Don't starve for me, Argentina

Why eating disorders and plastic surgery are a way of life in the land of Eva Persn

Published January 24, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

I was caught off guard recently when a young woman approached me at a Buenos Aires Hotel. After years of traveling to South America, I've come to expect Argentine women to be aloof, more likely to eyeball my hemline than ask my name. But this young woman, Guillermina, was friendly and open. She wanted to talk. Her appearance struck me too. Makeup-free and curvy, Guillermina seemed less concerned with her looks than the meticulously coifed and unnaturally slender women who promenade on Buenos Aires' fashionable boulevards.

But as we shared the day together, I learned that Guillermina was not an exception to Argentina's rigidly aesthetic culture, but rather one of its casualities. "By Argentine standards, I am fat," she told me. "There have been times when I don't leave the house -- except to go to work -- because I am embarrassed."

Guillermina was undeniably attractive. Like many Argentines, she possessed a dark, striking beauty, a composite of Italian and Spanish ancestry. But she did not resemble the billboards of the anemic Kate Moss which wallpaper Buenos Aires like post-it note reminders.

I talked to dozens of young women like Guillermina during my visit, and they confirmed what I could plainly see: Argentineans are obsessed with their bodies.

More so than even Americans. We gulp liquid "meal substitutes" and buy the latest diet bibles , but at a certain point we let it go. And as a nation we are still overweight.

In Argentina they take more drastic measures. Plastic surgery and starvation are national pastimes that cross gender, age and class boundaries. Since 1970, approximately one in every 30 Argentines has opted for cosmetic surgery, estimates Luis Majul, author of "The Masks of Argentina," a book about Argentines who have had their faces lifted and buttocks sculpted. Those who have gone under the knife include such luminaries as President Carlos Menem and soccer star Diego Maradona, but working-class people nip and tuck in large numbers as well. Public hospitals offer special summer deals on popular procedures like nose jobs and liposuction.

And ironically, in the land of beef and "papas fritas," eating disorders are rampant. Argentina has a higher incidence of anorexia and bulimia per capita than either the United States or Europe. I asked one young woman how the populace remained so thin in a land awash in rich foods. "Young women just don't eat," she said. "They smoke."

Relentlessly fashionable and notably haughty, Argentines have always considered themselves a cultural cut above the rest of South America, trumpeting their European ancestry and labeling their Latin neighbors boorish. Here, style is the ultimate virtue. Consider Eva Persn, who transformed herself from bumpkin to first lady with the help of a few Chanel suits and who today is remembered as much for her elegance as for her checkered political and social achievements.

How did a Latin American country thousands of miles away from Madison Avenue and Hollywood become so image obsessed? Some Argentines I spoke with blamed the nation's preoccupation with the body on the country's volatile political and economic climate. "Staying thin and looking beautiful is one thing that people have control over here," said Mauro, a 19-year-old engineering student, who sat chain-smoking at a Buenos Aires cafe. Others said that the Italian immigrants who settled in Argentina at the turn of the century simply brought with them a flair for fashion and an appreciation of beauty. And some Argentine feminists say that "machismo" is responsible for the epidemic, encouraging a climate where women are valued for how they look, not who they are.

Whatever the cause of the national obsession, its effects are clear. On the streets adolescent girls look malnourished, their hip bones jutting from beneath their jeans, their faces gaunt. Women walk the streets scantily clad  half-shirts, painted-on jeans and crotch-length skirts are the rage  flaunting their rib cages and synthetic bosoms.

Wearing baggy blue jeans and an oversized T-shirt, Georgina, a 20-year-old medical student from Buenos Aires, says she is not a fashion victim by choice. As we walked through the Recoleta, the city's famous cemetery, she gestured toward her short, strong figure and told me it was impossible for her to shop at "normal downtown stores" because the clothing sold there was made for "the starving." Instead, she is confined to rummaging the aisles at stores catering to older women with fuller figures, where it is difficult to find anything stylish. "Sometimes I feel like a circus freak," she said. Georgina, like many of the women I met, turned to psychotherapy to deal with the ostracism and self-hatred that results, literally, from not fitting in. While she found therapy cleansing, Georgina says she is doubtful that anything, short of an overhaul of the national psyche, will help her feel better.

My last day in Buenos Aires I visited an art gallery displaying the works of a famous Argentine contemporary painter, Ernesto Bertani. I stumbled upon a painting titled "The Happy Widow" that depicted a nude woman shown from the neck down. It was a sensual image of abundant and joyful flesh, a sharp contrast to the emaciation I'd observed on the streets. I was relieved -- sort of. "The Happy Widow" was, after all, only a picture. If any Argentinian women, widowed or not, can feel happy with such a healthy body, I didn't meet them.

Quote of the day

Remember the Alamo:

"We've got Aspen now. We've got Vail. This is great."

-- Richard L. McLaren, leader of the self-styled independent Republic of Texas, which he says, includes parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. (From "Texas Independence Group Has Serious Face" in Friday's New York Times).

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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