Thursday, 8 May 2014

Cultural essentialism is not the answer

I want to start my article by telling my tale about a pubic hair removal technique widely known as 'Brazilian'. As a woman who was born and brought up in Brazil, I've spent a whole deal of my existence wearing bikinis. That fact also implied frequent trips to the nearest salon in order to have my private parts stripped of all hair. I do agree with the argument that it is plain sexism to oblige a woman to get rid of all her body fur in order to be accepted in public, while men can run free with their hairy figures in pretty much all social situations. However, this is not the focus of my text, and I do need to point out that although I don't do it as often as back when I lived in Brazil (because alas, I don't get to be in a bikini every weekend) I still engage in the practice sometimes. The act is not religious per se, but it does feel ritualistic, as it is something my mother passed on to me as a beauty routine, and that was never meant to be 'sexy'. 

With the intensification of global exchanges and my traveling around the world, I realized that the practice had been globalised. I did feel a bit awkward with the whole idea of sexiness that was suddenly being sold under the label 'Brazilian'. In fact, I wasn't even aware the technique got popularized with the same name that gives me a nationality. At first, I sort of marvelled at the fact that we did get dictionarized for some original creation. I even took pride in that, but kept on feeling weird whenever any of my foreign friends insinuated that the method was created with the sole purpose of making women look 'hot'. After all, along with my female family members and friends, I had never thought of it that way. It's something we always did with the 'hygiene' card in mind. 

So I sort of got sad, and even grumpy, with the realisation that so many people were profiting from something that had nothing to do with sex appeal in the first place. How could I make people realize that they were distorting the original meaning of my Brazilian waxing? Well, the answer is simple: I couldn't. I still can't, and I quit wishing to do so. Simply put, I gave up lecturing others because I realized it didn't make much sense to tell other women how they should feel about the practice. I don't know if it's because I come from a country where races are massively mixed, but I do find it easier to deal with cultural exchanges, even when they are deeply rooted in power imbalance. I will never get the visibility of a fit, white western woman in a bikini and, in all honesty, I do not wish to be visible as a sexual object. I have no qualms about white women feeling sexy with their hairless vulvas. I want to destroy patriarchy, not unnecessarily target privileged women. 

I understand the whole idea of privilege is at the core of any cultural appropriation debate. It is not okay to do blackface. It is not alright to wear ethnic outfits as Halloween costumes. It is not fine to engage oneself in the practice of Orientalism, i.e, showing condescendence towards non-white cultures, especially Eastern ones. I get, and agree with all that. However, I do feel dismayed by the avalanche of negative, dismissive and aggressive posts that took over the internet in recent times. I sincerely do not see any point in shaming women for wearing whatever outfit they wish to wear. I think patriarchy already does that effectively enough. I don't just get to tell my white friend who already struggles with body image issues that she is wrong in wearing a bindi on her forehead. I don't feel it is morally right for me to prohibit people from identifying with cultures other than their own. 

Speaking of identification, it is funny that I, as a black latina, have always found these women who are being scrutinized - for wearing bindis, twerking, belly dancing or epilating their anuses - to be the most accessible and open to my concerns as a black woman than their more traditional, bible-carrying, church-going counterparts. The fact that the former are being consistently bombarded with conservative arguments that resemble the latter is quite telling. I cannot fathom why some well-established feminist websites are giving such monumental visibility to articles that are so fundamentalist in nature. The fact that something feels sacred to me is not enough of an excuse to belittle others. 

Moreover, when we talk about cultural appropriation, there is always a grey zone that is usually ignored: human interactions have always been permeated by exchanging cultures. I could give millions of random examples ranging from numbers, to coffee, to a myriad of food items, to sports, to music. They serve as illustrations of how much we can dig if we want to find the 'essence' of things. Why is it that we are suddenly shaming other women for choosing to engage with non-western cultures in a respectful manner? Another question is: how fruitful would that be in our days? I'm sorry, but I'd much rather fight the good fight for equal rights than engage in pedantic quarrels with women who are also oppressed, even though they appear to be better off than myself. 

To conclude, I need to point out that another reason I quit teaching others about the 'Brazilian' is the fact that it is a bit pretentious on me to think that nobody else in the world had the 'brilliant' idea of plucking hair from their crotches, before Brazil got established as the land of bikinis. Furthermore, getting attached to a concept that my mother taught me as correct may end up concealing the fact that many Brazilian women actively fight against its imposition as a rule of thumb for personal cleanliness. Essentialism of any sort hurts us all. I'm all in for fighting racism, but I won't do that by engaging in hostile and resentful arguments. I choose to embrace all women because my struggle, after all, is to free us all.

This is Sheron Menezes and to me, she is one of the most beautiful Brazilian women of all times :)


  1. Hello! I just found out about your blog (thanks to your comment on hellogiggles) and I already love it ! As an African woman living in Europe, I sometimes feel like this debate is really American. There's a strong Brazilian (and Portuguese) community where I live in Brussels and they have always appreciated my interest in the Brazilian culture. The fact that I want to learn so much about the dance, the music, the art is, according to me, more a sign if respect than "entitlement". If I sometimes wear Indian Sari is because it is because I believe their clothing are amazing. To me what is called "cultural appropriation" is more about respect and interest than entitlement and white privilege. These cultural interactions are what makes our world so beautiful.
    PS: sorry for my poor English :/

    1. Thanks for your comment, I love it and your English is great! Thanks again for taking time to drop a comment here, I really love, agree and relate to this: "These cultural interactions are what makes our world so beautiful" :)

    2. I'm a black American woman from a Caribbean family. I found your blog through your excellent post on the website "Black Women of Brazil." You may be right when you say that concern about "cultural appropriation" is strongest among American women of color, but before you dismiss it, please consider cultural reasons why. In the US, white people often adorn themselves with the clothing or hairstyles of non-white cultures that they discriminate against. When white americans wear these clothes or cultural markers, they are seen as trendy, but one us they are seen as "unprofessional," "ghetto," "backward," or "trashy." We are punished while they are rewarded. It is especially insulting when it these are styes taken from groups, like Native Americans, that they have committed genocide against. There is an American expression, adding insult to injury. That is what this feels like. It's white people saying, your clothes/styles that have religious or culture meaning to you are unacceptable when you use it, but when we use it, it's ok because we are white.

      Think how Carmen Miranda exported Brazilian culture by dressing up with an african headwrap and a fruit basket on her head when her white body would NEVER have to carry fruit in life because she would never have been enslaved. I don't know. I come from a very diverse city in a very diverse country, too, but I can interact with people different from me and learn about what matters to them without wearing their culture like a costume.

    3. Hi, thank you for taking time to read and comment on my blog. I do not dispute what you are saying. I also don't think I'm dismissive towards the struggles of Afro-American women. I just don't think hostility is the answer. I believe we should tackle racism, not fashion. After all, when we go out in the streets we don't know about people's personal struggles. I don't know whether a white woman wearing a head wrap is doing so because she is a mindless consumer of fast fashion or fighting cancer. I think there's too much focus on white woman and what they do from their position of power in relation to us. I think we should definitely raise awareness about privilege. For example, if a person is white and decides to go for dreads, he or she will never be perceived by society as a threat or even a 'criminal'. As I mentioned in my text, there's a grey zone that should not be ignored. We cannot talk about fashion, for example, without considering the role globalization plays into it. And imperialism as well. I think we should take pride in our symbols. But at the same time I wouldn't resort to cultural essentialism. I even feel I should write more about it, and I will do so, hopefully soon. Thanks again for stopping by :)