RIO DE JANEIRO – Joyful, flamboyant and brimming with self-esteem, 35-year-old Renata da Silva Angelo is a plus-size woman who is upending the beauty paradigms of the Rio Carnival with her role as an elite samba dancer.
Like Da Silva, hundreds of other women who carry a few extra kilos also have refused to accept discrimination and, with the backing of the “Plus no samba RJ” collective, have been showing off their moves – and their curves – at Brazil’s biggest party.
Plus-size women have always been a part of Rio’s famed samba schools – groups of dancers, choreographers and other individuals who compete in Carnival with their elaborate floats, costumes and dance routines.
But until recently they had not been able to take on the role of scantily clad “passistas” (elite samba dancers) because those spots had been reserved for women who met traditional beauty standards. Instead, they were covered from head to foot and relegated to sections of the parades in which their bodies were not on display.
“We (plus-size women) were always dressed in big, warm and really heavy clothes. We never had the chance for our costumes to evolve because the schools don’t think about heavier women,” said Kennely da Silva, a 46-year-old nursing technician who says she feels like a big burden has been lifted now that she is a passista.
Renata Da Silva Angelo, a member of Brazil’s navy, echoed those sentiments, saying she had always participated in the samba school parades but that her dream of being a passista only came true after she joined the “Plus no samba RJ” collective.
“I always wanted to be a passista. It’s just that the passista has the image of that statuesque female body, that seductive image. But when I saw that option on social media to be a plus-size passista, I said ‘this is my opportunity,’” she said.
Until very recently, a miniscule number of plus-size women could be seen flaunting their bodies during the Rio Carnival’s parades, although those that did were admired by other overweight women who were afraid to be body-shamed by carnival crowds.
One of those pioneers was Nilma Duarte, a plus-size model who has been a Rio Sambadrome passista since 2015 and who wanted to help other overweight women find the courage to do the same.
That was the genesis for the “Plus no Samba RJ” collective, a project launched in Rio de Janeiro in 2017 when Duarte was invited to create a plus-size section at the Lins Imperial samba school.
But the collective’s underlying objective, beyond securing places for plus-size women in one or more samba schools, is to help boost these individuals’ self-esteem.
“They come with traumas in their life, wounded, sensitive, with low self-esteem, and without the love of others, to the point where many don’t even believe you when you try to extend a hand to help them. They’re … like a diamond in the rough that needs to be polished,” said Titia, as Duarte is affectionately known by other members of the collective.
The group is made up of a diverse group of women, including transgender individuals and people from a range of social strata. All have experienced rejection because of their weight, while many also have faced gender, racial and class discrimination.
Because many of these women come to “Plus no Samba RJ” after one or more episodes of depression, it is unsurprising that they feel a sort of unconditional family-type bond with the other members of the collective.
“I went through a very difficult personal process. I had to rebuild myself. I’m still doing it, and finding this project was something I can’t put into words. It’s very nice. It’s magical!” Manuela da Silva Pedreira, a 37-year-old make-up artist who loves dancing samba, told EFE.