'People are realising we're not all Gisele': Rise of the not-so-teeny bikini as demand soars from Brazil’s 'little fatties'
The Girl From Ipanema has put on a few pounds, and for many sunbathers on Brazil's beaches the country's iconic itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini just doesn't suffice anymore.
A growing number of bikini manufacturers have woken up to Brazil's thickening waistline and are reaching out to the ever-expanding ranks of heavy women with new plus-size lines.
That's nothing short of a revolution in this most body-conscious of nations, where overweight ladies long had little choice but to hit the beach in comely ensembles of oversized T-shirts and biker shorts.
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Not for wallflowers: Shoppers are shunning the famous 'dental floss' bikinis of Copacabana beach but don't want to 'look like old ladies' in black cover-ups
'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,' said Elisangela Inez Soares as she sunbathed on
Copacabana beach, her oiled-up curves packed into a black U.S. size 12
'Finally, it seems
like people are beginning to realize that we're not all Gisele,' said
the 38-year-old mother of four, referring to willowy Brazilian
supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
Clothing designer Clarice Rebelatto said
her own swimwear-hunting travails prompted her to found Lehona, an
exclusively plus-size beachwear line.
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 Rebelatto, herself a U.S. size 10.
'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'
Since its launch in 2010, the line has become a hit.
Big and beautiful: A model walks the runway at the first ever Miss Brazil Plus Size Beauty Pageant. Demand for flattering, larger-sized bikinis are soaring
In brash leopard spots and flower prints not meant for wallflowers, the label's 14 bikini styles aren't what you'd normally associate with plus-size swimsuits.
The necklines plunge dramatically. Straps are mere strings. And while the bottoms provide too much coverage to qualify for the famed 'fio dental' or 'dental floss' category of Brazilian string bikinis, they're significantly more audacious than the standard U.S. cut.
'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,' said Luiz Rebelatto, Clarice's son and director of Lehona.
He said that recent publicity of the
brand and several other new swimwear lines catering to plus sizes has
triggered an overwhelming number of calls and emails from would-be
Swimsuit designer: Elisangela Inez Soares rinses off at the beach and says that bikinis used to come in tiny sizes but 'not everyone is built like a model'
They're all excited and they say, 'I've been looking everywhere for a bikini like that. Where can I get one' said Rebelatto.
Lehona is currently sold exclusively at big and tall specialty stores throughout Brazil.
Its bikinis retail for about 130
reais or $75 — a relatively high price-point here, but Rebelatto said
sales have grown at a galloping pace, though he did not provide any
It's the same
story at Acqua Rosa, a conventional swimwear label that added a
plus-size line in 2008. Now, plus-size purchases account for more than
70 per cent of the brand's total sales, said director Joao Macedo.
It makes sense.
For centuries, large swaths of
Brazil were beset by malnutrition, and in 1970, nearly 10 per cent of
the population in the country's poor, rural northeast region was
considered underweight, according to Brazil's national statistics
Sun worshippers: Business for plus-size brands, such as Lehona, are cashing in on a lucrative market that high-end bikini-makers are too snobby to attract
But the phenomenal economic boom that
has lifted tens of millions out of poverty and into the burgeoning
middle class over the past decade has also changed the nation's
A 2010 study by the statistics institute showed that 48 per cent of adult women and 50 per cent of men are now overweight. In 1985 those figures were 29 per cent for women and 18 per cent for men.
(Still, there's been no rash of plus-size male swimwear lines, as men here wear Speedo-style suits that don't impinge on big guts.)
Analysts attribute Brazil's rapidly widening girth to changes in nutrition, with chips, processed meats and sugary soft drinks replacing staples like rice, beans and vegetables.
Despite their growing numbers, not everyone is eager to embrace 'gordinhas' – or 'little fatties' – as chunky women are affectionately known in Brazil
And while the country's elite are widely known to be fitness freaks – and also among the world's top consumers of cosmetic surgery – those recently lifted out of poverty and manual labor are becoming increasingly sedentary.
A 2008 study showed that barely 10 per cent of Brazilian teens and adults exercise regularly.
Still, despite their growing numbers, not everyone is eager to embrace 'gordinhas' – or 'little fatties' – as chunky women are affectionately known here.
Many high-end bikini-makers have turned a seemingly deliberately blind eye to the burgeoning plus-size market.
Rio-based upmarket brand Salinas, for example, offers five sizes, from extra-small through extra-large. But their sizing runs notoriously small and it's hard to imagine anyone over a U.S. size 6 actually managing to fit into any of the brand's minuscule two-pieces.
Luis Rebelatto of Lehona chalked it partially up to snobbery.
'Some brands, they don't want their image to be associated with chunky women,' he said. 'Only the thin, the rich and the chic.'
While Brazilians' increasing heft is a public policy preoccupation for the government, growth in the ranks of the overweight population has given them increased visibility in Brazilian society.
Extra-wide bucket seats for the obese have been installed in Sao Paulo's metro system, and on Sunday the city hosted Brazil's first ever Miss Plus Size beauty contest.
'It used to be that people would stare at me,' said Soares, the voluptuous sun-worshiper on Copacabana beach.
'Now when I come to the beach I see women who are much bigger than me – and lots of them are wearing bikinis – so I'm not self conscious any more.
'God makes some people thin but he made me like this,' she said, rubbing down the well-oiled bulge of her stomach and thighs.
'So who am I to think that he was wrong'
Video: Miss Brazil Plus Size Beauty Pageant