When I was in high school, I was surrounded by affluent adolescent white girls whose typical bodies ranged from thin to extremely thin. I “adjusted” by taking on a 1,200 calorie-diet and exercising two hours a day. Needless to say, I dropped weight. Also needless to say, I was suffering from an eating disorder and poor body image.
While there is evidence to suggest that Latinas are much more confident about their curves, a 2011 study showed that over two thirds (70 percent) of Hispanic or Latina women desired to be smaller (compared to 48 percent of African Americans) regardless of their actual Body Mass Index (BMI). Even more alarming, “normal weight Latina women” perceived themselves as overweight or obese 100 percent of the time (compared to only 61 percent of African American women).
Poor body image starts young. On the 2007 Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Youth Risk Behavior Survey of grades nine through 12, Latino students were the most likely to go 24 hours without eating to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight. The same report showed that Latinas have the highest rate (14.4 percent) of attempted suicide compared to white girls (7.7 percent) and black girls (9.9 percent).
Young Latinas may be more dissatisfied with their bodies because they are trying to live up to competing images of beauty. As explored in the film, Real Women have Curves, Latinas often face pressures from family about their bodies, while at the same contending with the dominant society’s definition of beauty. In some cases, these may be paradoxical images, making it even harder to meet already stringent standards.
Still, the images of the dominant culture may be even more damaging. A study out of the University of Maryland, for example, found that Latina women who read U.S. American fashion magazines displayed significantly higher physical anxiety than those who did not or those who read Latino fashion magazines.
Perhaps this is because Latino culture emphasizes a larger, more realistic ideal body size. One study, for example, showed that Latina mothers, while wanting a slim figure for themselves, preferred a plumper figure for their children. On the other hand, Latinas born in the United States are more likely to prefer a smaller size that may be harder to attain. Either standard, however, may do young girls harm if they associate their self worth with a particular body size.
The number of Latinas who were “happy” with their bodies during adolescence decreases by 38 percent as they grow into adulthood. How do we reverse this trend? How do we accept our bodies for what they are, for what they do, for how they allow us to dance as if we’re making love and make love as if we’re dancing?
Accepting our bodies also doesn’t mean resigning to being overweight, obese, or unhealthy. It does mean thinking of our bodies without judgment. With everything we know about how hard it is lose weight and maintain weight loss for even the most strong-willed person, comments that disparage the character of any individual struggling with weight are misguided and ignorant, especially when they come from ourselves.
For more reading on the topic: Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina