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Tuesday
Jul062010

Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina

By AnyBody member Sharon Haywood

Typical Argentine mannequins found in the capital of Buenos Aires/Photo by Sharon HaywoodMaría Pérez (pseudonym), a 34-year-old Argentine, works as a sales clerk in a clothing store in the capital of Buenos Aires, but she doesn’t wear the clothes she sells. She’s a size 46 (UK 18/US 16) and the largest size her store offers is 38 (UK 10/US 8). She told AnyBody, “The only clothes that I can find to fit are imported name brands like Levis but they’re really expensive, at least twice the cost of an Argentine brand. The problem is, I can’t fit into any Argentine brands. There aren’t that many speciality shops for larger sizes and even then the clothing is quite boring, not fashionable at all.” She deals with the problem by asking friends who travel to North America or Europe to bring her back the clothes she wants.

Kasandra Shay, a 40-year-old American living in the province of Buenos Aires wears a US size 6-8 (UK 10-12) and said, “it’s impossible to find anything that fits.” She told AnyBody that for the last three years she has resided in Argentina she only buys clothes when visiting the States. “I feel like if you aren't five feet tall and an absolute stick with twigs for arms and legs, (and no hips), then clothes just aren't for you.” 

Luciana La Morgia, a 34-year-old Argentine residing in the capital of Buenos Aires, doesn’t know what her size is. Depending on where she buys her clothes, her size ranges from a 30 to a 40 (UK 2-12/US 0-10), sometimes even in the same store. She stated that it is challenging to find clothes that fit properly and said that women’s clothing in Argentina “is made for little dolls and girls without hips.”

According to Monique Altschul, the executive director of the feminist organisation Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad (Women in Equality Foundation), approximately 70% Argentine women have difficulty finding clothes that fit. As a result, women have no choice but to shop at speciality stores that carry larger sizes, but in Argentina, fashion and larger sizes are not congruous. By comparison, women in the UK and the US can shop at popular and style-conscious chains like Marks & Spencer or specialists such as Evans and Lane Bryant. AnyBody also spoke with Dr. Mabel Bello, the executive director of ALUBA, Argentina’s Association Against Bulimia and Anorexia who said, “Argentina has the second highest rate of eating disorders in the world … and 95% of its women believe they are fat.” Taking such facts into consideration, the lack of a full range of clothing sizes isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s feeding a national health crisis.

Activists and key governmental forces recognised the problem and lobbied for change. In December 2005, legislators implemented the country’s first size law (la Ley de Talles) for the province of Buenos Aires, which covers the extensive suburbs outside of the country’s capital. The law states that retailers of clothing for teens must stock sizes 38 to 48 (UK 10-20/US 8-18) of all items available for purchase. It also mandates that sizes small, medium, and large, and sizes 1 through 4 be abolished. Furthermore, every size must be accompanied by a ticket that specifies bust, waist, and hip measurements that adhere to standards set by the National Institute for Normalisation and Certification, otherwise known as IRAM. The penalties for noncompliance include fines and even store closure. Argentine consumers and activists applauded the legislation. But the celebration didn’t last long.

In 2007, Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad (MEI) conducted a follow-up of store compliance at one of the province’s largest shopping malls, Unicenter, which revealed discouraging findings. Most stores carried only up to a size 42 (UK 14/US 12); various store employees asserted that they did not carry size 48 (UK 20/US 18); and a good number of retailers had incorrectly labelled the sizes of clothing items in which larger sizes were actually a size or two smaller than stated. Furthermore, none of the size labels included the IRAM-specified bodily measurements, and the majority of store employees were not aware of IRAM’s norms. Shortly after its inspection, MEI contacted the 100 representatives appointed by the Consumer Advocate’s office to enquire about their monitoring activities. Only two officers responded, stating that they had conducted educational campaigns with store owners and had subsequently issued fines and temporary store closures for those retailers who failed to conform with the law. After MEI’s assessment, the organisation calculated that the current compliance rate sits at 25% due to minimal to non-existent government monitoring and enforcement.

The problem of noncompliance is threefold. First, designers, manufacturers, and retailers staunchly oppose the law. Designers told the country’s national newspaper La Nación that the law was “nonsense.” Manufacturers state they cannot afford the additional raw materials and extra labour required to produce a full range of sizes. Shop owners assert that it is not economically feasible to increase their on-hand stock. Altschul of MEI concurred that their concerns are valid: “They need loans to help them make the transition.” Bello of ALUBA, who advised the Senate on both the provincial and the capital size laws, believes enforcement would be more successful if retailers were provided with incentives, rather than punishments by fines: “I believe taking the stance that the retailers are guilty of this situation is a strategic error.” She added that the size law could act as a catalyst for further awareness and education surrounding body image issues if it were regulated differently.

