A tiny step for womankind

Argentina is fighting the fashionistas with a law against micro-sized clothing. Annie Kelly reports

The road to physical perfection leads to Argentina, a country that takes its beautiful people very seriously - so seriously that, in a startling feat of political intervention, one regional government has implemented a law that is forcing the fashion industry to acknowledge that you can be too thin.

Officials wielding tape-measures were unleashed on the glitzy shopping malls of Buenos Aires Province last month to enforce the new "law of sizes". The legislation, which came into effect in December, stipulates that fashion retailers must stock a full range of clothing sizes for women, roughly equivalent to UK sizes 10-20. Those businesses that don't comply could be hit with a hefty £95,000 fine or even closure.

According to the provincial government, the law has been passed to break the fashion "tyranny", imposed by designers and manufacturers, which practically forces women to starve themselves in order to fit into their microscopic clothing. Before the law came into force, those unfortunate shoppers larger than a UK size 10 would struggle to get even an ankle into the skinny jeans and whispers of chiffon that line the racks of the suburbs' exclusive boutiques.

By passing the law, the local authorities have conveniently offloaded any blame for the "epidemic" of eating disorders sweeping the nation. Argentina now has the second-highest rate of anorexia and bulimia in the world (after Japan), with statistics suggesting that one in ten women suffers from a "slimming disease".

Not surprisingly, the legislation has created uproar on the fashion scene, which sees it as the kiss of death for creativity and style. One designer suggested that the provincial government wanted everyone to wear Mao jackets, and the fashion industry in general believes that enforcement will lead to the creation of clothes, based on US sizing charts, that customers simply won't buy.

"Brands shouldn't be obliged to make clothes that are outside the spirit of their collection," wrote a designer to La Nación, one of the leading newspapers. There are plenty of outsized-clothing chains for those who need it, he argued.

Margarita de Santos, a shop assistant at a provincial branch of a high-end fashion outlet, curls her perfectly formed lips at the mention of regulated sizing.

"Argentinian girls are nowhere near as big as American or European girls, so why should our shops sell clothes that are made to their body shapes?" she asks. "Argentinian girls work hard at looking good. Why shouldn't we be proud of that?"

Although the law applies only to Buenos Aires Province, which covers the city's suburbs but not the capital itself, it attacks the heart of Argentina's fashion industry. With a population of 15 million, mostly wealthy professional families, the pro-vince is a vital market for the clothing designers whose shops crowd its expanding array of modern malls.

After failing to stop the law of sizes reaching the statute book, the industry is now pulling out the stops to try to overturn it in the provincial courts. And many believe the fashionistas will be successful. Dr Mabel Bello, founder of Aluba, the largest anorexia and bulimia clinic in the city of Buenos Aires, was instrumental in the campaign for legislation regulating clothing sizes. Even though she is "thrilled and relieved" at the introduction of the law of sizes, she is gloomy about its future.

"The fashion designers have too much money and too much social sway to make this law really successful," she says. "I'd be surprised if it is still in existence this time next year."

She is suspicious of the provincial government's motives in passing a bill that imposes such hefty punitive measures.

"We never wanted fines imposed, be-cause this just opens the law up as another lucrative income stream for politicians. And we've already heard cases of inspectors being bribed by shops not conforming to the law's requirements. It is too open to corruption."

But there are those who have faith. Nineteen-year-old Gabriella Ancha is a patient at Aluba. She blames the "sick beauty industry we have in our country" for the anorexia that blighted her earlier teenage years, and believes that the law can and will make a difference.

"For years it didn't matter how little I ate - I was never thin enough to buy the clothes I wanted. Shopping was like a living hell," she says. "Now, because of this law, shop assistants can't tell girls that they're too fat, because they'll be selling clothes that fit real people. Without this law, nothing would have changed."