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Big women arrive on Brazil beaches

The Girl From Ipanema has put on a few pounds, and Brazil has found its symbolic itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis just do not suffice anymore.

A growing number of beachwear manufacturers have woken up to the country's thickening waistline and are reaching out to the ever-expanding ranks of heavy women with new plus-size lines.

That is nothing short of a revolution in the 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.

For centuries, large swathes of Brazil were beset by malnutrition, and in 1970, nearly 10% of the population in the country's poor, rural north-east region was considered underweight. 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 once-svelte physique: 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.

"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 size 12 bikini.

"Finally, it seems like people are beginning to realise 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.

"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 Ms Rebelatto, herself a 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?'"

In brash leopard spots and flower prints not meant for wallflowers, the label's 14 bikini styles are not what would normally be associated with plus-size swimsuits. The necklines plunge dramatically. Straps are mere strings.

"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.

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