Wed, Jan 19, 2005 - Page 7 News List

`Girl from Ipanema' slowly becoming a heavyweight prize

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Forty-two years after The Girl From Ipanema was composed in a Rio bar, an obesity study has sparked a furious debate in Brazil about the state of the nation, and the expanding waistlines on that famous stretch of sand.

A government study showing that obese Brazilians outnumber the undernorished touched a nerve in a country where the debate about poverty has intensified since the election of the left-wing president, Luiz Inacio da Silva, but where physical beauty is a matter of fierce pride.

The report stated that more than 40 percent of Brazil's adult population is overweight, with 10 million defined as obese, compared with less than 4 million who were deemed to be undernourished. And last week press reports suggested that today's girl from Ipanema is as likely to be a chubby-cheeked charmer as the sleek beach babe immortalized in the song.

Local style gurus rushed to defend the honor of the cariocas, as the women of Rio de Janeiro are nicknamed, arguing that few places in the world can match Rio for beauty.

Heloise Pinheiro, the muse who provided the original inspiration for the song, also reacted angrily: "Brazilians of all social classes take care of their appearance and their bodies."

But some of the designers and manufacturers behind Brazil's world-beating bikini industry acknowledged that there has been a shift in the Brazilian body type, and the trend is outwards.

"Brazilian bikinis are still much smaller than their American or European equivalents, but more and more Brazilian women are looking for the bigger sizes," said Raimundo Santos, owner of Emanuelle, a swimwear company.

Pinheiro, 58, was never as wispy as today's catwalk models.

"The carioca has always been seen as big-bottomed and is a far cry from Gisele Bundchen," said Regina Martelli, a Brazilian fashion consultant.

But the cult of the body is alive and well on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The importance given to physical beauty means it can still take a certain courage for young cariocas to dispose of their modesty when their physique does not fit the bill.

"Rio de Janeiro's beaches do not provide an accurate measure of obesity, because this is where people go on parade," said fashion designer Lena Santana.

And sociologists are spotting deeper-rooted changes in lifestyle. Brazil's lower income bracket has gained significant additional spending power with the elimination of runaway inflation almost a decade ago.

Although few Brazilians have the kind of income that would justify joining a gym, they can afford a diet high in red meat -- Brazil boasts more cattle than any other nation in the world.

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