By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
Brazil is well known for its stylish swimwear, with styles usually targeted at young women and those with more conventional, media-friendly body shapes. But now a company is making visiting the beach more comfortable and empowering for plus-size women.
Prior to the arrival of plus-size swimwear, women turned to over-sized t-shirts and baggy shorts to hit the beach. Now, Brazilian companies are pioneering fashionable and sexy swimwear for women of all sizes.
Brazil has a well-known beach culture – a culture celebrated over the years in popular pop tunes like ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Girl_from_Ipanema). The country has successfully turned its alluring beach culture into lucrative businesses,including fashion enterprises that have become global brands. The global hit brand of beach flip flops Havaianas (havaianas.com) is a good example.
Lehona (lehona.com.br) makes ‘Moda Praia’ – plus-size – swimwear for women. The swimsuits are specially designed to flatter larger body shapes and give women the confidence to go back to the beach. It is seeking to end the discrimination inherent in beach culture that favours the “thin, the rich and the chic.”
Body shapes have been changing in Brazil – as they have been across the world and the global South. While one cause is the global obesity crisis -ballooning as diets change with rising prosperity – there is also another, more positive cause: greater access to nutrition and increasing consumption of milk and meat tends to lead to larger body shapes. This has happened across the world and in many countries irrespective of the racial and ethnic background of the people. Norwegians in Northern Europe were once some of the shortest people in Europe and suffered from poverty and malnutrition. But, as food security increased and nutrition improved, they have over time become the second tallest people in Europe behind the Netherlands (The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition,and Human Development in the Western World since 1700).
For Brazil, malnutrition was widespread until recently. Records show 10 per cent of the country’s rural northeast in the 1970s was considered underweight.
The Brazilian statistics institute has found the past decade’s economic boom has had another consequence as well as lifting many millions out of poverty. It has found 48 per cent of adult women and 50 per cent of adult men are now overweight. This compares with 1985, when 29 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men were overweight.
Diets have changed in the intervening years. Rice, beans and vegetables are now in competition with potato chips, processed meats and sugary soft drinks.
And apart from nutrition and diet changes because of increasing incomes,there is also a cultural change. While the wealthy are more used to lifestyles with plenty of exercise, newly prosperous people do not necessarily have the fitness habit. One study found just 10 per cent of Brazilian teens and adults exercise regularly.
The Lehona brand has become a quick hit and receives many telephone calls and emails from would-be customers, its owners claim.
The Brazilian cultural expectation for women’s beachwear is skimpy, showing more rather than less. This prejudices women who do not have slim body shapes or who are not under 30.
Started in 2010 by clothing designer Clarice Rebelatto and run by her son Luiz Rebelatto, Lehona was started out of personal need.
“Honestly, the problem went way beyond just bikinis. In Brazil, it used to be that if you were even a little chunky, finding any kind of clothes in the right size was a real problem,” said Clarice Rebelatto, a size 10, to The Associated Press.
“And I thought, ‘I’m actually not even that big compared to a lot of women out there, so if I have problems, what are they doing?’”
The approach to the swimsuits is counter to many other brands targeting plus-size women. They are bold and emphasize the shape rather than try to cover it up and hide it.
The brand sells itself through specialty stores for large and tall women in Brazil. A bikini sells for around 130 reais (US $66).
“Some brands, they don’t want their image to be associated with chunky women= Only the thin, the rich and the chic,” Luiz Rebelatto told The Associated Press.
“We’re working from the principle that bigger women are just like everyone else: They don’t want to look like old ladies, wearing these very modest, very covering swimsuits in just black.”
The plus-size market has even been taken up by conventional Brazilian swimwear manufacturer Acqua Rosa (http://www.acquarosanet.com.br/site/). It released its plus-size line in 2008 and claims sales now account for 70 per cent of their total sales.
One woman frequenting Copacabana beach copacabana.info) in Rio de Janeiro is Elisangela Inez Soares. She is happy and confident with the new swim suits.
“It used to be bikinis were only in tiny sizes that only skinny girls could fit into. But not everyone is built like a model,” concludes Soares.
Published: May 2012
1) Start a Fashion Business: A website packed with step-by-step advice on starting a fashion business. Website: startafashionbusiness.co.uk/
2) A website compiled by an American fashion expert on how to run a fashion business for profit. Website: http://fashionforprofit.com/about-us/
3) The catalogue for the Lehona swimsuit line. Website: http://www.lehona.com.br/pdf/lehona_moda_praia_plus_size.pdf
4) Miss Brazil Plus-Size Beauty Contest: Website: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHLflIgXqgM
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