The struggle for food has long been a drama for millions of impoverished Brazilians. But these days the nation is transfixed by another sort of starvation: anorexia among the successful and well off.
The deaths of four young women in recent weeks from anorexia — a disorder characterized by an abnormal fear of becoming obese, an aversion to food and severe weight loss — have been splashed across the front pages of newspapers nationwide.
The subject has become a morbid fascination for Brazilians, and is even the theme of a popular TV soap opera. It has also touched off a debate within Brazil’s fashion industry that has long presented the rail-thin model as the paragon of female beauty.
The most recent victim was Beatriz Cristina Ferraz Lopes Bastos, a 23-year-old teacher whose death Sunday at a hospital in Jau, 200 miles northeast of Sao Paulo, was reported by national television news programs.
Local media reports said she was 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed just 77 pounds.
“Another victim of anorexia,” the newspaper Globo said on its Web site Tuesday, alongside a glamorous photo of the blonde Bastos, who was also a skilled pianist, amateur historian and author of a literature column for a hometown Web site.
The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported she described herself as “thin” on an Internet discussion group and friends said they had to “fight with her to eat.” A former boyfriend, Leandro Murgo, told reporters Bastos was a chubby teenager and became fixated on losing weight.
Anorexia became big news in Brazil last month with the death of 21-year-old Ana Carolina Reston, a successful model who died of generalized infection caused by anorexia nervosa. She reportedly carried just 88 pounds on her 5-foot-8 frame.
“Take care for your children because their loss is irreparable,” Reston’s mother, Miriam, told Globo after her death. “Nothing can make the pain go away. No money in the world is worth the life of your child.”
Two days later, on Nov. 16, college student Carla Sobrado Casalle, 21, died in the southeastern city of Araraquara, also with symptoms linked to anorexia. She was just under 5-foot-9 and weighed 99 pounds. A third anorexia victim died later in the month.
Eating disorders are also a daily subject for viewers of the prime-time soap opera “The Pages of Our Lives,” in which a 15-year-old ballet dancer suffers from bulimia, secretly making herself vomit after eating to keep her weight down.
Death and illness from malnourishment is not uncommon in this nation of 185 million people, where 26.5 million must survive on the minimum wage of $160 a month or less. According to the IBGE Census Institute, at least 8 percent of Brazilians are underweight.
As it has in other countries, the attention on eating disorders is renewing pressures on Brazil’s fashion industry, whose officials insist they do not urge models to starve themselves to attain an “ideal” body.
They noted a fashion show in Sao Paulo already had said it would bar models under age 16 as part of a national effort to raise awareness about eating disorders.
“In Paris and Milan, models under 16 years can’t participate in these types of events,” said Paula Marini, a spokeswoman for the Ford Models agency. “In Brazil, this is a new procedure.”
Europeans also have stepped up their attention to the sometimes unhealthy aspects of fashionable looks. Organizers of Madrid’s Fashion Week, for instance, announced in September that they were banning overly thin models.
Organizers of Sao Paulo Fashion Week, held every year in late January, added the minimum-age requirement to a previous rule requiring that agencies present a signed medical certificate attesting that their models are in good health.
“Beauty and fashion is about health in the first place,” the creative director of Sao Paulo Fashion Week, Paulo Borges, said in a statement in July.