Olympic-goers get an eyeful of Rio's beauty-consumed culture

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Each morning, 75-year-old Jose Rebamar works his biceps, triceps and quadriceps with stone weights at an outside gym that looks out on Rio de Janeiro's iconic Sugarloaf Mountain.

Living in a city of near daily sunshine and warm weather, the ex-Brazilian Navy sailor says there is no excuse to ever slow down. And having the Olympics in town provides even more incentive to stay in shape. Rebamar has been watching the games on television every night.

"If I don't work out one day, I feel like I didn't do anything, like the day didn't happen," he said, interspersing barbell sets with yoga-like stretches.

Visitors to South America's first Olympic games are getting an eyeful of the beauty- and fitness-obsessed culture that is synonymous with Rio, a land of muscle-taxing samba dancing, acrobatic capoeira martial arts and dental floss bikinis and Speedos that reveal more than they conceal. Remember it was Brazil that gave birth to the "Brazilian bikini wax" and even the "Brazilian Butt Lift," a type of plastic surgery that aims to put a little more oomph in your rump.

Beauty is also big business here: Brazil always ranks among the world's top-five cosmetic-buying countries. It's also the world's second-biggest consumer of plastic surgery, after the United States. Outside workout areas are ubiquitous, as are specialty shops with names such as "integrated center for aesthetics," which offer everything from nail work to detailed analysis of facial curves to determine the kind of haircut to make people look their best.

"People are running and cycling and working out all over the city," said Imke Bergmann, a 45-year-old nurse from Munich who came to watch the games. "It's impressive."

And of course the glamour craze found its way into the Olympics.

Consider this: Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, one of the world's most-recognized plastic surgeons who helped make Brazil a popular destination for the rich and famous to get work done, carried the Olympic flame on the games' opening day that later lit the cauldron at Maracana Stadium. The next day he died of a heart attack at 93, and Brazilian broadcasters cut away from competition coverage for hours to focus on the life of one of the country's most important personalities.

Or this: Supermodel Gisele Bundchen was a headliner at the opening ceremony, swaggering to "The Girl from Ipanema," the famous Brazilian song that, you guessed it, is about falling in love with a beautiful girl at the beach.

Away from the venues, there is plenty to gawk at.

On Copacabana Beach, men with muscles out of an anatomy book play pickup soccer games while women sunbathe the way a rotary chicken gets cooked: methodically rotating around. In neighborhoods like Leblon, Rio's most expensive locale, men and women draped in designer threads strut around as if they were heading to a Vogue cover shoot.

"I think I need to get into the gym," joked Ed Bai, a 48-year-old physical education teacher from Los Angeles, branding the beach scene in Rio "incredible."

Dr. Carlos Alberto Jaimovich, co-director of the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery, said the country's obsession with beauty is driven by many factors: a tropical climate where it's simply more comfortable to wear less, and a show-all media environment that includes magazine covers plastered with the nearly naked and always buff. Attractiveness is also equated with class in Brazil.

"Beauty is synonymous with social mobility," he said.

And social mobility is directly related to race, meaning that more affluent whites are more likely to have the money for expensive beauty-related measures such as plastic surgery. Still, thanks to a practice that Pitanguy started decades ago, several clinics in the city offer free cosmetic surgeries to thousands of poor each year — reconstructive procedures for cancer patients and burn victims, for example, but also operations for purely aesthetic purposes.

Pitanguy, dubbed the "philosopher of plastic surgery," often said that helping people look better on the outside made them feel better on the inside. In that way, many of the doctors who have followed in his footsteps believe that beauty is a right, and not something that just the rich should aspire to.

Last year, Brazil ranked second behind the U.S. with 1.5 million plastic surgeries, the majority for aesthetic reasons.

For tourists to Rio, the people-watching can be nearly as entertaining as the Olympic competitions. Taking in a recent beach volleyball match between Argentina and Brazil, Daniel Kuenge was awe-struck by the "tremendous six-pack abs" on display before him. But his wonder went beyond the Olympic venues.

"I do a lot of sports, so I'm in pretty good shape," said Kuenge, a 64-year-old businessman from Switzerland. "But seeing all these beautiful bodies in Rio makes you think: What else could I be doing?"


Associated Press reporter Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.


Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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