for the breasts and a string thong for the bottom. “É muito pequeno,” I said, handing him back the fistful of material. I wasn’t quite ready to bare it all, but I wanted to fit in with the local culture and also say a temporary adeus to my comparatively prudish American bikini. I settled on a style that covered about half of each soon-to-be tanned butt cheek.
We found a vacant space of sand to spread out our sarongs, then struggled to re-apply sunscreen to our slippery bodies. I purposely turned my back away from the man sitting a meter from us as I applied it to my half-uncovered butt. I stared at a gaggle of women, curves in all the right places, as they strut their stuff along the shoreline. Behind us, four sculpted, tan men played an intense game of futevôlei, using only their glistening shoulders, heads, and feet to loft the ball over the net.
All around me there were beautiful people who looked ready to audition for Rio de Janeiro’s sexiest telenovela, or pose for the cover of Plástica & Beleza (“Plastic and Beauty” magazine). This is what I expected. After all, I was where the famous “Girl from Ipanema” once walked.
The beach was a people-watching paradise. I put on my sunglasses so I could stare longer at people without them knowing. To my left I saw a 50ish-year-old woman with short, greying hair. She was about five feet tall and three feet wide at the hips. Her whole body sagged, covered in wrinkles and cellulite. Yet she wore a very revealing bikini, similar to the style I’d immediately written off as muito pequeno. It was the first time I’d seen such a sight.
Back home, people, especially women, are encouraged to cover up what doesn’t conform to the current beauty standard. Many of us end up in a cycle of self-ridicule, with self-acceptance unattainable. Most popular magazines, even “women’s magazines,” have us convinced there’s something about practically every part of our bodies that needs to be “fixed.” Even being aware of this, I still disapproved of my lower belly pooch.
The stout woman waddled to the shore and plopped into the water. As I stared at her, I pondered what beauty meant to me, to her, to Brazilians.
I continued to study the crowd, and soon realized that the majority of people on Ipanema Beach didn’t have hourglass figures or six-pack abs. Yet, most everybody — flabby, skinny, pale, or wrinkly — exuded self-confidence and happiness, definitions of beauty undervalued back home. Being immersed in that environment quickly affected me, and I could feel my own self-critique starting to fade. Rather than comparing myself to others, I just admired everybody’s confident attitude. Wearing my bikini in a foreign country was actually different than wearing it back home because it changed the way I looked at myself.
After a hot day, the sun was starting to set. I went to wade in the water one last time and marveled at the mélange of beach bodies on the shore. I reaffirmed to myself what I’d always preached (but not always practiced). Just be who you are already. Be your own standard of beauty. And let it all hang out if that feels good to you.
For a moment I felt silly that I had been concerned about prepping my abs in the days leading up to the trip. Then I debated running back to the man selling bikinis to buy something that would make my tan lines just a little narrower.