There are two memories of my recent trip to Brazil that are ingrained in my brain for life. The first is riding a very crowded public bus through Rio. The driver took a corner so fast that the whole bus lifted onto two wheels. Upon landing it, the whole bus erupted in cheers. The second is a gathering of men in an airport terminal, intently watching a women’s indoor volleyball game. The stadium was packed to the rafters, and men stopped mid-stride to catch the on-screen action.
And if you don’t yet get what was so special about the second one, let me try again. This was a WOMEN’S game on live TV. These women were fully-clothed, serious athletes. And MEN were watching it without irony. Not mocking a ‘girl’ game. Not ogling body parts. Just boys watching girls play sports for fun.
Brazil was a conundrum to me (and way more ‘developing nation’ than I thought it was going to be). They have a female president, but outside our hotel, I saw the usual developing nation female employment otherwise known as prostitution. Always the same image – skinny, attractive local girl tottering off after a fat, white male.
On the beaches in Rio, men were equally as vain as women – if not more so. I saw men combing their greased hair in car windows, doing pull-ups beachside, running in 90 degree heat through the sand. Women with gloriously round bottoms, meanwhile, lounged serenely on sarongs. Men were by far and away the head-turners in a crowd of people (though I may be slightly biased in my outlook here). And for possibly the first time in my life, I felt encouraged to walk around in a bikini with no cover-up on – even with a slightly oversized posterior in tow. Just do as the Brazilian women do and shake your jelly with joy.
Like many big cities in developing nations, Rio is surging ahead because women are limiting the number of children they have with contraception. (Abortions are illegal – it’s a Catholic country – so many women opt to have their tubes tied.) And like the entire world, poor women are going out and making the money to support the family – who has time for babies? Certainly not Brazilian women – a full quarter of Cariocas (Rio residents) still live in abject poverty.
But let’s get back to that volleyball game. After years of listening to American guys make fun of girls’ sports, it was genuinely exciting to see men actually interested in women’s sports. And when I remember Rio, I will block out the image of women selling their bodies street side and instead concentrate on the fact that in Brazil, women can be President, love their bodies and command respect by playing sports. C’mon America – catch up.