Today was the first official day of summer in Rio de Janeiro. The weather was cloudy and overcast, but the December heat could be felt throughout the city. This was not a beach day, especially not by carioca standards, yet the sidewalks of Ipanema were packed with people.
A group of women had circulated the call for a topless protest over Facebook a couple of weeks ago. The event, called Toplessaço, quickly grew among the many who believe this form of sunbathing should not be illegal, especially in a city known for it's minuscule bikinis.
Four-thousand women were expected to gather near the Posto 9 lifeguard post at 10:00 am to speak out against censorship and oppression. Most of the people on the sidewalk were reporters (myself included). Photographers and videographers dotted the area's stone-covered calçadão. Some peeping toms also awaited in anticipation with their cell phones ready to snap any patch of skin in sight.
Suddenly, the mob ran towards the sand. 34-year-old filmmaker Ana Paula Nogueira was laying on her sarong with her sunglasses and hat and without her white bikini top. The effort to promote empowerment and independence appeared more like a single woman exposing her breasts. She was soon accompanied by two others who were also surrounded by the press scrum. In the end, a handful of women formed the protest. Others on the beach in bathing suits participated by writing "my body, my rights" on their chests and backs.
The original idea for the protest began when actress Cristina Flores removed her shirt during a photo shoot on Arpoador. She was posing for a poster for her upcoming play, when three guards reprimanded her for exposing her breasts. In a December 2nd interview with the O Globo newspaper, Flores said she was "embarrassed and felt like she was caught in a crime."
The "illegality" of toplessness in Rio dates back to a penal code from the 1940s, which considered the act to be obscene. Many female beachgoers, who proudly flaunt their derrieres in tiny thongs, consider the law to be outdated.
"During the city's carnival celebrations, dancers participating in the Sambadrome's parade often show off their entire bodies. In this context people cheer them on, no one thinks they are doing anything wrong. Why can't the same thing apply to women on the beach?," engineer Denise Pavan said, as she accompanied the protest.
As we saw earlier this year with Brazil's protests over bus fare hikes and World Cup spending, a call for change needs people in order to make any waves. Even during the Pope Francis' visit in July, dozens of people marched in Copacabana during the "Slut Walk" to speak out against conservatism in the Catholic church. In Ukraine, FEMEN activists brought attention to the negative oppression of women in their country by exposing their bodies and suffered the wrath of heavy handed police officers. The movement caught international attention and spread to many places around the world (including Sao Paulo).
The organizers of today's protest missed a valuable opportunity to speak out against the sexism and chauvinism that still plagues this city. They forced the few women who did remove their tops to be a noticeable minority and be ridiculed by cat calls. One woman even frolicked in the sea for the cameras and splashed water as if she was on a Sport's Illustrated swimsuit shoot.
A couple of exposed breasts cannot represent an entire movement. In this context, topless is not more.