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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."