Warning: This article discusses disordered eating, weight gain, weight loss, and body image.
In many Latinx families, a normal way to greet someone is by commenting on their weight. Many of us can relate to that awkward moment when we first arrive — during hello’s, that one aunt or family friend rushes to get a better look at you from head to toe. Tu ‘ta gorda. Te ves muy flaquita. ‘Ta comiendo mucho! Pero tu no come? Not wanting to come off as malcriada or disrespectful, we either laugh it off or change the subject. But to all the tías and doñas out there, I have a request: Please stop.
Commenting on someone’s body is not only invasive and inappropriate, but also dangerous. "It reinforces the idea that thinner is better,” says licensed psychotherapist Lisa Jimenez, who points out that diet behaviour — and the encouragement of dieting — is the most important predictor in developing an eating disorder.
Many people will try to justify these body-shaming comments as innocent and inconsequential, but those quips still carry weight which, as Jimenez explains, deprives people of their ability to trust their own bodies and feel liberated.
If you’re a Latinx person who lives in North America, you know about the curvy-yet-slim beauty standard that’s common among mainstream celebrities like J.Lo, Sofia Vergara, and Salma Hayek who are praised for their tiny waists, wide hips, and round, perky derrieres. It’s a body type that our families push onto us because they know the social benefits from looking this way. On some level, they believe they’re being “helpful.” But by policing what we eat and what our bodies should look like is ultimately hurtful. “People who are more assimilated in American culture tend to have more body dissatisfaction,” Jimenez said. These societal pressures, combined with our own distorted body image, are overwhelming. It only takes one unsolicited comment to do serious damage on our self-esteem.
Growing up, the girls and women in my life — from hair stylists to celebrities to my own classmates — always talked about how they desperately needed to lose weight. I was always considered gordita, and from a young age, I was made to believe that being fuller was undesirable. In high school, I lost a significant amount of weight. Suddenly, relatives and family friends began complimenting me on how good they thought I looked. I was no longer being seen as just the smart “chubby” kid. I was now “una señorita, un modelo,” and their praises meant everything to me.
But during college, I began lifting weights, and put weight back on as I grew stronger — something that made me feel confident and proud. However, my relatives and family friends made me feel like something was wrong. My parents suggested I go see a doctor because it “wasn’t normal” that I had gained so much weight in a short amount of time. A close relative once blurted out that she was shocked at how huge my pansa was. An old babysitter once greeted me by telling me how “fat” I was. I tried to deflect by joking that my clothes shrunk, but she insisted that I was significantly bigger since the last time she saw me. I felt humiliated and hopeless because no matter how hard I tried, my body was never good enough. I tried so hard to love my body, but there was always someone ready to tell me that my body was not worth loving.
Every unsolicited comment about my body chipped away at my confidence until I no longer wanted to be seen. I kept a strong public face, but alone, I often found myself crying. In college, away from family, I slowly learned how to accept myself — by taking selfies of my muscles and curves. In those photos, I saw myself as a fierce woman. And yet, whenever it was time to go back home, all my confidence would deflate and my anxiety would skyrocket. I reached a point where I stopped going out with my family at all because I was scared that I would bump into someone who would make a nasty comment about my body. It took me years to realize how beautiful and powerful my body is. This painful journey to self acceptance is unfortunately one that many Latinx people know too well.
Amelia**, a 27-year-old Black Latina, told me that the first time she even noticed her weight was because of her family’s comments during family gatherings. “My realization of my [own] weight came from seeing how my family looked at me.” As a teenager, she attended a predominately white private school where being skinny was the beauty standard. She began exercising for hours a day on her treadmill, taking laxatives, and restricting her diet. Within a few months, she had lost a significant amount of weight. Unaware of the unhealthy and harmful measures she took to get there, her tías praised her weight loss.
“I get to Christmas and my tías all surrounded me and they literally started poking, prodding, and pinching me to make [me] aware of where I lost weight to the point where it [got] kind of painful,” Amelia said. “They’re like ‘Oh my God, you’re so skinny! How did you get skinny?”
To this day, she experiences panic attacks and anxiety around Christmastime because she knows that her family will make comments about her body, or compare her to her cousins. “Latinx communities are so community- and family-oriented, so we all feel that everyone’s our kid [and] everyone feels like they have a say about our bodies,” Amelia said. “I have a lot of empathy for my parents and my tías. They say those things to me because they’re insecure and they’re on diets, getting the same comments from their tías.” With this in mind, Amelia has recognized that body shaming is a toxic cycle — and with it, her own power in establishing healthy boundaries for herself and her future children.
"Latinx communities are so community- and family-oriented, so we all feel that everyone’s our kid [and] everyone feels like they have a say about our bodies."
“It’s so important for me to become comfortable with myself and what I look like because we have to stop that behaviour now so that when we have kids they’re not going to be thinking the same thing,” Amelia said. “I don’t want to see my kids and be so obsessive over what they look like.”
Jimenez says her clients often ask her what they should do when they’re confronted by a family member about their weight. It turns out that changing the subject is a good tactic. By recognizing that this negative energy is not worth dwelling on allows one to take back control of the situation, especially if the comment came from a family member who’s not typically receptive to hearing feedback.
But if you have the energy, Jimenez says that it’s a good idea to explain how much comments like that hurt. “If you think it’s somebody who can hear it, and you have the desire to educate them, wonderful.” Jimenez said. You can say: “I gotta tell you, it’s not really helpful when you comment on my body, I’m trying not to give importance to that and instead to focus on how I feel and what my values are.” It also helps to have a support system because it allows you to express your feelings to someone you trust instead of bottling up your feelings and internalizing negative comments.
So, to all the tías, primas, abuelas, and vecinas out there: My body and yours, too, are amazing. They are strong and powerful, soft and hard, and can nurture and protect. They are not, however, verbal punching bags to project our insecurities onto. Set your boundaries, and remember: our bodies are beautiful, no matter the shape or size.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre hotline at 1-866-633-4220.