On Being Fat in Argentina

Are You Too Fat? Circa 1904 by HA! Designs, on Flickr [used under Creative Commons license]

Compared to the United States, shopping for clothes in Argentina is a breeze. In fact, most of the time, I don't even have to leave my house. I'd like to attribute this phenomenon to an increase in the number of online clothing retailers doing business in Argentina or a team of fabulous personal shoppers who've got my style down to a T and do all the hard work for me. But the truth is that shopping here feels so effortless because I just don't bother—I'm not going to find something that fits anyway.

It's tremendously difficult for me to find stylish clothes that fit me here in Argentina. I am 5'7" (170 cm), and I wear a U.S. size 18/20 (ARG size 48/50) or XXL (ARG size 5). Even when I'm lucky enough to find a skirt or top in my size, it often looks more like something my grandmother would wear rather than a vibrant woman in her early thirties. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen my grandmother sporting more stylish duds than the dowdy get-ups recommended to me in some of the stores here.

Many shops try to skirt the size issue by offering clothing in the dreaded one-size fits all. I'm hear to tell you that it doesn't, and no amount of coaxing or cajoling on the part of the sales assistant is going to make a too-tight garment look good.

In the three years I've lived in Argentina, I have bought exactly three pieces of clothing here. And it hasn't been for lack of trying. I've never been a clotheshorse, but I can assure you that in my previous life, I purchased more than one item of clothing per year. Let's just say that it's a good thing I like accessories, or else I'd never spend a centavo in the stores here.

Sharon Haywood, director of AnyBody Argentina, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing negative cultural attitudes about women's bodies, related her Argentine shopping experiences in a recent article:

Last year when I was searching for a wedding dress, all I had to do was observe the saleswoman's reaction when she looked my way and I knew that I wasn't going to find anything. Almost always, I heard the same worn-out phrase, "We don't carry your size."1

If I hadn't read Sharon's name in the article's byline, I would have sworn I'd written that statement myself. It mirrors exactly what I encountered last year when searching for a dress for my own wedding. The dismissive attitude of shopkeepers and saleswomen and lack of options transformed what should have been a fun, exciting shopping experience into a nightmare.

What's most disturbing to me is not necessarily that I have a hard time finding clothes that fit me, but that normal, healthy weight women can't find clothes that fit them either. According to a survey performed by AnyBody Argentina, about 65% of the Argentine women interviewed stated that they've had difficulty finding fashionable clothing in their size.2

Slaves to Image
According to a 2010 study by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Argentina ranks among the top 25 countries in the world for the number of cosmetic procedures performed, with liposuction far and away the most frequently chosen procedure.3 In fact, many health insurance plans here provide coverage for one cosmetic surgery procedure per year.

While many Argentine women opt for plastic surgery in the quest for a more perfect body, thousands more succumb to eating disorders as they strive to meet a near-impossible standard of beauty. Figures on eating disorders in this country are scarce, but the most recent data from a poll conducted by Argentina's Association for the Fight Against Anorexia and Bulimia (ALUBA) indicated that 1 in 10 teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 18 suffer from an eating disorder. It's also estimated that the prevalence of eating disorders in Argentina is three times higher than in the United States.4

High rates of plastic surgery and eating disorders suggest that Argentine women feel extreme societal pressure to be thin and attractive, no matter what the cost.

Dr. Mabel Bello, executive director of ALUBA, frames the Argentine obsession with beauty in the following manner: "We are slaves to image. Appearances are more important than who a person is. We have to look a certain way, be a certain person. This is our cultural imperative."5

Ley de Talles // Size Law
Back in November, I bought a cardigan—one of the three pieces from the sacred trilogy of Argentine purchases—from a shop here in Necochea. It's owned by a stout, red-haired woman who obviously understands that the entire universe does not wear a size small. She stocks a variety of sizes [up to ARG size 9] in styles that I'd actually consider wearing. Sadly, her shop is an anomaly.

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In December 2005, a Buenos Aires provincial law known as the Ley de Talles took effect, mandating that all clothing stores offer an assortment of sizes from 38 to 48 (U.S. 8 to 18). In addition, the law looks for the clothing industry to standardize sizes, as sizing here varies wildly from one brand to another. A similar law was passed by the City of Buenos Aires in late 2009. Shop owners who fail to comply with the law face fines of up to $10,000 pesos and closure, while clothing manufacturers and importers face fines ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 pesos.

Clothing manufacturers and shops have opposed the law since its inception, and given the lax enforcement of fines, the reality is that most within the clothing industry pay little heed to the Ley de Talles. In fact, compliance with the law is estimated at less than 25%.6

According to Haywood, noncompliance centers around three separate issues: heavy resistance from the industry; corruption in the form of bribes to inspectors; and the fact that Argentines have completely bought into the "cult of the body."7

Obesity in Argentina
Argentines are quick to point out the obesity problem in the U.S., but what may surprise you is that Argentina doesn't trail far behind.

According to the report World Health Statistics 2011 from the World Health Organization (WHO), 31% of women and 27.4% of men in Argentina aged 20 years or older qualify as obese [based on 2008 figures]. The rates of obesity in the United States for those aged 20 or older are higher, but not by much, coming in at 33.2% of American women and 30.2% of men [based on 2008 figures].8

It appears that despite Argentina's societal obsession with being thin and beautiful, its citizens are losing the war against obesity. Although the same can be said of the U.S., in the last couple of decades, retailers have begun to recognize the trend and have finally started to accommodate the ever-expanding American waistline by offering a broader range of sizes. But as previously discussed, the vast majority of Argentine businesses have turned a blind eye to the needs of larger and even average-sized customers.

Given such abysmal rates of compliance with the Ley de Talles, the situation for Argentine consumers appears rather grim. However, AnyBody has launched a campaign to recognize Argentine clothing brands and shops that respect the diversity of the female form. Retailers that strive for compliance with the Ley de Talles are rewarded with a decal that can be found in their display windows, allowing shoppers to easily identify women-friendly businesses.

The women of Argentina, and indeed, of the world, still have a long way to go on many fronts. In the meantime, while we're working on the bigger issues, is it too much to ask that retailers stock clothes that actually fit?

[Photo credit: HA! Designs]


1 "Yes, We Carry Your Size," AnyBody
2 "Yes, We Carry Your Size," AnyBody
3 ISAPS International Survey on Aesthetic/Cosmetic Procedures Performed in 2010, International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery [PDF] 
4 Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources, Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders [Word doc] 
5 Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina, AnyBody
6 Any-Body in Argentina: Seeking Size Law Compliance, Endangered Species Women
7 Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina, AnyBody
8 World Health Statistics 2011, World Health Organization

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