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Brazil weighs in on skinny models

27 January 07 15:03 GMT
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Sao Paulo

"People tend to look at them as if they are sick. They're not sick, they're healthy. They need orientation, that's all."

It is a Brazilian take on the global debate about models from Graca Cabral, an organiser of Sao Paulo Fashion Week. She insists corporate responsibility and the catwalk are not mutually exclusive.

"We've banned girls younger than 16," Ms Cabral says, "and we're asking everyone for a health certificate. As a fashion industry we are doing our part."

And the Brazilian industry needs to.

Last November in Sao Paulo, a 21-year-old model, Ana Carolina Reston, died of a generalised infection caused by anorexia.

At the time of her death, she weighed just 40kg (88lb).

"At home she would eat, but I never knew what she did when she was travelling," Ana Carolina's mother, Miriam Reston, told the BBC.

"The modelling agencies should be like a mother to all these girls when they're away from home," she argues. "If the agencies could do more to make sure the girls stay healthy, that would be an improvement. You wouldn't have another Ana Carolina."


The young model's death gave a unique Brazilian focus to a debate already raging elsewhere.

Unlike Madrid and Milan, Sao Paulo Fashion Week has stopped short of setting criteria for models based on their Body Mass Index, a form of height to weight ratio.

Instead, the emphasis is on age limits and education.

Ahead of Wednesday's first catwalk show, more than 100 young models attended lectures on health and nutrition. Each was given a booklet of dietary tips, entitled Eat Well and Without Guilt.

"I think it's nice of them to teach us about food and to offer support," says 17-year-old Brazilian model, Fernanda Quilici.

But she acknowledges that her own Body Mass Index is slightly below the level recommended by doctors.

"You don't necessarily feel under pressure [to be thin]," adds 19-year-old model Amabile Provenzi, "but you don't want to feel different.

"If your hips are bigger than a beautiful skinny girl's, you feel you're breaking the rules."

Who's to blame?

Outside the rarefied atmosphere of Planet Fashion, weight loss has become a fixation for increasing numbers of young Brazilian women.

The internet throngs with chat rooms, with names such as 'Cursed Food' and 'Food is the Enemy of Perfection'.

Some bloggers hold up Anna Carolina Reston as an icon, to be imitated by others, while online tips are exchanged about the relative "benefits" of anorexia and bulimia, affectionately referred to as Ana and Mia.

But to what extent is any of this the fault or responsibility of the fashion industry? Some leading figures believe the safeguards have gone far enough.

"Obviously, I'm looking for healthy models with a healthy energy," says Reinaldo Lourenco, a Brazilian designer. "But we shouldn't be prejudiced because models are thin. Some girls are born skinny, others are born fat. That's life."

Others say more attention should be paid to social and cultural factors in Latin America's largest nation.

"In Brazil there are lots of beautiful girls with limited education and training who come from the countryside to work in big cities," explains top designer Raquel Davidowicz.

"These are simple people. It's important that the agencies teach them about food and offer medical support otherwise these girls can die."

At her home in Sao Paulo, Miriam Reston agrees that modelling agencies should take prime responsibility for their young charges. But the bereaved mother also hopes that other parents will learn from her experience.

"These girls are always coming and going, but you have to keep track of them," says Miriam. "I only became aware of what anorexia was when I lost my daughter."

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