The second barrier to size law compliance is corruption. During MEI’s inspection at Unicenter, the organisation reported that many store employees were reluctant to offer information for fear of losing their jobs; however, some staff explained that monthly inspections ceased when inspectors “made deals” with store owners. Bello reinforced such realities by stating, “It’s very difficult to regulate the law where corruption exists and inspectors receive bribes.” Additionally, Altschul reported that a representative from the Consumer Advocate’s office pressured the organisation to cease their lobbying efforts. She said, “They told us that if we insisted on this law we would only be doing damage to our own neighbourhood because they [the retailers] would need to move to another neighbourhood.” Shortly thereafter, Altschul said that the Secretary of Commerce for the province of Buenos Aires called a meeting with MEI and echoed the same message, encouraging the organisation to sympathise with manufacturers and retailers.

The ideal Argentine body type is reflected in its mannequins/Photo by Sharon HaywoodThe resistance from manufacturers, retailers, and the Consumer Advocate’s office reveals the third and most relevant barrier to seeing the law enforced: Argentina’s commitment to the beauty myth. Bello said that in Argentina “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.” The executive director of MEI cited an example of her country’s bias against fat illustrated in a particular Argentine brand of jeans: “They have jeans that young girls love but the brand only carries up to size 42, and for sizes higher than that, the size ticket reads ‘anonymous.’” She also told AnyBody that the Spanish-based clothing retailer Zara has a store in Unicenter shopping mall in the province of Buenos Aires that was legally granted permission to not comply with the size law. Altschul said, “I’ve been to Zara stores in Berlin, Athens, Washington, DC and Switzerland and they have all sizes. But not in Buenos Aires.”

Glorification of thinness is not a phenomenon exclusive to this South American country. In North America, an example of size discrimination can be found at the teen and women’s clothing store American Apparel. Activists and consumers alike have criticised the wildly popular retailer for not stocking many of their clothing items over a US size 6 (UK 8). Brianne Widaman of the body activism movement Revolution of Real Women in the United States stated, “American Apparel is not the first company to do this, but they are currently one of the most popular and most obvious examples of undisclosed size limitation … its lack of size diversity on its racks begins to come across as elitist and size-shaming.” The Argentine fashion industry is sending the exact same message as American Apparel: If you want to be fashionable, you must be thin.

According to Altschul, the Argentine Senate takes the issue seriously. In December 2009, the Senate passed a size law for adults within the capital of Buenos Aires; at present, enforcement is pending budget allocations. Additionally, a national size law for adults is currently under review in the Senate. MEI believes they are “good laws but the problem is how to translate them into public policy.” Until then, consumers must make their voices heard. MEI recommends that shoppers file a formal complaint when they discover their clothing size is unavailable. Altschul admits that the Consumer Advocate’s office demands a lot of consumers: Each consumer complaint must be submitted in writing accompanied by a notarised copy. MEI will continue to lobby against what Altschul calls “pure discrimination” but without the unified support of the public, change is not forthcoming. Bello believes that education is the answer. In a culture where Bello said, “mothers want to look like their daughters,” achieving size law compliance isn’t just a political issue. It’s a public health emergency.

 

Note: Endangered Species, an international body image summit organised by AnyBody, will raise the issue of the size law in Buenos Aires on March 16, 2011. Visit www.anybodyargentina.org for more information.  

 

Reader Comments (10)

Argentina is worse than the US in terms of body image and fashion. Oh my.

“Argentina has the second highest rate of eating disorders in the world … and 95% of its women believe they are fat.” How sad. I wish there were an easy way to change how both women and men see their looks and that they live a healthier life style.

Thanks for the post Sharon. It was interesting, especially learning about the country's size laws. Cherry
July 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCherry Woodburn
it's a nightmare to buy a pair of jeans here, i'm size 42 in jeans, and it's really depressing when you go to a clothing store and the largest size is 38. (and more depressing is when the sales clerk tells you "we don't have clothes for your size")
when i want to buy pants i always go to VER http://www.ver.com.ar/, a place where i can find nice and fasionable clothes over size 38.
July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCE
"It also mandates that sizes small, medium, and large, and sizes 1 through 4 be abolished."

What? No! So where are the real, small women going to get clothes? I'm all for including more sizes at the higher end of the spectrum, but there is no reason to banish small sizes. Sizes 00, 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 can all be perfectly healthy.
July 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuxe
Why must we always throw the baby out with the bath water. Why can't we just stock a wider range of sizes instead of abolishing smaller sizes in favour of others?

