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Is this bikini sexy, sexism ... or both?
FORTALEZA, Brazil — I bought a Brazilian bikini yesterday.
I think it’s a thong.
OK, it is a thong.
At the behest of my host parents, who said that my American bikini looked like swimwear for men, I dragged myself to a street vendor fair and bit the bullet.
Women of all shapes and sizes wear the hallmark bikini — known as fio dental, or “dental floss” — here in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, where I’ll be living, studying and reporting for the next three months. I don't think its mass would register on an atomic scale.
While I’m all for experimenting and immersing myself in new cultures, I arrived completely prepared to receive as many funny looks as necessary to maintain my dignity and very American bikini tan. The bikini issue was superficial, extremely irrelevant and unimportant to me.
It began on Brazil's Independence Day, Sept. 7. I wore my American bikini my first day at the beach with my host parents. Besides strange looks and laughs, strangers gave me plenty of advice: “Gringa (white girl), you need a fio dental!”
Dramatic, isn’t it? I dismissed this commentary and maybe even judged it. What’s up with this hyper-image-conscious culture? Can’t they just let me be?
Discussing sexual harassment in Brazil with my host parents, I confided that I had experienced cat calls, intimidating stares and perverse comments while getting around the city. Thus, I was apprehensive about baring so much of myself in public.
We talked about similar harassment in New York City and Boston where I'd worked the past two summers. Men could be aggressive and threatening. I'd been taunted and groped on public transportation. It seemed to pass with little notice, and I felt isolated that no one paid much attention or tried to help me.
They seemed mortified.
“You gringas are so cold. That would never happen here," said my host father. "If anyone so much as touched a hair on your head, and you drew attention to yourself or solicited help, he would have 10 people on him. “And if he violated you in any way, he would be ostracized from society — called the worst of the worst."
I wondered if that was like saying we had no racism in the U.S. just because we disdain it publicly.