Of late the face of Brazilian beauty has undergone a change. Brazil has for long been the most body-conscious society in the world. But lately the standards of beauty seem to have been revised. Only recently the reigning king of carnival Rei Momo had gastric bypass surgery, shed 150 pounds and started an exercise program to look leaner. If you were ready to pass that as a one-off publicity gimmick, read on. Six young women have died of anorexia in quick succession - two in the last two weeks.
Anorexia is a disorder almost unheard-of here. Brazilian women have always had a little more flesh, distributed differently to emphasize the bottom over the top, more like the contours of a guitar rather than an hourglass.
But the invasion of the Barbie aesthetic, celebrity models, satellite television and medical makeovers seem to have encroached on the Brazilian ideals once considered inviolate.
By ''upgrading' to international standards of beauty,' said Mary del Priore, a historian and co-author of 'The History of Private Life in Brazil,' the country is abandoning its traditional belief that 'plumpness is a sign of beauty and thinness is to be dreaded.' The contradictory result, she added, is that 'today it's the rich in Brazil who are thin and the poor who are fat.'
Ms. del Priore, the historian, however also sees the trend towards thinness as a part of other fundamental changes that Brazilian society is undergoing. a rebellion against machismo and the patriarchal structure that she believes persists here, is fueling this shift in body-image.
As women move out of the home and into the workplace, she says,' This abrupt shift is a feminine decision that reflects changing roles. Men are still resisting and clearly prefer the rounder, fleshier type. But women want to be free and powerful, and one way to reject submission is to adopt these international standards that have nothing to do with Brazilian society.'
Globalized standards of beauty which originated in rich, mostly white neighborhoods are gradually spreading to the rest of Brazil and across racial lines by the actresses and models who live here and perform in popular telenovelas. Exercise academies are mushrooming in slum areas.
In fact, all six women who died of anorexia lived either in Rio de Janeiro or in Sao Paulo, the country's most cosmopolitan states and centers of the Brazilian fashion industry. The deaths included a 21-year-old fashion student and a 23-year-old student and office worker who had a home page on the Web and gave English lessons. The most recent anorexia victim was a dark-skinned teenager from a working-class suburb of Rio who dreamed of becoming a model.
The epitome of Brazilian beauty today is Gisele Bundchen, whose parents are of German descent. But very little about Ms. Bundchen's body - tall and blond, rangy yet busty - connects her to her homeland and its traditional self-image.
'Hers is a globalized beauty that has nothing to do with the Brazilian biotype,' said Joana de Vilhena Novaes, author of 'The Intolerable Weight of Ugliness: On Women and Their Bodies' and a psychologist here. 'She has very little in the way of hips, thighs or fanny. She's a Barbie,'
Dr. Novaes and others have noted that during the 1960s and 70s, Brazilian girls played with a locally made doll named Susi, who, reflecting the national aesthetic was darker and fleshier than her counterparts abroad. But in the 1970s, Barbie arrived, and by the mid-1980s, production of Susi dolls had ceased.
A generation ago, the ideal type here was Martha Rocha, a Miss Brazil from the mid-1950s who finished second in the Miss Universe competition supposedly because her body was a bit too generous in the hips, buttocks and thighs. But the popularity of the cartoons and semi-pornographic drawings of Carlos Zefiro that circulated suggest that those characteristics were so highly valued here. The ideal was what is known as 'um corpo de violao,' or 'guitar-shaped body'; that is, like Susi's, thicker in the waist, hips and fanny and it was the rest of the world whose taste was questioned.
Yet imported notions of beauty, desirability and health seem to have taken over. According to the survey, the percentage of the population taking appetite-suppressants more than doubled between 2001 and 2005, making Brazil the world champion in the consumption of diet pills.
'The reasons are purely aesthetic, not medical, especially for women,' who account for at least 80 percent of the market, said Dr. Elisaldo de Ara˙jo Carlini, a professor at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who is the author of the study. 'They want to get thin no matter what, all because of images from north of the Equator. It is a cruel cultural imposition on the Brazilian woman.'
Women in countries around the world are subject to such pressures, of course. But Brazilians argue that the situation here is more extreme. Here people live their lives outdoors, in skimpy clothes which highlight the body's advantages and defects more easily.
The startling boom in plastic surgery among women 80 and older is surpassed only by the ridiculous news that liposuction on the toes is the newest rage this summer.
Men are also falling prey to this culture of vanity. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is reported to have recently had cosmetic work done on his teeth, and even the chief of an Indian tribe in the Amazon had plastic surgery because, as he put it, 'I was finding myself ugly and I wanted to be good-looking again.' But experts agree that Brazilian men, whatever their class or race, have been consistent and clear in saying that they prefer women who are fleshy in the rear - 'popozuda' is the wonderfully euphonious slang term used here - and have pronounced curves.
But most of the complaints here come from women. Each year women try to prepare their bodies for months to look good on the beaches during the Southern Hemisphere summer vacation season, which runs from just before Christmas until carnival, about two months later. Enrollment at gyms, here called 'academies,' is a regular annual feature.
But Brazilian eating habits make the road to model standards very tough. The typical Brazilian meal consists of rice and beans, potatoes, pasta, bread, salad and a slice of meat sprinkled with farofa or ground and toasted yucca flour.
"The Brazilian diet is much higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein than is recommended," says Claudia Carahyba, a nutritionist in Sao Paulo whose clients include modeling agencies that want to break their girls of such bad habits.
Roberto da Matta, an anthropologist, newspaper columnist, and a leading social commentator says,' To be fat used to be considered wonderful in Brazil, because it showed that you eat very well, which is important to Brazilians. That you have three meals a day and eat meat and beans, calmly, at a table with friends and relatives, means that someone is taking good care of you.'
But sadly enough, just like in the rest of the world, Brazil too is losing onto its indigenous standards of beauty. And in the near future we may find ourselves looking at 'standard issue' bodies on the legendary Brazilian beaches instead of legendary Brazilian beauties.