Plastic Bodies, plastic lives: ambiguity, corporality and change in Brazil

Plastic Bodies powerfully convinces us that Bahians do not conceive of their bodies as a given, already constituted thing. Rather, they are understood as an on-going project, never finished, and always capable of undergoing (yet more) transformation. Bahians don’t seem to shy away from transformation, be it in terms of their bodies or, in general, in their lives. As a long-term resident of Salvador myself, I remember a visit I received from a North American friend who returned to the city, where she had lived for twenty months, after having been away for over a decade. After catching up with all her acquaintances, she confided in me that she was feeling as if her life during that period of time had been ten years, whereas that of her Brazilian friends seemed to have lasted, at the very least, double that: “they all changed so much, careers, jobs, partners, hobbies…the one thing that didn’t change was their looks, they all looked pretty much as they did ten years ago!” Bahians embrace change, within their bodies, in their lives, and in their embodied life. Plastic bodies for plastic lives, lives too caught up undergoing and effecting all these changes to completely adhere to what we could call “western” expectations of continuity and essence. At the same time, and as my friends’ remark on her Bahian friends’ unchanged looks show, it is not as if there aren’t certain social pressures at play that constrain the possible changes these bodies can or, at least ideally, should undergo, particularly with regards to the public ageing of women something that Plastic Bodies also reminds us about throughout the text. And yet, when it comes to on-the-ground practices regarding the body, things are not necessarily a matter of either/or, which leads me to bring up the central role that ambiguity has in Brazilian every day life. Take for example the nonchalant way with which a woman at a relatively refined restaurant loudly condemns a fellow diner’s food choice on the grounds that it could give her diarrhoea, which contrasts with the efforts, narrated by Emilia, taken by women in general to publicly manage and hide their menstruation. While the materiality and sensuousness of bodies is acknowledged in public, those very same bodies, their boundaries and movements, are also under constant scrutiny, open to receiving either social approval or reproach by others. Skin colour or facial features, hair, demeanor and mannerisms, can be read by others as markers of class, race and gender, all deeply observed and taken into account in everyday relations, normally being acknowledged in subtle and non-verbal ways, in interactions both within and between social classes. The way these bodily readings actually affect and determine social exchanges is also not clear-cut and final: ambiguity is also very much at play, with no definite social script that all actors involved can consistently follow. The end result is what Plastic Bodies very fittingly portrays: how materiality, excess and ambiguity feature in Brazilian everyday life, lived through bodies that are constantly negotiating how they are perceived, and the effects that this has on ideas about bodily plasticity.


Elena Calvo-González is currently a Lecturer at the Faculty Postgraduate Programme of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. Her work is set at the intersection between Anthropology of Science and Medicine, Political Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, and Race Relations. For the past decade she has researched the ways in which biomedicine, particularly how low-complexity medical technologies, medical knowledge and clinical encounters, are involved in the reconfiguration of ideas about ‘race’ and bodily difference in general.