Latin lovelies - starve 'em, then carve 'em

Phil Davison on the South American beauty obsession that is making girls ill

In Argentina, they want no bums. In Brazil, they want bigger bums. In Mexico, they want to look more Spanish than Indian. In Venezuela, they will do whatever it takes to fulfil their dream of being Miss Universe.

Throughout South America, and in the region's plastic surgery mecca, Miami, Latin women are changing their shapes and faces to look like their TV soap opera or glossy magazine heroes. Books are out, soaps are in. Brains are boring, beauty rules.

In many countries, notably Argentina, "fashion model syndrome" has caused what has been called an "epidemic" of anorexia and bulimia. "All the girls here want to be Barbie dolls. They all want to be delgadita," said Noemi Aumeves, head of the Women's Directorate, a government department, in the capital, Buenos Aires.

"Basically, they all want to be Valeria Mazza, [the country's top model]. Don't forget, we're Latins, we're not naturally slim. But TV and magazines make girls think they should be. The syndrome has led to discrimination against women who are not slim. When a job ad says `good appearance essential', it means they want a skinny girl. Skinny first, brains second."

Ms Aumeves's department is organising Argentina's first Day of Prevention of Anorexia and Bulimia in November, with lectures and workshops by nutritionists, psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors. The problem first surfaced a few years ago when an inordinate number of girls began fainting in school. The country where the slim and elegant Eva Peron remains the template for female appearance may now have the highest per capita rate of anorexia in the world, three times higher than United States, according to experts.

An average 10 girls a day show up for treatment at the already-packed Hospital for Anorexia and Bulimia in Buenos Aires, where they are taught to eat small amounts five times a day. While most Argentine men still tuck into their beloved churrasco steaks, one in eight patients in the hospital is male, pushed into anorexia by the same media images of slim Latin-lover types.

"In a recent study at secondary schools, 29 per cent of girls had eating disorders. Nine per cent fulfilled the criteria for full eating disorder syndrome [anorexia or bulimia]. It is becoming a major health problem," said Dr Mabel Bello, an Argentinian and director of the Association for the Battle against Bulimia and Anorexia in Latin America (Aluba). "There are cases of girls as young as seven who stick their fingers down their throats and vomit because they want to look like the models and stars." One of the skinny girls' heroines, Argentine supermodel Raquel Mancini, herself almost died last year after undergoing liposuction. She spent several days in a coma before recovering.

Not all Argentine women simply want to be skinny. Some just want to look better or younger. Plastic surgery has begun competing with psychiatric treatment as the national pastime. The country's richest woman, "Cement Queen" Amalia Fortabat, a grandmother in her seventies, caused a stir last year when she had breast surgery. "Now she has the tits of a 20-year- old," remarked one local journalist.

President Carlos Menem's wife Zulema, like him of Syrian origin, is said to have kept a few cosmetic surgeons in business over the years. "She's made of plastic. Her face looks like a well-worn Barbie doll," a European diplomat remarked. Claudia Maradona, wife of Argentina's football legend, had a breast implant with Diego by her side.

Not that Argentine men are any less vain. When Diego Maradona appeared in a TV interview with his face bandaged up, he admitted he had had his jowls trimmed. When President Menem appeared in public with his cheeks red and swollen, he insisted "I got stung by a wasp", but the press later revealed he had had a face lift.

In Brazil, by contrast, people want the buxom look of their soap stars. "There's a tremendous TV soap opera addiction down there," said Dr Rex Moulton-Barrett, a Miami-based cosmetic surgeon from Birmingham who has many Latin American patients and travels regularly to South America to do charity surgery on children for such things as cleft lips or burns. "A lot of Latin women like butt implants. In many countries they like big bottoms and small breasts, exactly the opposite of the US."

An American plastic surgeon in Rio confirmed this, saying: "In Brazil, they like a nice rounded butt. What breasts are in the US and Britain, the butt is here. Twiggy and Kate Moss just don't fly here." Brazil has one of the world's most-renowned plastic surgeons, Ivo Pitagui, who has bought his own island and own aircraft from the proceeds of celebrity surgery.

In Venezuela, beauty is a national industry and no holds are barred. The country has brought home four Miss Universe titles and five Miss Worlds. The first step, of course, is to win Miss Venezuela, and natural beauty is not the main criterion. "We can make anyone beautiful," said one Miss Venezuela official who admitted contestants are virtually cloned through thousands of pounds worth of retoquitos (retouches, or cosmetic surgery) in an effort to create "the perfect woman".

Beauty pageants are to Venezuelans what the FA Cup Final is to Britons: winners are almost deified. When a former Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, put on nearly a stone after winning the latter title, the country acted as though they had just won the World Cup and seen it taken away after a video replay. Another former Miss Universe, Irene Saez, is so popular she is running for the presidency of Venezuela next year, and looks like she could win.

For those Latin Americans who can afford it, Miami is the place to go for cosmetic surgery. "I do have a lot of Latin American patients, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador," said Dr Rube Pardo, an expert in laser surgery. "Latin women see a wrinkle and they freak. In the US you might see women in their thirties who've had breast lifts, but a lot of Latin women in their thirties have already had face lifts. Later on, their skin gets so tight they look like plastic dolls.

"There are dangers from the anaesthetic and from bad scarring. I've had four or five patients come up here from Venezuela with their faces all puffed up. Their surgeons had injected them with some substance supposed to improve their naso-labial line.

"I don't like what they do in the Miss Venezuela pageants. I'd have them stand naked, so the judges could see what's been done to them."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'