An Ugly Argentine Fights Back

A beauty tax that grants subsidies to ugly people. Weekly marches through the downtown streets demanding equal treatment for those handicapped by not being good-looking.

All spurned by a runaway best-selling book called "Ugly" that is filling up bookstore windows all over town.

There are bumper stickers too, and posters are filling the streets and subway cars that replicate the famed Rolling Stones' Andy Warhol-designed mouth with the tongue sticking out, but with one change. These teeth have braces!

All this is occurring in, of all places, the fashion-conscious, aesthetics-obsessed, plastic surgery capital of the world — Buenos Aires.

Gonzalo Otalora is the author of the book and leader of the movement called Feo, which means ugly in Spanish.

ABC News met up recently with Otalora as he and some followers marched down Florida Street, the busy central Buenos Aires walkway, gathering signatures for their petition to tax the gorgeous.

Otalora presented his case to inquisitive passersby while holding a megaphone aloft and shouting slogans like: "Don't think of your body as commercial packaging!" and "Ideal beauty is a fraud!"

"Since we published the book, the repercussions have been tremendous," Otalora told ABC News.

"Just on the Web site [www.feosexual.com] we have had over 20,000 hits in just a few weeks," said the 30-something TV and radio producer who, while not exactly a poster boy, is not the image one perceives as the leader of the ugly movement.

He's a bit pudgy with a somewhat receding hairline, but his reddish, sparse beard and angular features make one think of a young, miniature Richard Dreyfuss.

"Hundreds of the responses in the Web site are long personal accounts from people who have suffered tremendously with their physical features since childhood," said Otalora who admits that writing the book was therapy for him.

"I was a skinny kid with thick, horn-rimmed glasses, acne and just plain ugly," said Otalora showing his picture in the book's inner jacket. Indeed his childhood photo, which blesses, well, confronts the reader who opens the book, shows a prototypical class nerd from sixth grade.

Argentina is said to have one of the highest rates of plastic surgery per capita in the world. A decade ago ABC's "20/20" interviewed Jose Juri, one of the leading Argentine plastic surgeons, for a special segment on the subject. Juri was taped while he performed a nose reconstruction procedure. In the middle of the operation, he turned to the camera, scalpel in hand, and blurted out, "When it comes to the nose, I'm Michelangelo!"

In a society where so much weight is placed on physical beauty, doctors like Juri have indeed been put on a pedestal. And more so these days with Argentina being one of the cheapest countries in the world, plastic surgeons' offices are flooded with foreigners looking for good, but cheap procedures.

Anorexia and bulimia are also huge problems in a society where image is so important. Even mannequins in dress shop windows appear to have eating disorders.

A few years ago the Buenos Aires City Council passed a law requiring women's clothing retailers to offer a wide range of sizes instead of the skimpy size 2s prevalent in all establishments.

Even though the law is on the books and even though it makes complete economic sense to sell all sizes, many stores have not complied with the law and there is virtually no enforcement.

"When it comes to weight and body types we should do a census to find out who we really are. We certainly are not what the clothing stores portray," said Otalora. "And combine that with everything else, the diets, the laser treatments, the makeup, the hair transplants, hair dyes, colored contact lenses and all kinds of beauty potions. It's crazy!"

Undeterred, Otalora is proposing a slew of new laws that would deal with the problem and include the following ideas:

Companies must ensure that at least 30 percent of their employees are ugly (including public relations, receptionists and executives)

Thirty percent of the casts of the soap operas should be ugly and at least one of the lead characters should specifically not be unattractive

In fashion shows, all sizes and physical qualities should be represented Mannequins should represent all sizes and physical qualities Advertising should represent all sizes and different physical characteristics Sex magazines should be obliged to have ugly and fat people as models Beautiful and ugly persons should receive equal pay Advertising should abstain from using touch-ups, trick lighting, makeup or whatever other effect that modifies the true body or face of the model

Otalora's campaign appears to have struck a raw nerve in a nation that has been undergoing huge changes over the last decades. However in the end it may be a hard sell.

One woman who refused to sign the petition on Florida Street commented that she didn't have time. With a smirk she explained, "I'm on my way to the beauty parlor."