When I was as young as eight years old, I remember not feeling beautiful. I wasn’t tall, I didn’t have green or blue eyes, and my hair wasn’t blond. Instead, I had brown eyes and brown hair. I didn’t think I was ugly. I was just average, maybe a little less than — at least that’s how I felt. I didn’t like my body type, especially my legs, which were thick, while most of my friends were taller than me and more slender.
When I started junior high school in León, Mexico, where I grew up, my body started to change. At school, we had to wear uniforms, and my skirt was usually shorter than that of my classmates — siempre la coqueta. But all of a sudden, I started getting a lot of compliments about my full legs. I remember feeling somewhat confused at first. I had always hated this part of my body, so hearing other people, especially boys, say they were beautiful made me start looking at them a little bit differently.
When my family and I moved to the United States at 13, my relationship with my legs continued to change. Being in this new country was tough. The culture was so different, and I didn’t have any friends. I will never forget my first day going to high school; I was excited but also very nervous. It was a hot day, so I did something that felt brave at the time: I wore short shorts. Eventually, being an average-sized girl with thick legs simply became who I was.
That day changed my body physically, and it changed me emotionally and mentally, forever.
Throughout my teenage years, I started using my legs differently. In high school, I worked out, lifted weights, and made my school’s cross-country varsity team. At 19, I was invited to apply for a bikini calendar competition. I thought, why not? I decided to give it a shot, but I had zero expectations. I didn’t win the cover, but I was one of the 12 girls selected out of hundreds to be in the calendar. This opportunity allowed me to build a portfolio and start a new career path: modeling.
Then, I became paralyzed. In 2005, at 19, I was involved in a tragic car crash. The accident that left me immobile from my chest down also killed my boyfriend Patrick, a man I thought I’d marry one day. In an instant, I was a young adult living life on top of the world — so many of my dreams within reach — to living in survival mode. I was absolutely devastated.
That day changed my body physically, and it changed me emotionally and mentally, forever. My body image, which took so long to build, was deeply affected. I will never forget the first time I saw my legs again. They had atrophied very fast from just laying down in the hospital. I was terrified and heartbroken by how thin they were. Where were the strong legs that ran for sport? Where were the thick legs that won beauty contests? They looked so lifeless.
The first time I looked at myself in the mirror, sitting in a wheelchair, I felt terrible about myself. I did not feel beautiful at all, much less sexy. Not feeling most of my body was also strange. My body was in shock, and I was, too. I’d finally learned to love my body, and now I was once again hating it, critiquing it, and being scared of it.
Thankfully, I had my mom.
The world no longer felt like it was made for me, and in a lot of ways it wasn’t.
I am so fortunate to have been raised by a strong single mother. Ever since I can remember, my mom has been there for me, always encouraging me, telling me, “Hijita, tú puedes,” and helping me believe in myself so that I can do better for myself. Because she was so right so often, I started trusting her opinions, even as I got older and life got more complicated. After my accident, having her next to me, holding my hand, and telling me, “you are going to be OK,” gave me the peace and strength that I needed to move through this. If mami said it, then that’s the way it was going to be.
My mom’s wizardry didn’t have the same power over her, though. Like too many of us, she has long struggled with self-confidence and body image. I remember her always being hard on herself, complaining about how she looked while I stared and thought, What is she talking about? She looks great. Growing up in Mexico, she always felt pressure to be thinner. She and my aunts were often on diets and sucked in their bellies for every photo. In my home country, loved ones comment on your body, weight, and size — and particularly how it changes — without reserve. If you put on weight, people say, “te ves más repuestita.” And if you lose weight, they praise you. My mom internalized that to be skinny meant to be beautiful, and to be beautiful meant to be worthy — and it has stopped her from giving herself the same love and encouragement she has always given to me.
Witnessing how hard my mom has always been on herself brings tears to my eyes and motivates me to love myself more. There is so much of my mom that I want to be, but I don’t want to be like her in this way. Still, I am so blessed that even though she didn’t learn to love herself, her endless love as a mother helped her be there for me when I’ve needed her most.
She was there when I cried because of the way people looked at me in a wheelchair, like they felt sorry for me. Many people glanced at me and thought, poor girl. But most of the time, people didn’t look my way at all — as if not seeing me, not recognizing my existence, was a courtesy. The world no longer felt like it was made for me, and in a lot of ways it wasn’t. This hurt me and affected my self-esteem. Before my accident, I was a confident woman who was comfortable in her own skin. Then I became someone rolling into a room with devastation and insecurity written all over my body.
Change of any kind is hard to accept, but it doesn’t mean we can’t become confident again — or for the first time. Over time, I have learned to see myself and love myself. I am proud of who I am and what I look like. I know that my disability hasn’t taken away my beauty or my sexiness. Like before my accident, I started posing in bikinis and auditioning for modeling gigs again. The difference: Now, I do this in a wheelchair and for national magazines like Sports Illustrated Swim Search.
The value of our bodies doesn’t shift just because they change.
I enter spaces, from banquet halls to beaches, with confidence in my wheelchair, in my disabled body, and in the clothes that I love — and I encourage other people living with disabilities or whose bodies have changed in any way to do the same. I do this through my Embrace You Project, which helps people own their differences, and by expanding representation of Latinx beauty. I’ve participated in televised beauty pageants like Nuestra Belleza Latina, have modeled for major runways like Milan Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week, and have hosted and co-produced Latino Alternative Television Network’s beauty and fashion segment Beauty on Wheels.
If somebody would’ve told me when I became paralyzed that this would be my life today, I wouldn’t have believed them. I didn’t think I could still pursue these dreams because I didn’t think I had the looks or the abilities to do them anymore. But I was wrong. It can be scary and frustrating when our bodies change. It can be hard to be nice to ourselves when our bodies don’t look or move the way they once did or the way the media portrays bodies. But the value of our bodies doesn’t shift just because they change. We are all worthy, beautiful, powerful, and amazing — always. Just like my mother believed in me, I believe in the words she always told me: “Tú puedes.”