Pagina Principal  

English Report

The mass media –particularly through advertising– constructs an image of the perfect woman with the perfect body. The perfect woman is young, blond, slim, and tall with voluptuous breasts and long hair. At the same time in our consumer culture, eating and shopping are compulsive acts that relieve the pain of existence, as if the value of women in society was directly related to their weight and proximity to the standard of beauty.

Women’s rights over their bodies

* Miriam Nobre

 The expression “Our bodies belong to us” has been one of the feminist movement’s rallying cries during the 70’s. It conveys women’s desire for autonomy, without the supervision of the family, the State, or religious institutions. It implies a challenge to the imposition of a standard of beauty, to the rules of sexuality and reproduction. Apparently changes in customs, the increased presence of women in public life, and technology developments such as the birth control pill had turned the rallying cry into reality. But, for how many women? And for how long? What is the current state of the debate about women’s rights over their body? What we have seen in the last few years is that the pressure exerted by men, the religious institutions, and the State has increased by market demands.

A perfect body for sale

 The mass media –particularly through advertising– constructs the image of the perfect woman with the perfect body. The perfect woman is young, blond, slim, and tall with voluptuous breasts and long hair.

 Large breasts can be bought in milligrams of silicon. According to the secretary general of the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery, the number of teenagers who have silicone implants has risen 300 percent in the past ten years. As a young girl said about her surgery: “My parents did not want to allow me to have the surgery done, but my body is mine, not theirs”.

 It would be simplistic to relate the statement of this young girl to the “Our bodies belong to us” slogan, because it would mean ignoring the machine that moves the plastic surgery business in Brazil. We are the second country in plastic surgeries in the world, after the United States. In 2003, 400 thousand procedures were done in the country. The growth is also a consequence of the expansion of the business among lower income women, thanks to financing, and paying by installments.

 But the risks are not only financial. In November 2002, Maria de Oliveira, a maid, died from complications after surgery to reduce her breasts. Five women died between 2000 and 2002 after a liposuction surgery performed by doctor Marcelo Caron in Goiânia and Brasília.

 Stories like these reveal the anxiety with which women from all social classes have lived in relation to their bodies. At the same time, in our consumer culture, eating and shopping are compulsive acts that relieve the pain of existence.

 According to the World Health Organization, eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are one of the main causes of death among young women. At the beginning, young women think they can control their bodies, deciding when to eat and vomit or refusing to eat, but, very soon, they perceive themselves as prisoners of the obsession to be slim.

 Surgeries to reduce the size of the stomach are another extreme measure in the search for the ideal weight. Between 1978 and 1993, 15 surgeries of this kind were performed in Brazil; in 1999, 900 and in 2001, 3000 surgeries.

 The surgeries to reduce the size of the stomach recall the surgeries to remove part of the brain that were done to people diagnosed with mental illness in the nineteenth century. An American company patented a treatment for people who suffer obesity, based on electroshocks. Both examples make us think about how a person who is different from the beauty model is treated in our society.

 What leads women to undergo plastic surgeries in conditions that are as precarious as their incomes?  And the extreme methods to loose weight, wrinkles, age marks and any sign of individuality that distances them from the icon-woman of the moment? The way in which the others see her, to keep a love relationship, and even the weight-watch programs for employees run by some companies are among the answers to this question.

Embryos wanted

 According to a general consensus in a patriarchal society, a woman can only be happy if she is a mother. Today, many feminists believe that reproduction and caring for others are essential to humanity. But they also demand the government’s responsibility in delivering pre-natal and birth care, childcare and education, among other policies. At the same time, women should be allowed to decide whether they want to have children or not, and when to have them.

 Sometimes, it is difficult to know if a woman’s desire to become a mother is her own wish, the wish to give her husband descendants, or a way to guarantee that someone will take care of her in old age. These and others are the motivations that reflect the conditions in which she lives the “social hegemonic practices”. This desire –built and naturalized–is manipulated by fertility clinics.

