Which came first, thin women or tiny sizes?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Browse through the racks of dresses, skirts, and tops in almost any trendy clothing store in fashion-savvy Argentina, and whether you find something that fits depends on your size. Shops carry small sizes in abundance, but few - if any - options for curvaceous women.

"When you go into a store and find an extra large, you know that it is really the equivalent of a medium or even a small based on European or American standards," says Ivanna Villanucci, a 20-something medical student who has been treated for anorexia. "You feel frustrated because you start to think that everybody is like this, and that you are big. But that's not true."

In this beauty-conscious nation, which has the world's second-highest rate of anorexia (after Japan), many are partially blaming the country's clothing industry for offering only tiny sizes of the latest fashions. The result, say many health experts, is a dangerous paradox of girls and women adapting to the clothes rather than clothes adapting to them.

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Prompted by anecdotal evidence and expert testimony, the Argentine legislature is considering whether to force clothing manufacturers to cover "all the anthropometric measurements of the Argentine woman" up to size 54(the equivalent of extra large in the United States).

The bill also addresses the related problem of so-called "tricky" labeling in which S, M, and L designations vary by brand and are smaller than international standards.

Since the sizing information on most clothing is now in English, the bill calls for Spanish-language labels on all clothes as well as mandatory pictograms depicting sizes in centimeters. Manufacturers that fail to adhere to the proposed regulations would face fines and temporary closure.

"We believe that companies share part of the blame for high rates of anorexia, and we hope this will help correct the problem," says the congressional staff attorney who drafted the bill.

The proposal has raised eyebrows in a historically flirtatious society skeptical of government and well known for its obsession with beauty.

"Argentina has the world's highest rates of aesthetic surgery," says Mabel Bello, psychiatrist and founder of ALUBA, the Association for the Fight Against Anorexia and Bulimia. "When you are talking about how preoccupied with beauty our society is, that is the most telling statistic."

For experts such as Susana Saulquin, a sociologist of fashion in Buenos Aires, such statistics spell futility for legal remedies. "These types of laws are not going to cause lasting changes," she says in an e-mail.

A better way to address the problem, Ms. Saulquin says, is through public education that emphasizes balanced eating habits over an unrealistic ideal of beauty.

Currently, companies try to preserve brand image by catering to young and extremely thin customers, but over time, she believes, a more balanced view of beauty will emerge.

She has called for tax breaks for companies that make larger clothes.

Girls being treated for anorexia at ALUBA, Argentina's most prestigious anorexia clinic, told a reporter they would welcome the opportunity to find the latest styles in larger sizes.

"There's never your size; it's always smaller," says Natalia, to nods of agreement from other patients.

"The companies don't want big girls wearing their brands because it looks bad," says Yamilia.

"They're just trying to save money by making smaller sizes," says another teen.

For their part, industry groups condemn the bill as overreaching state meddling. They say their business decisions are guided by consumer demand.

"We are not in favor of anything that regulates the market," says Laura Codda of the Argentine Fashion Association, which represents major clothing manufacturers. "Every clothing company has the right to make anything they can sell - any color, any sizes."

Ms. Codda and other industry representatives dismiss what they say is the illogical claim that companies make small clothes to save material costs. If larger sizes sold, they argue, companies would sell larger sizes.

She says her group is not opposed to measures that would standardize sizing, but she notes that many, if not most, clothes in Argentine stores already carry the numerical designations called for in the bill.

Foreign imports, which industry observers say would also have to conform to the proposed law, are available in stores.

But many young consumers tend to prefer Argentine fashions, says Noelia Delgado, who works in a Buenos Aires-based Internet business. "The best styles are from Argentina designers. That's what people want."

If history is a guide, the fate of the proposed law is somewhat bleak. Ms. Bello says she has been consulted on similar projects over the years, all of which failed.

However, in 2001, the provincial government of Buenos Aires managed to pass a similar law - although the governor failed to sign it.

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