In Russia, the pressure for women to be thin and beautiful can be a huge burden. The stress is one reason weight-conscious young women lose their figures when they hit middle age.
The pressure can be hard to handle
It's a well-known cliché. Young Russian women look like supermodels. If you walk down one of Moscow's most famous streets, Tverskaya Ulitsa, on any given day, you'll actually see them: Tall, thin, elegant and strikingly beautiful.
But on that same stretch of famous pavement, one would just as likely meet short, rotund, elderly women. The obvious question: What transforms those Slavic bombshells into corpulent grandmas? According to experts, unhealthy social trends lie behind the clichés.
"The main reason for weight gain is stressful situations," explained Dr. Irina Russ, head of endocrinology, at the European Medical Center in Moscow. "The number of depressed women here in Russia, or those inclined to depression, has recently increased significantly. As a result, women tend to eat their stress away."
Carb-heavy foods are staples in Russia
Some Russian women maintain it's difficult to live in what they describe as a patriarchal country. They say they're taught at a very young age that their main goal in life should be to find a husband and have children.
"You can ask for equal rights, but women like to be attractive to men," said attorney Julia Osadchaya, who is in her mid-20s. "It's the internal aim of every woman to be beautiful, attractive and feminine in every way."
And experts say the pressure to fulfill the ultimate aim of being beautiful and finding a man can create a lot of stress - which is why so many go from fit to fat.
Sweets and carbs are the culprit
"Some girls starve themselves for a long time because they want to look good, and then they start to feel unwell, and if they go out and eat more than usual they put on weight straight away," said Russ.
In Russia, as in most other eastern and central European countries, people traditionally rely on foods that thrive in cold climates, including wheat, rye, buckwheat and root vegetables, including potatoes and beets.
Even babushkas dolls tend to have curves
Most of these are high in carbohydrates, which can result in weight gain. Sugar is also a staple in the Russian diet.
"A lot of Russian people like sweets. All sweets are very cheap and available for all people," commented Dr. Boris Kiryshov, a gynecologist and certified acupuncturist with a private practice in Moscow. He added that the quality of food can also a problem, since it's more difficult for the body to digest low-quality food, which can also lead to weight gain.
It's not uncommon for Russians to consume bread at every meal and sweets at least once a day. Since these are inexpensive, they tend to be over-consumed by those who have to watch their rubles.
Awareness of healthy living
Moscow pensioner Elena Nikolaevna said she's gained a lot of weight due to her poor diet, but she is on a tight budget and has to eat something. "I happily eat potatoes and pasta. Of course with pasta you gain weight and everyone is afraid to gain weight," she added.
Still, the fact that Nikolaevna knows her carb-heavy diet is responsible for her weight gain is a step in the right direction. Even the Kremlin has acknowledged the need to better educate Russians about a healthy diet.
Unreasonable expectations can cause stress - in any country
"In Moscow and in the whole country they are setting up special health centers where they are going to teach people how to eat healthy and that it is important to exercise," said endocrinologist Dr. Russ.
Julia Osadchaya, however, says that the younger generation is already more health conscious than their parents. For that trend to continue, health professionals assert that women need support and less pressure to conform to an unattainable ideal.
"The condition of women is a condition of the whole country. We should take care of women more than we do right now," said Dr. Kiryshov.
Author: Jessica Golloher
Editor: Kate Bowen