Trying to live up to impossible beauty ideals is one of the most distressing problems plaguing women today. We all too easily join ranks with the industries making money off our insecurities, to engage in a war against ourselves. This “war” takes many forms, but the most common of all is our obsession with weight, specifically a fear and disgust of fat or being considered fat – an answer to the male dominated world we live in that values female beauty above female intelligence, female kindness, female courage and other traits of real worth.
Many wrongly believe that Latinas don’t suffer body image issues, that poor self-esteem and eating disorders are problems of white women, but as these interviews with four diverse Latinas prove, Latinas deal with unique conflicting messages about their weight, along with the very same demoralizing messages white women receive. While some studies show that negativity about one’s weight is higher among some groups, the truth is that body image issues are color and ethnicity blind and there are many women who struggle to appreciate their own beauty in all groups. Let’s see what our four Latinas had to say.
Who They Are
It Starts Young
“The pre-teens, starting at 7th grade was the beginning of my body image issues.” – Bohemian Babushka
“Outside of my family I became self-conscious around 5th grade when I encountered a school bully who would pick on me because of my weight. However, it wasn’t consistent and I really did have schoolmates who did not see me as their chubby friend and would come to my defense, but it definitely was the first time I started to notice I was different. It hurt my feelings but, the friendships at that time made me feel loved enough where it didn’t matter that I felt different.
Also, I had become part of this cheerleading group and it was time for us to pick our costumes to march in the parade and I couldn’t fit the sizes because in 5th grade, I think I was already wearing a small in adult sizes. I remember going on my first 3-day diet to fit into my outfit to march in the parade. It just put in the back of my mind that I wasn’t like the kids my age, but these two incidents didn’t make me compare myself to others or feel unhappy about myself.
Inside of my family I became conscious around age 13, when it was no longer cute to be the chubby little kid. I remember I had an aunt who had come back from El Salvador after visiting and she was showing us pictures and she kept going on and on about how beautifully one of my cousins had matured and that if I was skinny I could be more beautiful than her. The comment made me feel as if I wasn’t pretty at all because I was fat and truly started a life of yo-yo dieting to be considered pretty in my family. I really do feel it was this comment that also made me start comparing myself to others. I really thought up until that time that beauty was original and that it couldn’t be generalized. But when I heard that comment, in my head something clicked and said “if others are comparing you, then beauty is not unique…you need to look like so and so.” - Cynthia Martinez
“I became self-conscious of my weight when I was 10 years old. My breasts started growing and my classmates’ hadn’t. My mom would say to stop eating because they were going to grow more.” – Jeanette
“[I became self-conscious] at a very early age – around 9 or 10 years old. Many of the girls in my class were starting to develop and I wasn’t. This was around the time I started to notice boys and the boys in my class only noticed the girls who were starting to develop. Since it was my first year with braces and glasses, I was very aware that I was not the kind of girl boys would notice. My awkward stage lasted a long time. I was extremely self-conscious and insecure and never quite felt good enough.” - Rosy
When Family Hurts
“My father, meaning well and being a little embarrassed, told me, “You know we love you however you are, but if you don’t lose weight you might find it hard to find a husband.” –Bohemian Babushka
“They would constantly make remarks about my weight. I remember my dad once telling my mom when I was around age 8 that she needed to start cinching my waist with a belt, so that I wouldn’t look as “gorda”. I remember being told in high school that if I didn’t lose weight it would be hard for me to get a boyfriend. I am one of 5 girls and I was by far the biggest. All of my sisters were thin with the exception of one, and she was just barely a little fuller. I would remember my parents putting less food on my plate than my sisters and limiting the amount of sweets I ate in comparison to my sisters. The reality was my metabolism really was just slow in comparison to theirs, and they could by far out eat me, yet they would not gain weight. My parents’ actions of denying food really sent a message to me that I had a problem…[Yet] while I was getting fat comments from one side of the family, my sister who is a year younger than me was getting the “You are sick, someone gave you the mal ojo” on the other side. The mixed messages I got from both sides of my family made me feel like my body would never be accepted.” – Cynthia Martinez
“My mom never liked me because I was the fat one. She would call my sister mi flaca, bonita. It was hard growing up with a skinny sister because even my aunts would tell my cousins not to eat a lot otherwise they were going to be fat like me. When it was time to eat my mom would yell at me for eating fast. She would say “que no sabes comer, masticas como una marana.” It got worse when we went clothes shopping which I hated – “ya vez, de que comes tanto no cabes en nada. Mirate come te vez gorda, cochina, andale sacate por ahi” and she would take my sister and have her try a lot of dresses. For my sweet 15, my mom made me take aerobic classes because she wanted me to fit in this dress that she liked and they didn’t have it in my size.
