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No, The Curvy Latina Ideal Isn’t Healthier than Other Beauty Standards

There’s a memory that I’ve never been able to shake. I'm seven years old, standing in front of my 13-inch TV, watching the music video for Big Pun's "Still Not a Player " — and I'm enthralled. It’s not just the lithe piano hook that has me swaying my prepubescent hips. It's the bridge, "Boricua, Morena," and the salsa choreography that inform me that this song — this video, these words, this message — is for me. For 4 minutes and 37 seconds, I absorb images and lyrics on what makes a Latina desirable: “show class and pass my test / fat ass and breasts / highly intelligent bachelorette.” 
I look over at my full-length mirror, the one plastered with Barbie and Spice Girls stickers, and examine my body to see if I meet the requirements. My round belly pops out of my tank top more than my chest, but my backside doesn’t look too different from the Black and brown women in the video. Sure, it’s not as rotund, but, I mean, I’m still a kid. Even then, I knew I was never going to be like Victoria Beckham, my favorite Spice Girl — and I didn’t want to be — but I could be like the curvy women Big Pun was rapping about. This was attainable. This was something I should aspire to. I had to — my identity counted on it. 
Entering our homes, whether it’s through music videos or casual familial conversations, the hourglass ideal, and the fatphobia and ableism entrenched in the standard, is taught to children of all genders across Latin America and Latinx U.S.A. You know what she looks like: she’s tan enough to separate herself from non-Latinx whites but fair enough to avoid disrupting white supremacist racial hierarchies. Or, as Rosie Molinary describes in Hijas Americanas, a book exploring Latina beauty and body image, she has a curvaceous but thin body with light skin. Like Western beauty ideals, this Latina beauty standard favors whiteness and litheness but also expects physical attributes that are often inconsistent with slim frames: large breasts, round hips and derrières, and thick, toned thighs with no trace of cellulite or stretch marks.

This Latina beauty standard favors whiteness and litheness but also expects physical attributes that are often inconsistent with slim frames.

For a homogenized culture that encompasses 21 different countries and territories, and includes people of varying races and ethnic compositions, the idea that all bodies can — or should — look one way is illogical, yet the ideal and stereotype persist — and it can have devastating impacts. “We are all so genetically different, our resources are different, our access and interests are different, so creating a particular model that we encourage across the board denies us of the whole multidimensionality of the human experience and deprives us of joy,” Molinary tells Refinery29 Somos. 
The Curvy Divide
In Mala Muñoz’s Mexican-American home in Los Angeles, she grew up hearing conversations about fatness, specifically where fat was distributed in people’s bodies. “If your fat accumulates around your belly and arms, this is not considered hitting the beauty standard. However, if another person of the same weight accumulates fat in their butt and thighs, then they’re praised, even though this is something that is totally out of their control,” the podcast host and producer tells Somos. “There’s Spanglish slang that maintains this thinking: If you’re nalgona, you have a nice, big butt; but if you have a panza, that’s disparaging.” 
In the Bronx, Lorraine Avila also heard messages about what the Latina body should look like. Spending much of her youth in her mother’s Dominican hair salon, Avila listened and internalized how women talked about bodies and the value given to certain shapes and sizes. She learned that an hourglass figure, like other beauty ideals, is a facet of power. “I remember them saying, ‘mira, you saw Fulana, the one who was always shaped like a nevera? She got her body done, and now she has her man back,’” the writer tells Somos. The lesson was clear: Not only are thin, curvaceous bodies considered beautiful, but beauty can help you gain access to certain people, spaces, and power. Conversely, one’s inability to conform to the ideal has negative consequences, like losing your man to his side chick, getting bullied in school, or not landing the job you’re more than qualified for. “I was 11 years old, and I was understanding that having a cinturita fina con un nalgón was how to be desirable and how to have a man who will pay your bills and not leave you. If I was going to compete with women, I knew that this is the body I had to have,” Avila adds.
Growing up in Orlando, Florida, I received the same messages — and not just from Christopher Rios. My gorgeous Puerto Rican mother reminisced bitterly about her youth, the days before childbirth left stretch-marked rolls on her belly and gente in the neighborhood called her “la guitarra.” Meanwhile, my papi often proudly shared the story of how they met: He almost left the church function where they were arranged to meet after he was introduced to another woman who shared my mom’s name but not her fat ass; he stayed after realizing the guitar-shaped singer on stage was the one he had been set up with. As a grade-schooler, the hourglass ideal wasn’t just a mediated fantasy constructed by directors, cinematographers, glam teams, and models. My mom was “proof” that this look was within reach, while my dad was evidence that cis straight men do have a benchmark in which they measure women, and only slim "muchachotas" con “nalgas y tetitas” pass.
For decades, I oriented my entire life around attaining this cuerpito. When I was nine years old and started stealing my mom’s Michelina's, the poor girl’s low-cal frozen meal, I justified it by telling myself I had a body goal to meet. When I was 12 and began skipping meals, I rationalized it by reminding myself, then a tween with growing breasts, that I was almost there. When I was 15 and started purging, I was convinced that I could maintain the curves that did end up taking shape and lose the arm, belly, and thigh fat that came with it. Passing out almost every week during high-intensity workouts throughout my teens and early 20s because of how malnourished I was didn’t worry me. It was evidence of my determination; it was the final stretch before I finally reached the idealized figure I believed was achievable — except it never was, the last time or attainable. 

