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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2007, 14:45 GMT
Argentina: Ugly people strike back
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Gonzalo in his youth
Campaigner Gonzalo Otalora admits he was and is no oil painting

Buenos Aires is a city of beautiful people where appearances are important.

The men will tell you that Argentine women are the most attractive in the world; the women say much the same about the men.

But not everyone in Buenos Aires is beautiful. Gonzalo Otalora, for instance, is downright ugly, and he is not embarrassed to admit it.

In fact, he is fighting back on behalf of all those Argentines who don't fancy themselves as film stars or models.

I went out with him on a grey day in the Argentine capital. It was raining and windy which can cause havoc if, like many Argentines, you have spent hours dressing and making yourself up to join the ranks of the beautiful people on the streets of Buenos Aires.

The difference between being beautiful and ugly is not aesthetic but is inside.
Gonzalo Otalora
Author of Ugly

But Gonzalo Otalora does not much care what he looks like. He planted himself in front of the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada or Pink House, to harangue President Nestor Kirchner to change the law.

It's not fair, he said. The beautiful people get all the breaks. Beauty is a natural advantage and he wants the good-lookers to be taxed to finance compensation for the ugly people.

Not pretty

His book, Feo (Ugly), has just been republished and is selling well. On the inside cover is a picture of Gonzalo as a youth. It is not a pretty sight.

Gonzalo outside the presidential palace
Gonzalo is determined to get his message across

"I was a child with thick glasses, spots and braces," he said. "The kids made fun of me at school.

"Later the girls rejected me in the discos. And then when I was looking for work, I felt so ugly and insecure that I was rejected again and left without a job.

"The great challenge in my life has been to stop being the school nerd - and thanks to my humour and bravery I've managed to overcome all that."

President Nestor Kirchner is not a typical Argentine either with his "Who cares?" attitude to clothes, hooked nose, and bags under his eyes. He should, according to Gonzalo, be sympathetic to his cause.

Presidential couple Cristina  and Nestor Kirchner
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"The president for me is a comrade," he explained. "He's a loyal comrade because our childhoods were very similar. He also had thick glasses and spots. They also made fun of him.

"He was also very brave in overcoming his difficulties. The only difference now is that he's president of the country, and I'm not.

"And he's with an attractive woman, and I'm not."

But things in the presidential palace are about to change with Nestor Kirchner's wife, Cristina, taking over from her husband on 10 December.

She wears designer clothes, drinks a specific brand of mineral water to keep her skin looking rosy and her worst enemies say she's had her lips, you know, "resculptured".

There are no advantages in life - there's just luck. My dear daughter is beautiful, she's got a good body and she's a lawyer - and she has been divorced twice
Buenos Aires resident

This is no joke. Well it is, kind of. But there is a serious side to Gonzalo's campaign.

It's not about making yourself look beautiful, he says, but about coming to terms with and being positive about who you are and what nature has given you.

"The most important thing is not to feel so insecure," said Gonzalo. "The difference between being beautiful and ugly is not aesthetic but is inside. And if someone has high self-esteem then you can compete in any area in this society on equal terms with a good-looking person."

The perfect example and hero of ugly people everywhere is the Argentine and Manchester United footballer, Carlos Tevez.

Bad teeth and burn scars on his neck, he has the money for plastic surgery but does not want it.

Argentine football star Carlos Tevez
Carlos Tevez: Not concerned with how he looks

Gonzalo wants to meet Tevez to present him with a copy of his book and get him to support his cause.

Opinion on the streets of Buenos Aires is mixed.

"I think it is totally fair, yes, yes, yes," said one woman, one of the few willing to stop in the rain and talk to Gonzalo and me.

"And also a tax on companies that help us to think that way, that beauty is only aesthetics. So whoever is ugly or doesn't fit into the social beauty parameters, suffers those invisible barriers imposed by society."

Another passer-by said: "For me, it doesn't matter. I care about people, their personality. Of course, for some people looks are important, but not for me. And you cannot put a price on beauty, there no taxes applicable. The most important is to be a good person."

Beauty big business

Elsa, a woman in her 80s, firstly tried to dodge us, then changed her mind and started talking.

"There are no advantages in life - there's just luck. My dear daughter is beautiful, she's got a good body and she's a lawyer - and she has been divorced twice.

"My beloved son-in-law left her for another woman and didn't care about their two daughters. It is matter of luck in life, there are no advantages. Luck. Everything is just luck."

US TV character Ugly Betty
TV's Ugly Betty: Charming audiences around the world

Beauty around the world is big business, and huge in Argentina with a constant barrage on television and the streets exhorting consumers to buy lotions and potions, creams and shampoos, to keep them looking younger and more attractive.

As a visitor to Buenos Aires, sitting in that pavement restaurant watching the beautiful people walk by, you can succumb to the pressure, try to compete with the beautiful people and do all the work that that entails.

Or you can follow Gonzalo's example and enjoy the delights the city has to offer - and suffer the consequences.

"Waiter! Another slice of rump steak, one more bottle of wine and one of those delicious looking cream cakes to follow, if you please!"

Some comments on this story from our readers.

As a 25 yr old English girl living and working in Buenos Aires I can safely say that the women here are not only very attractive, extremely thin and very tanned but all seem to have ridiculously nice hair?! However, I would rather have my slight belly and split ends and be able to enjoy a pint of beer than faint at the thought of injesting even one calorie in the summer!
Secret Squirrel, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I have been living in Buenos Aires for 5 months now and do not get what all the fuss is about. I really dont think the people are all that "beautiful" depending on how this is defined. Buenos Aires is a big mix of all sorts of looking people, and the only thing the people who are considered good looking have in common are fake blonde hair, fake boobs and botox. Turn on any TV channel and you'll see what I mean.
Lily, Lytham St Annes, England

I spent a month in Argentina in 2004, and can tell you there is an emphasis on "looking your best". That being said, I soon noticed that during lunch or dinner, very often women would lightly pick at their meals while the men were a bit more "hearty" about taking it in. My personal theory was that the competition is intense, so more than a few women I saw in restaurants were light on on food, heavy on smoking.
greg, Los Angeles, USA

I'm part of the plastic surgery business here in Buenos Aires helping to change nature's faults. I found this article interesting and a very accurate depiction of Argentine obsession with beauty. I was glad to read about discrimination based on one's looks, pointing out that it will be hard to legislate away what is naturally human.
Christopher Henson, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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