Of Protests and Potato Chips

From the Series: Protesting Democracy in Brazil

Photo by Semilla Luz, licensed under CC BY.

It is common to argue that subject formation, and thus citizenship and its denial, are enacted upon or through the body. Whether biopolitics, thanatopolitics, or the politics of reproduction, torture by dictatorships, police violence, or the pharmaceuticalization of care, bodies are a key site for working through the nature of belonging. One aspect of such body politics involves the emergence in Brazil of black blocs, or scarved, bandana-clad, and helmeted activists. As in Berlin or Seattle, participants conceal their identities so as to hinder prosecution and protect against police violence. This brings the anonymous protester—a threatening “every person” or undifferentiated citizenry—to a nation whose gradated political orders have long split people (gente) and marginals (marginals), house and street, patron and client.

Black blocs’ Facebook pages leave little doubt that the phenomenon is transnational and makes use of new technologies. Such observations, along with comments about Brazil’s shifting political economy and the World Cup and Olympics, are staples in analyzing recent protests. However, instead of emphasizing international influence and social movements development, or arguing simply that protesters are unhappy, I seek to focus on a body politics. I am interested in masks, helmets, and bandanas in relation to the materiality of the human, and the particularity of persons and types of citizens, in the face of capital’s expansion. And my means of tying the conditions of life in Brazil to protest movements involves food and fat.

A 2012 advertisement stated, “Beans are good food.” This would have been laughable ten-years earlier in Salvador, as working-class Bahians survived on beans, rice, and dry manioc powder. Yet in a Brazil of decreasing inequality, growing influence, and burgeoning consumerism, workers replaced boxed bean lunches (marmitas) with rolls of cookies wolfed down at the job site. Residents of the Arraial do Retiro (“Arraial”), a working class community in Salvador, now bought Doritos rather than climbing jack fruit trees. And these consumers, even if they could not obtain adequate education, policing, or sanitation, could purchase washing machines and automobiles.

Life has changed markedly in reaction to diets and motorized conveyances. One result has been growth in obesity and alterations in body image. This is clear in the Arraial, a community built by migrants from the sertão (badlands) during the 1970s. Sertanejos are renowned as strong, often small, tough people able to survive on a caloric intake lower than what the UN defines as necessary for survival. Hunger is a staple in memories of childhood by my middle-aged, working-class sertanejos. Yet today lumbering young adults stand out as they accompany their parents, the first generation born in Salvador.

One household, part of an extended family of sertanejo migrants, was composed until recently of four young women. “Linda,” a secretary, has married a barber and purchased a Fiat. Given her expanding waistline, Linda consults a nutritionist who recommended salads, beans, and fruits which, along with supplements and diet pills, have helped her drop ten kilos. Her younger sister, “Bete,” has left the Arraial and moved to Rio where she works as a hotel desk clerk. Bete looks much like her mother, but she is, as she puts it, “significantly heavier without being obese.” The two youngest daughters, ages twenty-one and nineteen, live at home with their mother, a domestic servant. Both daughters are, as they put it, “whales.” The twenty-one-year-old has developed severe kidney stones. Instead of inexpensive beans, she prefers fried meat, alcohol, soft drinks, and snacks like Doritos.

The sisters’ divergent body types, and experiences, suggest how differentiation marks Brazil today. Until the end of the twentieth century, in regions like Bahia, fat was considered attractive. Thick bodies marked some northeasterners as wealthy and desirable while those burdened by manual labor and fueled by beans were more uniformly svelte. Today, as the four sisters illustrate, obesity appears increasingly as a pathology of the poor rather than a mark of distinction. A glance at social media sites reveals black-bloc leaders who argue that their collectives are “from the periphery.” And accents, ways of walking, and claims by participants support this. Nonetheless, the Arraial is more homogenously impoverished than black-bloc groups I have come across. It seems the black blocs are composed of a cross section of society. Yet their clothes recall the t-shirts Salvador’s drug gang members wrap across their faces and heads while fighting or engaging in a dangerous mission (parada). Thus protesters’ status as undifferentiated subjects who, even if bourgeois, no longer gain privilege in relation to the police, suggests the Janus face of growing democratization and rising consumption.

It would seem that the ability to purchase what one wants and to participate in a strengthening democracy would generate contentment rather than critique of “progress.” By conjoining black blocs and obesity, I hope to open avenues for understanding this. Fat seems a powerful means of understanding a neoliberal or post-neoliberal moment. Today’s protests are about unequal distribution, corruption, stadiums built instead of hospitals, and thus the health of a society in which those who are skinniest have long been those who make up the undifferentiated masses. And yet, in the face of prosperity—or at least opportunities for consumption—protest turns increasingly on anonymity while obesity marks new sites for controlling, and capturing value in relation to, working-class Brazilians.

Ironically, at a moment when a leftist federal government seeks to increase living standards as defined in a capitalist twenty-first century, and thus do more than purify its people, the relatively privileged have embraced anonymity to put forth their politics. And the once-excluded now participate in a process of corporeal differentiation in which their bodies are no longer simply motors of labor power but sites of accumulation and the education of desires in which both consumption and its negation produce profit for Nabisco. This is important not simply to decrying agribusiness and its unhealthy choices, but in linking Brazil’s recent wave of protests to shifting modalities of everyday life.