An hourglass span, like other beauty ideals, is a facet of power.

While eating disorder research has historically studied the ultra-thin ideal and how it impacts young, white, able-bodied women and girls, recent analyses are finding that the hourglass ideal is just as harmful. In an Arizona State University study on the hourglass ideal and disordered eating, researchers found that the internalization of appearance ideals, including the curvy standard, are a risk factor for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. However, multiple surveys have shown that Latinas endorse a competing curvy ideal and thin ideal, a standard that is impossible and, consequently, just as, if not more, destructive. “Right now, what we are seeing is that those who have subscribed to both ideals have more severe body dissatisfaction and disordered eating than those who subscribe to one,” Marisol Perez, Associate Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and a researcher in the study, tells Somos. 
Complicating the problem further is the popularly believed falsehood that the hourglass beauty standard is healthier than ultra-thin or muscular ideals. For more than a decade, I lived with an eating disorder that went unnoticed by the people around me. Despite fainting at home and in public more times than I can count, my so-called slim-thick body was described as healthy by relatives and catcallers alike. Even more, the curvy Latina ideal is so pervasive in our communities that restricting in an effort to fit the stereotype is considered healthier than doing so to satisfy an ultra-thin ideal. 
Consequences of the Curvy Ideal
For Jasmine Paulino, disordered eating was expected. Growing up, the New York-based project manager received judgment on the street and in her home for living in a big body that wasn’t accompanied with a round butt and hips. Shrinking herself to conform to the neighborhood’s ideal was assumed and encouraged. Following the script, she started dieting at the age of 11 and developed binge eating disorder (BED) in her early 20s. “In our culture, mental illness is deemed a white people problem, so it’s not talked about even though it’s so normal to have disordered eating habits. You just don't recognize it as that because it’s ingrained in the culture.” This normalization could also be why so many Latinas struggling with disordered eating never receive help; Latinas have eating disorders and body image concerns at rates comparable to or greater than non-Latinx whites, but we are less likely to obtain treatment. 
Another factor: Latinas are more likely to experience disordered eating in combination with body modification procedures that aren’t considered in eating disorder diagnostic criteria. “From our focus groups and talking with Latinas, I can say that those who subscribe to an hourglass ideal and struggle with disordered eating are also more likely to go through multiple strange exercising fads to lift the butt, wear waist trainers, and, if they can afford it, engage in cosmetic surgery,” Perez says. Online and in-person, personal trainers like the so-called Booty King, who also runs a Booty King en Español page on Instagram, get rich curating workout routines that they allege will help the flat-backed masses achieve J-Lo asses. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) — a physically taxing and dangerous procedure that started in the South American country, where cosmetic surgery has roots in eugenics, and transports fat from the belly, hips, or thighs to the booty — has become the fastest-growing cosmetic procedure in the world. Long popular in Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, tens of thousands of people now obtain the operation every year in the U.S. — and it’s not just Latina and Black women. With the rise of social media, the hourglass ideal has become mainstream, and a growing number of millennials and Gen Zers of all races and ethnicities are taking BBL trips to Miami to achieve the tiny-waist-plump-bottom body that Instagram influencers construct through apps like Facetune. To be clear, I’m not shaming anyone who chooses to get plastic surgery. I get it, and have thought about it, too. I’m only questioning the impossible beauty standards that sometimes lead us down this path. 

You see these bodies all around you, and they’re so nice, and even as a child you start comparing your body to theirs, knowing theirs have been altered.