My feelings didn’t change, they got worse. My period started around 11 and I was a big tall girl. Men would wink at me or say things to me while I walked with my mom and she would hit me saying that it was my fault men were flirting with me. I always walked looking down and would shy away when men looked at me. I was only 12 with a body of an 18 year old.
My dad would say “ya no comas mucho, no vez que tu mama se enoja.” And my aunt would tell my youngest cousin not to eat alot because she was going to be fat like me. My older cousins would make jokes about me like “ahi viene la tonina” or make sounds like a pig oinking. My mom would say “ella es mi elefante sin cola. Esa no come, ella traga.” – And they would all start laughing.
My mom and aunts thought I was never going to get married. Nobody was going to like me because I was “fea and gorda. Y si un hombre quiere algo contigo nadamas es para cojerte. Lo unico bueno que tienes son tus nalgas y tetas. Tiene bonito cuerpo pero hay que taparle la cara. A quien salio Jeanette. Segurito a la familia de Joel (my dad). Tuvo que salir como esa familia fea y asquerosa” My mom would use very harsh words.” – Jeanette
“I hate even saying this but growing up my parents never told me that I was pretty. It seems like something so silly to focus on, but its the kind of thing that sticks. I remember asking my mother once if I was pretty and she said something like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and didn’t answer my question. She wasn’t a vain woman and I think she wanted me to be the same way. But no one in my family gave me the confidence I needed to go out into the world. And as a result, any boy/man who looked in my direction and told me I was pretty – I believed. And that need to feel pretty and wanted led to many self destructive relationships.” – Rosy
Self-Esteem Issues – Not Just a White Girl Problem
“In middle school, the feelings I had about myself were not related to how I looked, rather how I dressed (I had just moved to an all-white rich school district coming from a low income predominately Latino school). I was noticing labels and attributing my beauty to how well dressed and not how much I weighed. However, once I got the clothing down I began to notice my skin was darker, my hair was curly in comparison to other girls and I had boobs and a butt. Not only was I dealing with weight issues now, I was dealing with cultural genetic issues.
The women in my family are extremely bottom heavy on one side and top heavy on the other side, and in 7th grade I had a full body, when most girls I went to school with did not get their body until their Junior year in high school. I felt awkward and ashamed of my body, because I didn’t understand it. But then I got temporarily moved back to my old school district for about 3 years, and I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Other than my weight, it allowed me to feel more normal. I think being with girls that resembled me more definitely attributed to a more positive body image…
In white culture, the moment I lost weight and was “skinny” (which lasted 5 seconds of my life), I was exotic and “thick”. However,I still wasn’t their standard of beautiful. In my culture, I was finally given the praises of beauty, because I was curvy and thin at a size 8-10. The contradiction was in what was considered thin, my family believed a 6- 8 was skinny, but the society, even in Mexican LA, only a size 2 was to be considered skinny. It made me feel like it was a goal I could never attain, because I didn’t know what was really expected. Although, in my head I know the standard of beauty is much easier to achieve for my culture than it is for Anglo-America.” – Cynthia Martinez
“One time a white guy told me that I looked like Jennifer Lopez. I told my mom that and she said it was probably my “nalgas por que de J.Lo no tienes nada.” …Right after college, I started working and was now among white people. I was part of management and most of the employees where black or Hispanic. They would stare at me and flirt with me like crazy. I was 22, single with big hips, thin waist, big breasts, long black hair, college educated and inside I would feel ugly. No matter how much attention I got I would hate myself for being who I was. I still saw myself as fat and ugly. Like the little 10 year old girl whom was never taught to embrace my beauty or to love myself.” – Jeanette
“As an adult, I’m still struggling with body issues and image. I was at an ideal weight before I was pregnant, a size 4 – 6 and for the first time in my life I had felt good about how I looked. Then I got pregnant and gained 60 lbs. My son is 6 and I’m still fighting that weight gain. My weight has fluctuated drastically – especially the last 2 years. I hate looking in the mirror, nothing looks right. And looking at pictures are even worse. It’s not how I want to look and I don’t feel good or confident when I look in the mirror. And saying that makes me feel incredibly superficial and vain.” - Rosy
Going to Extremes
“At 15, I went on a serious low carbohydrate diet with hours of exercise. Dios, I looked good! Years later I realized I had anorexia/bulimia and that saddens me.” – Bohemian Babushka
“I have pierced the cartilage in my ear, because someone from Bolivia told me that they do that in their country to lose weight, since supposedly it controls your appetite. I have seen a “bruja” to put a spell on me. I have been hypnotized, and had colonics. Because, I am a dreamer, I don’t feel hopeless yet….my pockets are a little bitter though.” – Cynthia Martinez
“I joined Lucille Roberts a couple years ago. I would run 5 miles 3 times a week. I enrolled in boot camp. I was taking kickboxing and other aerobics exercise classes. I would only eat an apple for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week. I did it for a month and lost 20 pounds. I was starting to feel weak and one day, I fainted on my way to work. I passed out at the train station in NYC, hit my head on the concrete floor and was taken to the ER. The doctors said my sugar level was low along with my potassium and other things stuff. I was referred to a therapist because I was crying and had a breakdown of my emotions.
