Rio’s beauty dazzles visitors even before they land at Galeao airport. From the air, this Brazilian city of 8 million people looks spectacular: the blue waters of the Atlantic shining under the intense tropical sun, the white sands of its coastline against the lush green mountains, and – on top the the highest peak – a colossal statue of Christ, the Corcovado, blessing the city with open arms.
The word dramatic doesn’t begin to describe Rio. No city I know matches the scale and the exuberance of its landscape, or displays such a colorful and energetic culture. Its natives, the cariocas, are warm, laid back and fun, and their music, the samba, is a contagious beat heard everywhere. Rio’s Carnaval – the four days of hedonistic revelry right before Lent – is a feast to the eyes, and Brazil’s biggest party.
Rio is not only blessed by its geography, the cariocas are drop-dead gorgeous, too. This city worships beauty in all its shapes and forms, and the sex-appeal of its women is well known.
Once a secret of Brazilians only, these charms were made known around the world by the song by the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, a bossa nova tune describing the walk of a girl walking to the beach every day, ‘tall and tanned and lovely’. In the original Portuguese version there is no mention of tall, by the way, it says only ‘linda and cheia de graca’ (beautiful and graceful), which perhaps is an indicator of the many cultural differences between Brazilian and American culture. Tall is not a big deal there, curvaceous is.
On Rio’s beaches beautiful women show off their perfect and barely covered bodies everyday. It was there that the famous tanga – a tiny bikini that leaves very little to the imagination – was first spotted. Rio’s genetic good fortune might be attributed to Brazil’s notorious mix of races, but cariocas also put a lot of effort into health and beauty: at daybreak the sidewalks of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are already crowded with joggers and walkers of all ages, a routine that’s part of life in Rio.
And they not only take good care of themselves, they love to talk about it. As soon as I arrive in Rio I start hearing about the latest workout fad or nutrition programs ‘guaranteed’ to prolong youth; every friend seems to have a special vitamin mix, or a cream to keep wrinkles off their tanned faces, or a formula to make their skin shine or hair grow stronger. Judging from their looks, these efforts are perfectly rewarded: it’s not uncommon for women over 50 to look like 30’s elsewhere. A friend of mine jokes that “Rio doesn’t know what a 50 year old woman looks like”.
While the aesthetic standards are very high , they are quite different from the ones in the Northern Hemisphere: round shapes and curves are a must, ‘noticeable’ butts considered a blessing. Being skinny is associated with illness, not with elegance. Brazilians definitely have their own beauty guidelines, and they are proud of it.
Not surprisingly, plastic surgery flourishes there: Rio has some of the world’s best surgeons and more cosmetic surgeries are performed there than anywhere else in the world!
With all this attention to beauty, one may be inclined to think that Rio is a superficial and frivolous society. Not at all. Life is not easy for a big part of the population; people work hard for their money, poverty is a reality in many areas, and crime too common in some areas of this metropolis of huge gaps between the haves and the have nots.
Yet, even the poorest of the poor is high on life and exudes a contagious joie de vivre. People with modest incomes save the whole year to buy a costly costume and be part of the Carnaval parade. Visit a favela, as the slums are called, and you will see broad smiles, happy kids playing soccer on the streets, and crowded parties where on the weekends the samba beat goes on until the morning.
Rio, in spite of its problems, is a happy place; it lives by its own standards and moves to its own rhythm. One must step out of the box to understand the different set of values they seem to live by, and the best way to do it is to get immersed in their fun-loving culture. Once once we understand it, we will love Rio forever.