I remember having a terrible time with my thyroid at one stage. I found myself standing in the aisle of my local clothing store fighting back tears because I was too small for their clothes. Admittedly I wasn't at my healthiest but does that mean I didn't deserve clothing?

It's all about diversity not just changing the focus of a narrow view.
July 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca
I think it is great to encourage the availability of larger sizes, but I am 5' and clothes above a size small or US 5 fall off of my body. Telling people they can't even wear those sizes is ridiculous discrimination against perfectly healthy individuals.

Also, I personally do not shop at American Apparel because I do not particularly like their fashions, but to say its wrong to limit their clothes is ridiculous. I have been to many many stores that simply do not sell below a size 4 or 5. There are many stores for normal and plus size women, so please do not attack the one store that caters to smaller women.
July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPetite09
Thanks so very much for your comments. As the author of this article, I want to clarify that the size law is not encouraging discrimination of smaller sizes. The law calls for the elimination of small, medium and large and sizes 1 through 4 to be replaced by only numerical sizes so that standardisation exists. The law states that sizes 38 to 48 must be available for purchase. This is not to say that sizes smaller than 38 should not be included. In Argentina, finder smaller sizes is not a problem. In fact, finding a size 28 (UK 0/US 00) or a size 30 (UK 2/US 0) is quite easy for female consumers. The law is aiming for inclusion and respect for diversity for all sizes. I hope my explanation has helped clarify your valid concerns.
July 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Haywood
For those of you living in Argentina, AnyBody is holding an international summit to challenge the culture that teaches girls and women to hate their bodies. Please visit us on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Especies-en-riesgo-de-extincion/149971971701855?v=app_2373072738&ref=mf#!/pages/Especies-en-riesgo-de-extincion/149971971701855?ref=mf

We also encourage you to let us know where you can find clothes to fit in Buenos Aires as we would like to highlight stores that DO comply with the law.

Thanks so much!
Sharon Haywood
Buenos Aires Summit Coordinator
September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Haywood
This article is right on in terms of its message, but sadly I think it even smooths over the extent of the problem. I read it as if the authors were saying that a girl or woman OVER a US size 12 (42 in Buenos Aires) might not find clothes. In fact, I am 5'6" and in the US I wear an 8 or 10 in pants, and a 4-8 in tops. And I can NEVER find clothes here. Just today I was in a mall and the largest women's Levi's jeans they carried was a 27. I had to buy men's, as always. Also, the 1,2,3,4 sizing isn't only still the predominant scheme, most stores really only have size 1 and 2, then they sew a 3 or a 4 tag into a garment which was a size 1 or 2 to begin with. You can hold them up and compare.

Other issue: the Talle unico (one size fits all) is ubiquitous, especially in swim suits and panties. The other issue is that bras and panties are commonly sold in sets, so if your cup size isn't so big, you will have to wear an x-small or small in panties.

For the commenter who bewailed the unfair threat to small sizes: That will NEVER happen here. What they were proposing was eliminating the sizing scheme in which there are only 4 sizes total, 1 being small and 4 being x-large and replacing it with a sizing scheme related to body measurements which may have many more sizes in total, too.

I was living in BA in 2005 when La Ley de los Talles was enacted and I can assure all readers that nothing has changed. But, to reiterate my first point: This is not an article about women who shop at Lane Bryant in the US not finding fashionable plus-sizes in Argentina. Who the hell thinks Lane Bryant is fashionable anyway? This is about women like me who shop at Urban Outfitters and swim in a Lg from that chain not being able to squeeze into an XXL here.

It's complex as an issue. I am surely and chronically 15 lbs overweight. And in a society like this one, there is no getting past that. The sizing means I have to acknowledge that unhappy fact and diet, which in theory would be good for me. Except I can cheat and just buy my clothes from the US every couple years. I don't know what the local women do, it's all pretty hush hush, what with the shame.

Now check out a man's sizing problem: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/mens-fashion/pants-size-chart-090710
September 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte Jenkins
very interesting and very true...
im a style consultant in buenos aires, and had lived abroad so I suffer every time my clients suffer and complain about this issue even me !!
please contact me if possible , I would love to help in the field.
cheers


fb@florenciabibas.comm.ar
011 4 5561674
July 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterflorence bibas
Thanks so much for your message Florencia! As of July 1, 2011, Any-Body Argentina has launched a campaign in which we are collaborating with stores that are making grand efforts to comply with the size law. To date, we have officially congratulated VER and Portsaid with a women-friendly sticker that they display in their windows. We are also in communication with other Argentine brands who wish to become part of our campaign. I'll send you an email so we can discuss how you can support our efforts. Thanks so much! Sharon
July 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Haywood
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