Greek women trade Aphrodite for gaunt model look

A flood of Western media has led to a yearning for thinness in the past five years.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's an increasingly common sight in this Mediterranean city: rail-thin women, hip bones jutting out of skin-tight pants, concave midriffs flashing beneath cropped halter tops.

Up until the early '90s the ideal Greek female body type was close to the voluptuous silhouette of classical statuary.

But the past five years have seen a dramatic slimming down of the Greek female populace, with women saying they're now trying hard to resemble thin images recently imported from the West. The change has been accompanied by a rise in eating disorders, as well as a boom in "slimming centers" with English names like Bodyline, Silhouette, and Taste 'n Diet.

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A recent survey by the European Women's Lobby found that women in Greece reported the highest level of dissatisfaction with their bodies - 42 percent - among all European countries. (Irish women had the lowest rate, with 28 percent.)

Psychologists, media watchers and young Greek women themselves say that many factors have contributed to the change, but one looms clearly as the largest: the privatization of Greek media in 1989, which opened the way to a flood of Western movies and television programs and new advertising. New private channels filled up with American programs like "Friends" and "Beverly Hills 90210," where the women sport the emaciated look.

"The new media, the huge increase in advertising, created a total, radical change in the way people viewed themselves," says Manolis Heretakis, who teaches Media Studies at the University of Athens.

The new programming came into a country struggling to find an identity between East and West - with the younger generation increasingly oriented toward the latter. One way this has manifested itself is through women trying to distort their bodies into the wafer-thin shape glorified in the West, says psychologist Michael Fakinos.

"The new images make people assume they have deficits and needs that on their own they wouldn't think they had," says Mr. Fakinos, who adds that most of the new media is American.

The change isn't only in broadcast images. While in the '80s, there were only three Greek women's magazines, that number has now increased tenfold, with magazines showcasing Greek models who look increasingly like their gaunt Western counterparts.

"Now people look for role models outside of Greece, not the older, wider-looking women. There's not that Mediterranean ideal anymore," says university student Tina Kyriakou. "Men used to think (actress) Vanna Barba, who has the wide hips, the wide breasts, was sexy. Now a Greek female role model has to look like a European or an American."

Kyriacou herself is extremely slim, dressed in a tight top and short skirt. She says that although she knows it may not be good to care so much about appearances, the pressure to do so is so great she can't help it. "I look at 16-year-old girls now - the way they look, how thin they are, is very different from how my friends and I were at 16," she says.

Kyriacou and several other young Greek women said the greatest pressures are now starting to come from home, from Greek mothers who once had the reputation of insisting their children stuff themselves to capacity.

"It's a new thing, these mothers being very watchful about what their daughters eat. When I was young, this would have been unheard of. This would have made my mother's hair stand on end," said Mr. Fakinos, who comes from a generation where mothers clearly remembered the starvation of World War II and the civil war. Now mothers are looking to a future where their daughters will be competing for status in a world of western images and ideas.

Daphne Halkias, a Greek-American psychologist who has worked in both countries, says the emphasis on being thin has led to a sudden rise in anorexia and bulimia over the past five years. She and other psychologists say the phenomenon is so new here that it is only beginning to be studied, and there are no discussions of the issue yet in the mainstream media.

Ms. Halkias sees distinct differences in the Greek trend toward eating disorders. While in America, the problem is generally confined to females in their teens and 20s, in Greece, she says, "It's not just in teenagers, but in women in their 30s and even in their 40s." These women are passing down a preoccupation with thinness to the next generation, she says. "It's not uncommon to see women putting their 4- and 5-year-old daughters on diets here."

Such attitudes have helped fuel the growth of slimming centers like Bodyline, which says the past five years have seen by far the most growth since its founding.

Fakinos recalls watching a parody show about slimming centers in the '80s. "It showed you went in there and got beaten up, had all these crazy things done to you. It used to be thought of as so foreign as to be made fun of. No more." Now those centers have become completely incorporated into the culture, he says, adding, "It's unfortunate that we have chosen to import the sicknesses of other societies."

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