Two years ago, Julieta Paus couldn’t consume anything without counting the calories. “For lunch I chewed gum and drank mate, but nothing else,” the 18-year-old said. “I felt bad even after drinking mate, so I’d run to the bathroom to get rid of it.”
Paus is one of millions of Argentines who struggle with an eating disorder. According to the Association against Bulimia and Anorexia (ALUBA), one in ten Argentines has the illness, which translates to four million people nationwide. After Japan, Argentina has more citizens with the disorder than any other country.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are the two most common types of eating disorders. Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include a relentless pursuit to be thin and unnatural eating behaviours such as deliberate self-starvation, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Bulimia nervosa is characterised by binging followed by purging – usually vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise or intake of diuretics.
Cultural factors like eating and smoking habits may also be contributing to the incidence of eating disorders. At any given time 30% of porteñas are dieting and 33.5% of adults smoke, according to the Albion Monitor and the Ministry of Health. Women with the disorder often use smoking to suppress their appetite and increase their metabolism.Smoking burns up to 200 calories a day and slightly increases a person’s metabolism. Nicotine also acts as an appetite suppressant, so many women fear gaining weight if they quit.
Paus’ binge anorexia, which is characterised by restrictive eating followed by vomiting, started in 2002 after her mother passed away from a malignant brain tumour. Paus soon experienced depression and panic attacks. She said during the past two years her illness intensified and she wasn’t able to finish school.
“When I went out in public I felt fine,” the high school student said. “But I wasn’t. I was sick and it took five people from doctors to my friends to my dad to make me realise I had a problem.”
Paus who has now been at the ALUBA, the largest anorexia and bulimia clinic in Buenos Aires, for nine months looks healthy and said she is in transmission. “I am learning to have meals in public,” Paus said. “I used to eat alone, but I’m learning how to share, to chat.”
Dr Mabel Bello, founder of the clinic, said Argentina has an aesthetic obsession. “The women here don’t want to look old and plastic surgery is very common,” Bello said.
One in 30 Argentines is estimated to have gone under the knife, according to The Guardian. This makes the country the most operated on in the world after the US and México.
Bello, who opened the centre in 1986 hoping to give women hope for the future, said society is largely influential. “The culture is sick,” the psychologist said. “Globally everyone wants to look the same, to be thin, to be attractive. Family values disappear and girls grow up without a sense of security.”
Bello pointed out that other countries in South America had just as many unrealistic expectations about their body image. “I’ve worked in Peru and Uruguay and the problem is just as serious,” Bello said. “But the women don’t want to be included in research studies. There are more statistics about Argentina so it seems like it’s a bigger problem than in other countries.”
The principal causes of anorexia and bulimia are low self-esteem combined with a poor body image, a genetic predisposition, influences from the media and behaviours learned from family members.
According to the American Psychiatric Medical Association (APMA), people with anorexia nervosa and bulimia tend to be perfectionists who suffer from low self-esteem and are extremely critical of themselves and their bodies. “Some people are weaker and some are stronger than others,” said ALUBA psychologist Ricardo de Leon. “Usually people [with an eating disorder] have think life is too difficult so this is a coping mechanism.”
The APMA also points out that anorexic women usually ‘feel fat’ and see themselves as overweight, sometimes despite life-threatening malnutrition.
De Leon added that there is often a genetic predisposition. “It’s a pathological illness like depression, addiction or a phobia.”
Family dynamics play a pivotal role, Bello added. “Today there isn’t good communication between parents and their kids. They are more influenced by TV and all of a sudden the body becomes very important.”
The internet has also played a large role with pro-anorexia websites popping up to encourage self-deprivation. One blog called ‘Light as a Feather, Thin as a Rail’ offers tips on how to lose weight instantly.
The tagline reads like an infomercial: ‘Preoccupied with getting and staying thin? Interested in pro-ana tips, thinspiration, fasting, celebrity weight loss secrets, effective diet pills, effective diets, exercise equipment and exercise dvds? If you Like What You Read Buy Me A Fat Free Cafe Latte! Hugs & Kisses!!!’
The Law Intervenes
Three years ago Argentina passed the law of sizes (ley de talles) requiring stores to stock larger sizes. The law, which was put into effect in December 2005, mandates that all stores in the Buenos Aires province carry sizes equivalent to UK 10-20. Clothing manufacturers, importers and distributors had half a year’s notice, and businesses that don’t comply could face a $450,000 fine or even closure.
But Argentines are sceptical about the actual enforcement of the law. Lawyer Maria Eugenia Urbani, 25, said it is still difficult to find clothes that fit.
“Being 1.73m and weighing 69kg makes it impossible to buy a pair of jeans in Buenos Aires. The remedy? Either buying tight pants and stretching them for two weeks until you show yourself out in the real world, or buy in less trendy brands that usually have larger sizes.”
De Leon agreed that the laws may not be fully enforced. “A lot of stores don’t comply but of course it’s a good idea. Everyone should have the right to buy clothes that fit their bodies.”
“It’s very arbitrary how they do the sizes,” Bello added. “It doesn’t correspond to real people so they change their bodies to fit the clothes.” The ALUBA founder said the benefit of the law is the consciousness it raises about Argentina’s obsession with thinness.
“The fact that we need laws to tell fashion designers and shops and that they have to design ‘larger’ sizes shows just how pathetic and aesthetically oriented our society is,” Urbani said.
Reclaiming a Balance
In addition to the law of sizes, some international companies like Dove have taken it upon themselves to change they way we think. Their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ has created a series of advertisements promoting attractive non-models and debunking beauty myths. On their 60 second ‘The Evolution of Beauty’ commercial they show how a model is transformed through Photoshop.
The commercial shows the woman having her hair and make-up done over several hours. Her image is later changed through a computer programme – her neck is elongated, her jaw-line is slimmed down and her eyes are enlarged. The final image ends up on a billboard near a car park. The message that appears on the screen before the end of the commercial reads: ‘No wonder our perception of beauty is so distorted’.
Clinics like ALUBA are also working to instil healthy expectations about weight and beauty. Over the past 22 years the centre has helped over 20,000 patients. They offer free counselling sessions and group meetings for parents. The centre focuses on teaching patients the causes and signs of their illness and the genetic link. Through group sessions, patients are surrounded by their peers and learn to talk openly about their struggles.
Though the majority of patients are between the ages of 15 and 25, ALUBA’s youngest patients are four-years-old. At this age most of the influence comes from the parents. “Often mothers say they want to be skinny and their children internalise it.” Bello said. She asserted that every person had a right to feel comfortable in their own body. “Eating disorders rob a person of their dreams for the future. Women aren’t allowed to feel life, to love, to feel healthy. It’s one of the biggest problems of the century.”