RECIFE, Brazil — In this oceanside metropolis in Brazil’s northeast, the schools are buying bigger desks, the hospitals are purchasing larger beds and M.R.I. machines and the historic theater downtown is offering wider seats.
Recife is one of the fattest cities in Brazil. It is also quickly becoming one of the world’s most accommodating places for people with obesity.
That is because Recife is part of an accelerating movement across Latin America’s largest country that, according to experts, has quickly made Brazil the world leader in enshrining protections for the overweight.
Over the past 20 years, Brazil’s obesity rate has doubled to more than one in four adults. In response, activists in Brazil have fought to make life less difficult for overweight Brazilians — and the success of their efforts stands out globally for changing not just attitudes, but laws.
Measures across the country now entitle the obese to preferential seats on subways, priority at places like banks and, in some cases, protection from discrimination.
Here in Recife, population 1.6 million, a law passed last year requires schools to purchase larger desks and educate teachers about weight-based discrimination so they can include it in their lessons. Another law created an annual day to promote overweight people’s rights.
“There’s a lot more we can do at the national level and, God willing, one day we can go international,” said Karla Rezende, an activist in Recife who started pushing for the new laws after realizing that typical airplane seatbelts didn’t fit her. “There are fat people everywhere, and they all suffer.”
She paused and then clarified: Cultural expectations in Brazil might mean overweight Brazilians have it particularly hard. “The demand for the perfect body,” she said. “The perfect curves.”
Like many countries, Brazil has recently begun confronting racism, sexism and homophobia. But in a nation where the body is often front and center — think plastic surgery, thongs on the beach and a carnival that features perhaps more feathers than fabric — a national conversation is also now emerging over how Brazil treats overweight people.
“Gordofobia,” or the term for weight-based discrimination in Portuguese, has become a buzzword in Brazil. It is at the center of heated debates on one of Brazil’s most-watched television programs, the reality show “Big Brother,” and is the main issue discussed on Instagram and TikTok accounts with millions of followers.
Brazil’s biggest pop star, Anitta, has made waves for including obese women in her music videos and sometimes not editing out her cellulite. And after the Brazilian country-music star Marília Mendonça died in a plane crash last year, some journalists and commentators were widely criticized for mentioning her weight.
In some ways, Brazil is catching up to the trend in the United States and Europe, where larger models have become more commonplace on catwalks. But when it comes to public policy, the movement in Brazil has quickly surpassed many other countries, experts said. The debate here went from the media and into city halls, state legislatures and Brazil’s Congress.
In 2015, Brazil amended a 15-year-old federal law to extend protections for disabled people to those who are overweight, entitling them to preferential seats on public transportation and priority in certain places like banks. In São Paulo, there are now wider seats for obese people on the metro, and in Rio de Janeiro, there are some at the famous Maracanã soccer stadium. Three Brazilian states recently dedicated Sept. 10 to promoting obese people’s rights. And one of those states, Rondônia, also passed a law in December that guarantees overweight people “access to all places,” “dignified treatment” and protection from “gordofobia.”
“What’s happening in Brazil are these collective efforts by policymakers to address this problem in ways we’re really not seeing in other places,” said Rebecca Puhl, a University of Connecticut professor who tracks such laws. “In the U.S. and frankly everywhere else in the world, the policy landscape is quite barren.”
Ms. Puhl said that since Michigan passed a law in 1976 that formally protected people from weight discrimination, there have been few meaningful or related policies in the United States. Massachusetts is considering similar legislation, though it has failed there before. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, passed a similar law in 2016. And in 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that severe obesity can legally render people disabled, potentially protecting them from discrimination, but obesity alone does not warrant protection.
In Brazilian courts, rulings began mentioning “gordofobia” in 2014 and have steadily increased since, according to a review of available judgments by Gorda na Lei, or Fat in the Law, a Brazilian activist group. In October, a judge ordered a comedian to pay a $1,000 fine for making jokes about an obese Brazilian dancer’s weight. “The defendant exuded unequivocal gordofobia,” the judge said in the ruling.
Freedom of speech is allowed, the judge added, “but it’s the state’s duty to protect minorities.”
Still, enforcement is still often lacking in Brazil. Rayane Souza, a founder of Gorda na Lei, said that many modes of public transportation remained inaccessible despite the 2015 law. She pointed to a recent incident in the coastal city of Guarapari, where an overweight woman got stuck in the turnstile on a city bus. Firefighters freed the woman as other passengers laughed, according to the Brazilian news outlet G1. “I cry at night just thinking of what the people said,” Rosângela Pereira told G1 days later.
In 2020, nearly 29 percent of Brazilians older than 20 were obese, up from roughly 15 percent in 2000, one of the largest increases of any country over that period, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Among the 10 most populous nations, only Mexico, the United States and Russia had higher obesity rates, ranging between 31 percent and 37 percent, according to the data.
Dr. Claudia Cozer Kalil, an endocrinologist at one of Brazil’s top hospitals in São Paulo, attributed the soaring obesity in part to rising wages that led to poor diets of fast food and processed foods. As obesity has increased, she said, so have related health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. She said that the government should do more to address the issue, including better food labeling. In Brazil, for instance, nutrition labels often don’t include sugar.
Still, she supported the laws. “The fact is, the population is heavier,” she said. “So we have to adapt to that.”
Brazil’s “gordofobia” debate revolves in part around the unrealistic image of the Brazilian body in the media inside and outside the country. The psychological impact of that image, activists said, can be illustrated by Brazilians’ efforts to pump up their lips, breasts, butts and muscles — and surgically suck out their fat — at a rate far higher than that of most other countries.
In 2019, Brazil led the world in plastic surgeries. In 2020, amid the pandemic, it had 6.1 plastic surgeries per 1,000 people, compared with 4.5 per 1,000 people in the United States, the world leader in total plastic surgeries that year, according to statistics from a global plastic-surgeon trade group. A risky surgery that involves transferring fat from the abdomen to the butt is even called the Brazilian butt lift.
At a November beauty pageant for larger men and women in Recife, the theme was standing up to “gordofobia” and defying stereotypes of the perfect body. During one emotional moment, the contestants stood onstage as actors hurled insults at them.
Many Brazilians agree that their culture largely embraces shapely women more than other Western countries. And a visit to Brazil’s beaches and parks will confirm that there are plenty of overweight men and women who feel very comfortable with their bodies, and don’t give a second thought to wearing bikinis or sungas, the Brazilian version of a Speedo.
Yet those people don’t represent all Brazilians, activists said. Ms. Souza said that despite living near the beach, she didn’t put on a bikini for 11 years after being called a whale there. “A woman putting on a bikini today has much more to do with her own self-acceptance than social acceptance,” she said.
Carol Stadtler, a founder of Beauties of the Body, another activist group in Recife, said overweight people fitting in societally was one part of the movement. Perhaps more important was getting them to fit into society physically, she said.
“It’s not just about being beautiful or ugly or having the body of the Brazilian woman,” she said, speaking after the pageant, where she said the theater chairs left painful marks on her legs. “It’s also about how we don’t fit into chairs.”
Breno Salvador contributed reporting.