Don't Starve For Me, Argentina

The inspiration here is an article by Lori Leibovich for

Argentineans are obsessed with their bodies.  More so than even Americans. We gulp liquid "meal substitutes" and buy the latest diet bibles , but at a certain point we let it go. And as a nation we are still overweight.

In Argentina they take more drastic measures. Plastic surgery and starvation are national pastimes that cross gender, age and class boundaries. Since 1970, approximately one in every 30 Argentines has opted for cosmetic surgery, estimates Luis Majul, author of "The Masks of Argentina," a book about Argentines who have had their faces lifted and buttocks sculpted. Those who have gone under the knife include such luminaries as President Carlos Menem and soccer star Diego Maradona, but working-class people nip and tuck in large numbers as well. Public hospitals offer special summer deals on popular procedures like nose jobs and liposuction.

And ironically, in the land of beef and "papas fritas," eating disorders are rampant. Argentina has a higher incidence of anorexia and bulimia per capita than either the United States or Europe. I asked one young woman how the populace remained so thin in a land awash in rich foods. "Young women just don't eat," she said. "They smoke."

Relentlessly fashionable and notably haughty, Argentines have always considered themselves a cultural cut above the rest of South America, trumpeting their European ancestry and labeling their Latin neighbors boorish. Here, style is the ultimate virtue. Consider Eva Perón, who transformed herself from bumpkin to first lady with the help of a few Chanel suits and who today is remembered as much for her elegance as for her checkered political and social achievements.

How did a Latin American country thousands of miles away from Madison Avenue and Hollywood become so image obsessed? Some Argentines I spoke with blamed the nation's preoccupation with the body on the country's volatile political and economic climate. "Staying thin and looking beautiful is one thing that people have control over here," said Mauro, a 19-year-old engineering student, who sat chain-smoking at a Buenos Aires cafe. Others said that the Italian immigrants who settled in Argentina at the turn of the century simply brought with them a flair for fashion and an appreciation of beauty. And some Argentine feminists say that "machismo" is responsible for the epidemic, encouraging a climate where women are valued for how they look, not who they are.

Whatever the cause of the national obsession, its effects are clear. On the streets adolescent girls look malnourished, their hip bones jutting from beneath their jeans, their faces gaunt. Women walk the streets scantily clad — half-shirts, painted-on jeans and crotch-length skirts are the rage — flaunting their rib cages and synthetic bosoms.

So here we have a bunch of myths about Argentine women --- they don't eat, they're anorexic, they're bulemic, they smoke, they are obsessed with looking beautiful.  But what is the reality?  We will look at some survey data from the 2003 TGI Latina study.  Within this survey, there are 19,589 women between the ages of 18 to 49 years old, of which 3,239 live in Argentina and the other 16,620 live in the Latin American countries of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

Lifestyle  Our first issue is about the lifestyles.  From the chart below, we see that the Argentine women are significantly more active on many of the selected activies, especially going to bars and working out at gymnasiums. 

(source: 2003 TGI Latina)

Personal Beauty Product  The next chart shows the incidences of using personal beauty products.  If anything, the Argentine women are less likely to use such products.  Of course, this is not equivalent to saying that they are not interested in looking pretty.  Rather, it may say that the standard of beauty is not defined in terms of products that are used to artificially enhance personal looks.

(source: 2003 TGI Latina)

Consumption of Food/Drinks/Cigarettes   It is true that Argentine women eat less in terms of certain fattening foods (such as ice cream, chocolate and sweet candies).  It is also true that they smoke a lot more.  But this survey does not ask people if they are bulemic or anorexic.

(source: 2003 TGI Latina)

Going in, we had no expectation of being able to prove or disprove any of these myths about the women of Argentina.  Why?  Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies

What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech.

Of course, it is not any type: language needs special conditions in order to become myth: we shall see them in a minute. But what must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it: we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.

It can be seen that to purport to discriminate among mythical objects according to their substance would be entirely illusory: since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial' ones.

(posted by Roland Soong, 4/17/2004)

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