I also tried Herbalife products. My mom bought them from a lady at church for me. I was 17, and every time I took them I would feel my heart beat really fast. I told my mom one day and I told the doctor. The doctor asked my mom if she was planning to kill me because those products are not for children. He told her they cause serious heart problems and to stop giving them to me.” – Jeanette
“I tend to binge. I can go all week eating the right things – lose a few pounds. And then the weekend will come and I’ll eat everything – gain all those pounds back. And feel horrible about it.” – Rosy
“…how to accept oneself completely? I’m still working on that one.” – Bohemian Babushka
“I don’t know if I’ve overcome the issues of my weight within my family, because I still try to diet every day. I think in my college years, I cared more about what others thought of me, where as I don’t really care now. I feel like any issues they have regarding me are their issues to deal with, not mine. The hardest thing for me is shopping for clothes….I really do feel like there is a message designers send to me, and that is “Your body isn’t worth dressing until you are a size that is not a double digit” and I’m not sure I’ve fully overcome that sentiment. Inside, I think perhaps I would look better if I was a size 8. Today however, I’m losing weight to feel comfortable for myself overall, and not so that others can feel comfortable with me.” – Cynthia Martinez
“I feel that I love myself when my husband makes love to me. At that moment, I feel that there is someone who accepts me for who I am. As I’m writing this, tears roll down my face because I can’t seem to accept the fact that I am beautiful. I need the acceptance of another human being. When other people compliment me I start saying to myself that yes I am pretty but then those years of harsh words come creeping into my head taking over the way I think and how I see myself…I don’t know if I will ever accept myself without needing the compliments of others.” - Jeanette
“We live in a society where beauty and sex appeal is everything. There are so many false photo-shopped images of beauty that it’s rare when a real woman can compete. We are trying so hard to live up to an ideal – it’s exhausting…I think articles like this that let women know that they’re not alone in their thoughts are a huge step.” - Rosy
“I love myself 99.9% of the time. A while back, I came to the realization that if I love my body, if I stop putting myself down, others follow my example and it leads to me feeling better about myself. However, I’m human and I find it difficult to fully accept myself when someone in the room doesn’t….When put in that situation I ask myself, “Did you feel good about yourself when you left the house?… Women really need to tune out outside perception of beauty and define their own standard of beauty.
I started this thing a couple of years ago that my friends think is funny but it has helped me with my body image perception: I will walk around naked in my house (shutters closed) and stand at least 5 minutes in front of a mirror and appreciate myself. It was hard at first, I mean even the act of walking around my house naked was hard, even when no one was around… it was a sign I was not comfortable in my own body. The first time I stood in front of the mirror I couldn’t find anything I liked, much less loved about my body…so I said nothing at all. With time I had to put a time cap on my love fest. I found it’s easier to love yourself, when you don’t allow the outside to define how much you should love yourself.” – Cynthia Martinez
What are your thoughts and experiences on weight, body image, self-esteem and beauty ideals? Do you relate to these women? What do you think needs to be done to change perceptions of weight and beauty in our culture?
Here is a scene from the film “Real Women Have Curves” – Do you relate to Ana and the other characters in this movie?