BRAZIL: The smaller the better

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My bikini, that looked so skimpy when I tried it on in the Sydney changing room, now looks downright frumpy next to the ultra-tiny dental-floss numbers scattered across Ipanema Beach.

These notorious swimsuits have emerged in a city where going topless is, surprisingly, against the law, as a way of allowing maximum exposure of the body to the sun, but also to the men.

And it’s not just the large proportion of Carioca women with hard, pert bodies who wear them to show their bodies off to the full extent – the larger ladies do too, without the slightest trace of self-consciousness.

The men also sport super-tight and tiny swimming shorts. They stroll, they skate, they run along the length of the beach, ensuring that everyone can get a good look at what they have to offer.

The group of guys stretched out nearby notice us looking at the passing men and decide to try out their English – “You like to look, eh?”

Caught in the act, there’s no point denying it.

“But you don’t like to show?”

They gesture at our saggy, sand-filled pants. “If you look, then it’s polite for you to show too…”

Beach culture in Rio is not about looking or being looked at, it’s about both – a fair exchange.

The next morning, nursing yet another hangover, we down cup after cup of thick Brazilian coffee, nibble on delicious pão de queijo (small cheesy bread pieces) and, possibly still mildly under the influence, we agree to take the plunge.

We brush the greasy crumbs from our lips and head for the nearest bikini shop – a chic little boutique on Ipanema’s Rua Visconde de Pirajá.

A kaleidoscope of colours and patterns hang from the rails. We hover in front of them, dazzled and nervous.

A well-coiffed gent comes over and offers to help, excited by the opportunity to practice his English. He appraises each of us in turn then spins to the rails, expertly picking bikini after bikini, then fills our hands and shoves us into the changing room.

Inside a cubicle, I pull on the first bikini top – great colour and great fit. But then I reach for the bottoms, barely bigger than a g-string, and seemingly made for a child.

I take a deep breath and pull them on. Thank god I went for my first Brazilian brazilian yesterday.

I twist my bottom to the mirror to survey the damage. Two butt cheeks gleam like mounds of unbaked dough on either side of the tiny strip of cloth – dimpled and painfully pasty.

“Do you have a slightly larger size?” I call out.

Promptly another pair of bikini bottoms are handed over the door of the cubicle. The size says medium, but they look no bigger than the last lot.

“Maybe the next one up?” I plead, queasy with embarrassment. I hear laughing from the shop staff as they forage for a large pair.

“Show me!” comes the impatient order from outside. “Come on ladies, don’t be shy. You are in Brazil…”

By this point, I am wearing an extra large pair of bottoms and still feel more naked than ever before. It takes about ten minutes of gentle coaxing in his lilting honey voice for us to sheepishly emerge.

“Wow!’ he chortles.

Our faces both flush a glorious shade of puce.

Belleza, belleza,” he mutters appreciatively as he circles us inspecting every inch of mortified flesh.

Desperate for the excruciating experience to end, we pull our clothes back on over the teeny weeny bikinis and fork over the cash.

The man is delighted that he has helped impart some Brazilian sexiness to two awkward gringos. He blows us a kiss as we trip out of the shop.

Back on the beach, with the aid of an ice cold beer, we drop our pants and await the howls of laughter.

But nobody bats an eyelid.

A few men glance appreciatively at the addition of two extra bottoms to the array that are already on show. Someone walks past and murmurs something to us in Portuguese – he thinks we are Brazilian.

Suddenly, we stop feeling so damned uptight. We assume our positions on the sand, determined to tan those white bottoms up.

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