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Bodily identity and biotypology in Brazil

What does your body shape say about you? When typing this question on any online search engine one will find dozens of examples and images of models of varying bodily classifications as well as the relationship of bodily shape with many different types of physical and mental health and even personality. Rectangle, triangle, round, hourglass, slender, pear, apple, etc, are widespread categories used to label the body according to the culture of health, nutrition, fitness, bodybuilding and even in the clothing industry for women. Nowadays these representations pervade the popular media and provide easier information on patterns of aesthetics and normality used in the self-classification of people’s body. However, what most people do not know is that these categorizations for clustering human biological variation in identifiable body types and shapes have been commonplace since the mid-twentieth-century and were historically rooted in a science called “biotypology” or “constitutional medicine”.

The classificatory lexicon of biotypology entered medical and scientific practices across the world between the 1920s and 1930s, initially providing a holistic view of the patients, and included an interpretation of people morphology, physiology, and character. Biotypologists were linked to the Western interest in accurately measuring and categorizing human biological diversity, but, at the same time, were skeptical on reductionist approaches to organism and strict racial taxonomies applied to human groups worldwide. The scientific agenda of biotypology, for its part, involved complex modalities of labelling and distinguishing between healthy and sick or normal and deviant people by their bodily form. Classification of people was thus determined by the harmony, predominance, or deficiency in proportion to the body segments. The most common and diffused categories were long types, short (branchy) types, and normal types. This science also had evident social implications, and was even considered an instrument to determine nations’ bodily identities and solve local bio-political problems, such as in Argentina or Italy, where this reasoning informed medical approaches and policies to women.

Biotypology can be thus considered as a facet or even a modified version of eugenics, overlapping eugenics theoretical debates on the influence of heredity and/or environment factors on the population, but, in its practice, is more focused on the health care of the individual rather than on techniques of population management. Its scientific and intellectual origins are found in fascist Italy, where fascist doctors like Nicola Pende developed methods of classification to identify the national bodily identity, connected to a wider biopolitical agenda on the medical and scientific control and betterment of the nation through public health policies on reproduction, motherhood, and childcare, for instance. The ideals, theories and practices of biotypology soon gained prominence in Latin countries such as Portugal, Spain, France, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, where local scientific elites and intellectuals were seeking to define the eugenic character of their nations. In Latin America, for instance, doctors set out several research projects to classify local populations by applying taxonomies from the Italian models in search for a universal “normotype”. Constitutional medicine established secure academic niches in Brazil, the most important one at the School of Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, where there was a cabinet for biotypological investigations and whose doctors published the most important texts and studies on the theme in Brazil. It was also considered scientific content in criminology, forensic medicine, physical education, public education, and the army.

“Biotypology developed in Brazilian medical culture in the 1920s and 1930s amid debates on ‘national identity’”

However, in Brazil, biotypology never reached an institutional standing such as in Argentina, where its scientific activities were consolidated in the Argentina Association for Biotypology, Eugenics, and Social Medicine and consequently received wide academic support. Also, there is no evidence it had become an autonomous scientific field in Brazil or was effectively employed as an instrument in public health issues. Nonetheless, several doctors and social scientists in Brazil enthusiastically adhere to biotypological frameworks and employed Italian categories and practices of bodily normalization in the Brazilian population. Biotypology developed in Brazilian medical culture in the 1920s and 1930s amid debates on ‘national identity’ based on its supposed intrinsic ethnic, social, and cultural characteristics. It had therefore clear social applications. Biotypological taxonomy was mainly related to racialist categorizations and was initially viewed as useful for defining a ‘normal’ Brazilian body type, such as in the study “The Brazilian Normotype” or the regional study “The morphology of Northeast man—a biotypological study”, both carried out during the 1930s. But their pursuing of a pattern of bodily normality to the Brazilians failed. There was no single Brazilian body type; rather, Brazil was a country composed of various shapes and sizes, scientists concluded. In light of the heterogeneity of the bodily forms of the population, practitioners in Brazil creatively adapted foreign models of biotypology and even created their own methods and labelling for determining the supposedly normal bodies. An evident effort was made to legitimate biotypology and its new lexicon as an alternative medical field that could contribute to contemporary racial and sociological debates and political projects on national identity in Brazil in the 1930s. Brazilian biotypologists presented a composite discourse strategy on race connected to an ideal of bodily normality, refuting and applying old and new racialist reasoning in their studies. Biotypological studies in Brazil corroborated the bodily heterogeneity and diversity of Brazilians, contributing to a positive contemporary view of miscegenation and, therefore, the perspective of a national bodily identity in the plural.

Featured image credit: Female body type by Arne Hendricks. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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