For Ariana Diaz, who asked to use a pseudonym, BBLs were a part of everyday life. In the basement of the New Jersey home she grew up in, Diaz’s mom, an esthetician, ran a spa. Most of her clients were Latinas who had recently received low-cost BBL, liposuction, or tummy tuck surgery from their home countries, Colombia or DR, and needed lymphatic drainage massages to reduce scarring, eliminate excess fluids, and calm swelling. “Most of the adult women in my life — I’d say 80% of my mom’s friends — had surgery. It becomes very normalized,” the Colombian-American tells Somos. “You see these bodies all around you, and they’re so nice, and even as a child you start comparing your body to theirs, knowing theirs have been altered.” In Latinx homes, comparison is taught through 24/7 public body talk and unsolicited body remarks that praise the lightest, thinnest, and most curvaceous in the room and shame the darkest, fattest, and flattest. Although Diaz has always had a thin waist with wide hips, her mother, and her mother’s clients and friends, often told her there were parts of her body that needed to be “fixed” through diet, exercise, and surgery. “As a kid, you internalize that. And it takes a long time to unlearn,” she says.
In a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers found that bullying, in or outside of the home, contributes to low self-esteem, poor body image, and eating disorders. So was the case for Chanel Segura. When the Long Island-based beautician was in middle school, her classmates greeted her as “Miss Bootydoo.” Unsure what the nickname meant, she asked a friend and learned that it was actually a slight for women whose “bellies stick out more than their booties do.” “That’s when I learned that women with big butts and small waists are beautiful,” she told Somos. “That’s also when I lost my confidence.” 
Since then, Segura, who lives with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that makes it harder for some people to lose weight, has been striving to reach the ideal. After a decade of restrictive diets and exercise, in July, she’ll make her trip to Miami for her long-awaited BBL. “This is something I’ve thought about since I could remember. I used to look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘if I could just take the fat from here and put it there, I'd be fine.’ I didn't know there was an actual procedure for this,” she says. The price tag for a round backside: $7,500. But for many people, it takes more than one BBL to get the desired “tremendo culo.” That’s because there are limits to how much fat surgeons can remove and graft during a single procedure; even more, not all of the fat transferred will stay. Since 2016, Katelina Eccleston has had three procedures: a tummy tuck followed by two BBLs. “When you get cosmetic surgery, you’re taking a leap of faith. You’re taking a risk. You are choosing to make yourself look better in order to feel better,” the Panamanian-American music historian and producer tells Somos. “The con is that once you move something, everything else looks different. It’s no longer the same painting, so you want to change that other part. It’s an expensive habit.” Luckily for Eccleston, she hasn’t had to foot the bill, leaving that part to “somebody’s son.”

When Black and Latinx bodies are hypersexualized — first by European imperialists and presently by their male progeny — sexiness becomes a sort of prerequisite for racialized women.   

Both Segura and Eccleston are Afro-Latina and grew up seeing mediated images of Latina and non-Latinx Black women who fit the hourglass ideal. The look was — and often still is — expected by cultural outsiders and insiders. For years, not measuring up to the stereotype engendered feelings of lack. “I love to say I got everything Latina but my butt,” Segura says. Similarly, Eccleston confesses that not looking like the video vixens that the boys on her Boston block fantasized about, models like Ayisha Diaz and Tahiry Jose, made her feel less sexy. When Black and Latinx bodies are hypersexualized — first by European imperialists who enslaved Black and Indigenous women across the Americas and used their bodies to satisfy their lust for the “other,” and presently as a commodity advertised to fulfill these same sexual desires in their male progeny — sexiness becomes a sort of prerequisite for racialized women.   
Despite being positioned as more voluptuous than other women, Latina bodies are diverse — because all humans, regardless of a shared racial, ethnic, or cultural identity, are designed differently. Beauty ideals attempt to deflate human diversity into sameness, and the hourglass standard is no different and no healthier. Not only is the curvy ideal fatphobic and ableist, much like the ultra-thin Western beauty ideal, it’s also harmful because it carries an illusion of attainability and wellness. As the body positive movement has long posited, health has no size or look. Many of us, regardless of our shape, suffer the consequences of beauty standards, ranking our cuerpos against the bodies of others, deciding if they are superior or inferior to us based on an inherited benchmark, all while being our most violent offenders. 
But there is no wrong (or right) way to have a Latina body (or any body). As a toddler, I was not ashamed of how plump or flat my belly and butt were; this was learned. A year before watching the “Still Not A Player” music video in my bedroom, I was celebrating my seventh birthday in a pink and yellow bikini, gliding my chubby torso down a slip-and-slide, reveling in my body, chichos and all. Unlearning the curvy Latina ideal, and returning to the body love (or, depending on the day, body neutrality) of my youth has been life-long work. Ignoring my eating disorder when it tells me that this ideal is obtainable if I just lose 10 more pounds, focus on my arms, or tone my lower body has been difficult work. But it’s work I’m committed to — my life and joy depend on it. 

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