Growing up, I received so many messages about how my body was supposed to look. None how I was supposed to feel. I got these messages from many, many people in my life: family, friends, doctors, bullies, tv, magazines, and online social media. Double the fun was that I got these messages from two different countries- the United States and Colombia. Oh goody. In both countries, I learned it didn’t matter what my body wanted to look like, only what it should look like. The messages in both countries had become the same over time: Your body is not okay as it is. Change it.
Growing up in a Latino country where beauty pageants are an important part of the culture, I learned the term 90-60-90. As a Latina mujer, I was told this is what my body was supposed to look like. What would make me feminine enough. My body should measure 90 centimeters around the bust, 60 centimeters around the waist, and 90 centimeters around the hips for it to be considered perfect. Just like Miss Colombia. Pretty straightforward, huh? We were given guidelines so it would not be too confusing. I can still see my disappointed 13-year-old self measuring these areas of my body and realizing that I was nowhere near these numbers. I did not measure up.
As a Latina, I come from a country where food is such an important part of our culture. It is how we show love to those we care about, how we welcome people into our lives, and how we celebrate everyday events. In Colombia, a poorer country, I was taught to clean my plate because there was a hungry child somewhere with no food, because food was expensive and should not be wasted, and because it was simply disrespectful to reject food that took someone's precious time to make. Whether I was actually hungry or not didn't quite matter as much.
Like many who come from collectivistic cultures, family is the most essential part of my life. Family is what drives me. I trust in my family. I believe in them. And I respect them. So when I received messages from them that my body had to look a certain way, I made sure that it did. No one ever told me, “Melissa, you have to be thin” or “Melissa, you have to try this diet.” Instead, I just listened, observed, and learned. I was a good student.
I began to classify my food as good or bad. Sugar and bread were bad. Fruits and veggies were good (Note: I know now that all food is good food....except if it's growing hair). I hated that my pubescent body was gaining weight. Wasn't my body supposed to stay the same weight forever? I was unknowingly and uncontrollably falling into the cycle of diets.
I heard many people around me whisper about other people’s bodies:
“She’s too thin, she needs to eat a cheeseburger… she probably has anorexia, or throws it up.”
“She’s too fat, she’s not healthy, she needs to eat more salads and go for a walk."
I saw many loved ones go through painful diets and procedures to “fix” their bodies. But, there was no way to please the whispers:
“Oh, she took the easy way out”
“She/he just needed more will power”
“I guess they do have money for ‘that.'"
No one was safe. Wherever you fell along the spectrum of thinness or fatness, your body was still a target of others' opinions and expectations.
I watched loved ones criticizing their bodies, comparing themselves to others, going to nutritionists in hopes to become more "disciplined," sharing diets, covering their stomachs in plaster casts, excessively working out. All in an effort to become something they were not. And so, I learned, if those I look up to are going to these lengths to look ‘beautiful,' then I must do the same. I look back now and I am so grateful that my learning did not stop there.
When I moved to the United States, I got smacked in the face with more messages:
Wear a size 0 and have a thigh gap. But have a big booty.
Contour every single bone in your body and look tan. But don’t be too dark skinned.
I learned about fruit shapes that represent your body, and what type of clothing I should wear because of this. I was exposed to the terms summer bodies and clean eating and oh how shameful it would be if I didn't have one of these mastered by June each year.
Mix these three together-----food, body image, culture-----and you can see why I felt so confused:
Be sexy, but not too sexy
Be thin, but not too thin
Have curves, but don’t confuse that with being fat
Look ‘exotic,' but don’t you dare to be from another culture.
As a child, I got a lot of “Mija, estas muy flaca, come mas” (mija, you look so skinny, eat more). Then puberty came and it was “Mija, estas como gordita, no?” (mija, you’re a little chubby, aren’t you?). Now that I am pregnant, you might think I can escape the comments, but if I have not gained weight, it's “you’re not thinking of the baby” or the opposite, “look at you, you look great, you’re doing so well.”
I wonder, if I don't lose weight right after the baby is born, will I be told “you’re lazy, you’ve let yourself go?” or if I lose weight quickly after, will it be “why can’t you just focus on your baby, stop being selfish?”
It is important for me to clarify, that these messages I received from people around me were probably not purposefully harmful - they were all part of a cycle. My friends and family were also taught from a very young age that their bodies were supposed to look a certain way if they were to be healthy.
The journey in healing the relationship with my body has been a long, treacherous one, and is still ongoing. The healing journey must continue because the cultural messages about fatness and goodness continue. I’ve come to realize that we idolize bodies that are not real, and we are tricked into believing that the bodies to which we compare ours are the only happy ones.
I’ve become exposed to so much more than diets, body politics, shoulds, and wants. I've come across movements such as Body Positivity and Health at Every Size, and I finally feel a sense of clarity of what matters most-- How do I feel in my body? What does MY body need? What does MY body want?
Please do not believe for a second that my relationship with food and my body is perfect. This is work I continue to do every single day. Every now and again I find myself contemplating what I would look like if I was in a thinner body. Would I be happier? Would I be more satisfied? Would I be a better Latina? Increasingly, I have more days than not that I feel confident in knowing that my happiness and goodness and worth is not attached to my size. But, every so often, some of that guilt and shame will peak out to see how things are doing.
AND that is ok. It reminds me to stay vigilant in owning and caring for my body, just as it is.
I am grateful to my body in so many ways. It has allowed me to hug the ones I love, work my way through school, help others, meet new cultures. It’s the vessel for my soul and, pretty soon, it will allow me to hold a new life.
North America or Latin America, it doesn’t seem to matter any longer where you are from or where you live. This idea of having “the perfect body” seems to be chasing women (and men) wherever we exist. Whether that means being thinner or thicker, lighter or darker, feminine or androgynous. But, let us not be fooled by what social media, the diet industry, and unwanted advice label as healthy.
Instead, let us ask ourselves....Let me ask you,
How do YOU feel in your body?
What does YOUR body want?
What does YOUR body need?