Bulging waistlines threaten traditional Brazilian body image

Story posted May 3, 2012 in Brazil by Erika Spicer.

RIO DE JANEIRO –– Nestled in between some of Rio’s ubiquitous fitness centers are food stands that sell snacks best described as “fried” or “covered in cheese.” Butter-laden pastries and creamy pies occupy the stalls’ glass display cases, and sugary fruit juices chill in massive containers, waiting to be dispensed to thirsty customers.

Web spicer body image img 0464But directly across the street is outdoor exercise equipment, put there to remind people that calories can be burned as well as consumed.

While Rio’s women still wear their microscopic Brazilian bikinis, today, the minimal material is often filled out by large midsections and more-than-ample hips and thighs.  Men still wear their Speedos, but the swimsuits are often topped off with jutting beer bellies. In this country known for its beautiful bodies, the evidence is everywhere: Brazil is getting fat.

While still the breeding ground for supermodels and the showcase for cosmetic plastic surgery, Brazil’s fabled beaches are no longer the exclusive preserve of the tanned and fit.  The toned and body-conscious are surrounded by the overweight and the obese, whose numbers are increasing at a rate that is alarming public health authorities.

It’s the “American tendency,” says Gloria Valeria da Veiga, a professor who specializes in obesity studies at the Institute of Nutrition at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.  Like other emerging nations, Brazil’s booming economy has spawned a consumer class now able to afford fast food and regular meals out. Especially in urban areas like Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia, busy schedules have meant less exercise and more pre-packed, salty and sugary foods.  Giant portions of beef, potatoes and rice at restaurants and junk food replace traditional Brazilian fare like manioc root, sweet potatoes, fish and fruits.

“They don’t eat bananas,” Veiga says, “but they’ll eat cookies,”

Web spicer body image img 0440Results of The National Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) study in 2008/2009 confirm that obesity is growing in Brazil, and at an alarming rate, says Veiga.  According to the study, 33 percent of children in Brazil ages 5 to 9 are overweight –– the category preceding “obese” on the Body Mass Index (BMI) scale –– and about 14 percent are obese.

About 20 percent of Brazilian teenagers are overweight and 5 percent are obese; 50 percent of Brazilian adults are overweight, and 15 percent are obese.  Brazil hasn’t quite caught up to the U.S.’s obesity population –– which is at about 36 percent –– but Veiga said Brazilians are increasingly mimicking American patterns and can expect to mirror the U.S. obesity rates if habits don’t change.

In Rio, appearances can be deceiving.  The city’s world famous beaches and its ubiquitous gyms and workout centers still attract steady crowds of people jogging, bicycling and playing beach volleyball and soccer. But, the study reveals that only 15 percent of adults are active in their free time.  The situation is worse in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where residents cannot afford gym memberships or healthy foods.

To put those percentages into perspective, Brazilian teenagers’ weight has nearly tripled since the 1970s, Veiga says. Adults are experiencing a similar three-fold weight increase, too.  The IBGE study also indicates that overweight and obesity surges go across the socioeconomic board, not exclusively the lower-class areas of the city.   In the past 40 years, there has been a dramatic rise in all brackets of the population, Veiga says.

Fighting flab

Concerned by the trend, public health authorities are fighting back.

Web spicer body image img 0482In Rio schools, snack bars are prohibited by law. Sodas, candy, cakes and greasy foods like French fries are banned from school cafeterias.

Because it is typically the middle and wealthier classes that own gym memberships, there is an effort to make fitness equipment more available to the general public.  In one tiny park near a subway station, bright green, all-weather workout equipment stands ready for anyone to use, any time.  People flock to the fitness equipment at all hours of the day to take advantage of a free workout. 

Beach workouts are noticeably popular, too.  Felipe Marinho, co-founder of a beach circuit in Flamengo called Circuito da Praia, says he and a friend created their beach obstacle course for health benefits, not for aesthetic purposes.  Marinho and a group of his employees –– all toned, tan and energetic –– eagerly help passerby try out the circuit.

“Aesthetics are secondary,” says Marinho, who studied physical education and sports training in school.  He adds that the majority of gym-goers are concerned with sculpting their bodies to simply look good, but he wants his circuit to be used as a dynamic workout for cardiovascular health and breathing capacity.

Marinho’s circuit allows participants to use resistance bands, balance equipment, hula-hoops (laid on top of the sand for agility exercises) and mats for stretching and sit-ups.  He also coaches running on the beach, something he says is quite popular in Rio.

But some take fitness too far, Marinho says. He believes the general population is too concerned with achieving the ideal Brazilian beach body, especially with the added pressure of Rio’s climbing obesity rates.

“People must be conscious of their physical limits,” he says.

Web spicer body image img 0350Other fitness trainers and experts in Rio are concerned with exercise habits.  Tauska Santos, a fitness instructor and trainer at NBfit gym in Rio’s Ipanema neighborhood, says the strong fitness culture in Rio can be beneficial in terms of motivating people to workout –– but at the same time, many take it to the extreme.

“We’re very vain,” Tauska says. “We have some obsessed clients.”

Tauska describes the perfect Brazilian body –– full breasts, a thin waist and toned buttocks and thighs for women; bulky arms and abdominal muscles for men. She emphasizes that Brazilian women don’t try to achieve the “scary skinny” physique that American women desire, rather, Brazilian women want to look toned and beach-ready. “When you go to the beach, you feel very vulnerable,” Tauska says.  “We’re more likely to freak out about body image in Rio. There’s this kind of judgment about it.”

But Tauska says in recent years, she has noted a difference in the body types that show up to the chic fitness center.

“I’ve noticed that people have gained a lot of weight,” Tauska says.  “More people are working, and when we get too stressed, we release cortisol.  The more cortisol you release, the more weight you gain –– it’s a cycle.”

Though some of her clients are too preoccupied with the aesthetics benefit of working out, Tauska says, she is at least relieved that more clients are aware of the health issues that exercise can improve in terms of obesity.

“What you have to highlight is that the exercise shouldn’t be so obsessive,” Tauska says.  “We should aim for health first and the looks [physical appearance] as a consequence.”

Echoing Tauska’s concern, some body image experts are concerned how Brazilians will perceive themselves as the rates of obesity climb.

As obesity rates skyrocketed in the U.S., so did the pressure to stay thin –– a paradox that led to more eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder.  Michelle Delboni dos Passos, a member of the Coordinating Research Team at the Institute of Nutrition Annes Dias/Municipal Health and Civil Defense in Rio, is worried the same could happen in Rio. 

“Many adolescents have gone to extreme measures to achieve the appropriate weight that [they feel] is appropriate for society, such as induced vomiting, use of medications to lose weight and the use of laxatives among others,” Passos wrote in an email.  “Because Rio is a coastal town, this preoccupation with the body seems to be more evident.”

Web spicer body image img 0484But some people in Rio, regardless of their size, are keeping their confidence. Washington Santos stands underneath the relieving shade of a tree on the beach.   Tall, broad shouldered and bordering what the BMI scale would probably consider obese, he wears a white t-shirt to cover up.  He insists he isn’t shamed to go shirtless on a regular basis, despite his heavier figure.

Santos, 35, watches as people jog past him on the hot black pavement.  A former jujitsu fighter, he reminisces about the days he used to exercise vigorously, about six years ago.  His weight has spiked since his athletic years ended.

“I had to quit because I got injured,” Santos says, explaining the reason for his dramatic weight gain.  “It’s sad. I had to make an option.”

But Santos says he has faith in himself.

“If me and my mother don’t have confidence, no one will,” he says.

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