 The Senate and the House of Representatives are currently discussing a law about biosecurity and a proposal on assisted reproduction. There has been an intense debate –which is restricted to specialists– about the destiny of thousands of unused embryos that are produced in assisted reproductions. It highlights the potential use of these embryos for stem cell research and cloning. This makes us think that pregnancy could not be the main product of this business.

 It is significant, then, that the debates about ethics are just concerned with the destiny of embryos, but almost nothing is said about the women who undergo painful procedures, high doses of hormones, and risky procedures to become embryo providers, “factories” that produce live material with a high commercial value. This silence can be explained by the de-politicization of the debate over motherhood. To question women’s desire to be biological mothers seems an outrage.

 The ideology that supports biological motherhood contradicts women’s rights to decide on contraception. To negotiate the use of condoms is not a widespread practice, especially in unequal situations like those that involve teenagers and older men. Thus, women continue to be exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. The growth in AIDS cases has been larger among women than among men, especially among women aged 13 to 19.

 The first big challenge is to increase the use of condoms. But, wearing condoms is not completely safe and many women, particularly housewives, cannot convince their partners to use condoms. Also, if they have an unwanted pregnancy, they will have to face the fact that in Brazil abortion is considered a crime, punished with up to three years in prison. The 1940 Penal Code admits that the only exceptions are cases of rape and situations that put the mother’s life at risk.

 The Ministry of Health estimates that there are nearly 800 thousand abortions per year in Brazil, and close to 250 thousand women are hospitalized due to abortions practiced under precarious and risky conditions.

 In June 2004, Secretary Marco Aurélio de Mello, from the Federal Supreme Court (SFT), accepted an exemption guaranteeing the therapeutic anticipation of births of fetus with anencephaly (a fetal malformation that makes life impossible after birth). The minister preferred not to talk about abortion, because there is a medical consensus that in all cases of anencephaly there is death during the neonatal period. However, pressures from groups against the right to abortion have been so strong that the minister decided to call a public hearing before the final judging. It was the first public hearing in 194 years of the STF existence.

 What these groups claim is that the practice will go down the path to the extermination of people with disabilities. This claim does not seem to lack reason in a context where assisted reproduction technology allows choosing the baby’s sex, and it is possible to determine other physical characteristics at conception. Nevertheless, the way to face this risk is not by restraining women’s rights over their bodies. In this case, like in assisted reproduction, it is amazing how women do not seem to count, as if their well being or suffering were not part of the problem.

 For those who believe in women’s emancipation, abortion should no longer be considered a crime, and this rights should be guaranteed by the public health system.

 This was one of the proposals approved during the First National Conference of Policies for Women, held in Brasilia, in July 2004. Two thousand women who were elected in local conferences, organized in 27 Brazilian states, participated in this conference.

Pretty girls wanted

 The Service for the Marginalized Woman has denounced the third largest clandestine business in the world: the traffic in women. In May, 19 year old Carina Carla do Nascimento accepted an offer from a job recruiter to work as a tourist agent in Mexico City. Carina, like other girls between 18 and 20, was recruited without knowing that she was going to work in brothels. On July 13th 2004, Carina refused to prostitute herself and, in revenge, they put 5 grams of cocaine in her drink, and killed her with overdoses.

 On September 19, five young women –two of whom were minors– died when a ship sank in Rio Negro. This accident disclosed a new route in the traffic of young women and teenagers in the Amazon region. The Amazon Civil Police said that young girls aged between 14 and 17 are being paid R$ 800 to $1500 for programs offered to Brazilian and foreign tourists that spend an average of U$D 3,900 in a fishing package in the region.

 We cannot accept the cynical claim that they are better off this way than starving with their families. We want these women to have a better life, with access to a piece of land, with a job, access to healthcare, education, shelter, and with dreams for the future. We think poverty is the main reason for prostitution and slavery.

 Our bodies belong to us has a revolutionary meaning: the extent and depth of the transformations needed to make this slogan a reality to women throughout the world.  We can begin by promoting a broad debate about our reality, in order to make concrete proposals and to put them into practice.

Miriam Nobre is the coordinator of SOF (Sempre Viva Feminist Organization) and participates in the World March of Women.