How Living In The South Fixed My Body Image

Illustrated By: Isabel Castillo Guijarro
One sunny afternoon last October, the temperature still just shy of 80, I walked into a New Orleans Target, and heads turned. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. I had just come from the gym and was violating the cardinal leggings rule: I had a short tank on. Nothing draping over my derriere.

It was right then that I realized I was jiggling, and that it felt damn good. I straightened my back a little and walked with a more pronounced switch. My thighs — after all these years — finally had a little thunder, and I had never felt so beautiful.

I have been fairly slender my whole life. At the age when many girls begin to care about their shapes, I yearned for a more voluptuous frame. My high school girlfriends consisted mostly of fellow girls of color: We were Indian, Black, Trinidadian, and Colombian, and our idea of a beautiful body — for better or worse — was different than that of the girls on the cover of fashion magazines. I wanted the frame of a hip-hop video model or an old-school Bollywood chick: with ample breasts, powerful thighs, and a derriere you could rest a drink on.

Through my teens into grad school, I tried everything to put on weight. I ate rice and beans. I drank Ensure. I had several slices of pizza before bed. Still, I remained a size two. It was not until last year, when I moved to New Orleans for a visiting lecturer gig at a local college, that I finally got what I wanted. Eleven pounds later, I’ve learned more about myself, my culture, and the male gaze according to zip code than I had ever bargained for.

I can’t speak for all of the deep South, but I found that while skinny and fit is revered in the north, thick thighs are paramount in New Orleans. Many New Yorkers run up and down subway stairs, frequent CrossFit classes, and opt for quinoa instead of white rice. New Orleanians drive everywhere and put fried seafood in their sandwiches. This is a broad generalization, of course, but I must contextualize how my glorious, newly acquired 11 pounds came to be.

It was right then that I realized I was jiggling, and that it felt damn good.


Cultural immersion, I called it. Beignets avalanched in powdered sugar on weekend mornings, an overstuffed shrimp Po’ Boy on my lunch break, and, of course, Sazeracs during happy hour. Not only is the food more fatty and sugary in New Orleans (and it's the focus of most events around the city), but it’s also more affordable. In New York, I strictly limited the amount of times that I dined out, for budget’s sake. Those rules flew out the window once I settled into the South.

While there’s a serious wealth disparity in New Orleans, there’s also a palpable culture of decadence. Colors are brighter, parties last longer, and portions are larger. The first time I ever had gumbo (the real kind that someone’s mama spoons out of a giant pot for you), I stared down at a mélange of seafood, sausage, and rice — seduced by creamy roux and a dance of aromatic spices. I devoured a deep bowlful and was thrilled to learn that it was just the first course.

In a matter of weeks, I felt the need to implement a more rigorous yoga and cardio routine: I found myself “sucking it in” for pictures, my jeans began to fit like sausage casing, and even my bras began to protest against new spillage. I was torn between what I was supposed to feel and what I actually felt. Eventually, I gave in to my inner 16-year-old. My curves had arrived, and I was not sending them back. I wore my favorite pair of ripped jean shorts all the time, excited to show off my new body. For anyone else, I was just a woman of average build. But as I stripped before the shower, I pulled on the extra flesh on my butt and smiled. I finally felt like me.

My joy quickly dissipated when I returned home for Thanksgiving break. Several friends and family members (mostly the male ones) offered unsolicited commentary on my relatively mild weight gain. Albeit playful, the comments hurt — and I couldn’t understand why, since I’d always wanted these few extra pounds. I remember crying at the airport as I waited to board a flight back to New Orleans. While I loved spending time with my parents (to their credit, I am Beyoncé in their eyes, whether I weigh 40 or 400 lbs), I couldn’t wait to leave this weird biosphere of criticism — my home city — where people felt they had the right to assess and evaluate my body.

After analysis, I concluded that two factors had come into play. The first one is a hypocritical element of my culture. Indian people — at least the ones I know and know of — have a tendency to feed and feed you until you lay incapacitated on a couch. It’s a part of our culture of hospitality. But at the same time, if you’re a woman, heaven help you if you gain too much weight from this incessant food-pushing. Generally, in my culture, women get “fat” while men get “healthy” and “look good.”

It wasn’t always like this, which adds complexity. Padma Lakshmi, in her memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate says, “Back then, eating was also a means of beautification, since the more aloo tikki and murukku you consume, the more likely you’d be to reach a voluptuousness akin to American size 10 or 12, required for looking good in a sari.” Something inevitably shifts, though, when a woman of Indian background but an American identity adopts the assimilationist idea that we must minimize ourselves — not take up too much space.

After one particular comment from a friend’s Indian-American husband about how I clearly had been enjoying the food in New Orleans, I told him, gently but firmly, that he is not welcome to comment on my body. He immediately expressed remorse, but in a way that made it clear he was unaware of the way patriarchy operates. “But you look so great. Really, the best I’ve ever seen you,” he said, apologetically. However, any comment about my weight fluctuation indicates a type of ownership. As in, another person has the right to decide what makes me attractive.

The second factor that comes into play is regional fat-shaming. After a bourbon on the flight back to New Orleans that evening, my tears had dried and I strolled out of the airport to wait for a taxi. Again, I felt the straight male gaze, but an altogether different one. I was in the deep South again, and all I wanted to do was change into my favorite jean shorts. As trifling as this may be, I welcomed the patriarchy here — a brand that made me feel validated. One that fit neatly with my views of how my body should look. Could the New Orleans gaze be the same as my gaze? I found grace and solace in the stereotype that curves are celebrated more profoundly in this city, particularly in communities of color where I find myself.

There are times when I’m ashamed of my craving for body validation — those moments when I delight in the Victoria’s Secret sales associate telling me, “No honey, a small is not going to cut it anymore. You are spilling out. You need a grown-lady size.” I’m aware that the size of your undergarments in no way defines a level of womanhood. More likely, my embrace of and appreciation for bodies of the women I love — my best friend Coryn’s bombshell silhouette or my mother’s unapologetic thighs, for example — is a form of rebellion against the pictures I see on the covers of fashion magazines.

Back in New York now, I have already lost four of my precious pounds. I’m convinced it is the lack of lard in the food, or simply all the damn subway stairs. But instead of clinging desperately to the body I loved in New Orleans, I’m trying to find beauty in the ever-evolving magic of the female body. This strong vehicle of flesh and bones and fat that twists into complicated yoga binds today and might allow me to push out a human down the road.

However, on days when I see a woman walking down the street in jeans that appear painted on, I long for another beignet, another bowl of gumbo with drowning, pearly grains of rice, and for the divine thickness that inevitably follows when I get indulgent in a city that reveres carbs. I continue to evolve, but New Orleans will always be the place I found my body.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.


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