When it comes to my perception of body, I learned early on that being “gorda” is perceived as a bad thing in our culture. At family functions, the women and men in my family would talk in circles separately and what I noticed was that when discussing worst-case scenarios for themselves, they always seemed to pertain to their appearance. Remarks on whether or not “habían engordado” or making jokes about how they should “bajarle” when it came to their eating habits were common. One of the first times these comments were directed at me was when I was around 10 years old and one of my tías came up to me at a baby shower to ask me if I had been eating too much lately because she noticed I looked “fuller”. Fatphobic jokes were made in a way that was almost second nature, comments like that were a typical part of conversations, used casually and consistently.
The word fat—under any circumstance—was viewed as the worst term that could be used to describe them. Often, there were talks of using “fajas” or special diets that they would resort to as a way to improve their appearance. From here, I built my understanding of what was considered “good” and “bad” as far as what a body should look like or what food to eat. An interesting part of these discussions was the association between being fat and being ugly. Both of these words existed in the same sentences, like you couldn’t be one without the other.
It didn’t help that what I grew up hearing was also backed up by mainstream media, from magazines to television both in the U.S and Mexican media that I consumed. For most of my childhood my main source of entertainment was watching telenovelas and it’s safe to say that that was the foundation from which I made sense of the world around me especially in regard to beauty standards. It coincided with the way my tías talked about bodies; the main characters, the “pretty” girls that men desired in these shows were never fat or curvy. Statuesque, thin beautiful women were the archetype of leading women and a similar physique can be seen in men as well. In the times when there were fat women in these telenovelas, their looks took center stage as part of their persona and as a source of comedic relief.
There was a pattern of a “funny fat girl” trope wherein these women were never taken seriously as attractive women or just in general. They were usually written as funny and plain or unattractive, often a friend of the protagonist, or simply a supporting role that rarely ever saw actual character development. They could be made virtually invisible and be left out of multiple episodes without me ever noticing they weren’t there. Their lines were intertwined with comical music in the background, their potential love interests weren’t seen as more than a joke and at times their sole purpose seemed to just be at the right place and at the right time for someone to make fun of them.
The most daunting part of the way telenovelas portrayed fat women is in the shame associated with a man having interest in fat women as well as how casting played a role in these portrayals. One example is with the 2006 telenovela La Fea Más Bella, it was one of the first shows I watched and I was around five years old when it first came out. As impressionable as I was, I remember watching it and seeing how the main character, Lety (Angelica Vale), was treated by people, especially men. Lety was described as one of the ugliest women—donning glasses, dressing in a reserved fashion, having acne and prominent facial hair— and written in such a way that she was also seen as “bigger” than the conventionally attractive women around her when the actress herself was not fat at all.
A recurring gag early in the show was the look of disgust or fear that people would have when they first saw her, fueling this idea that she was “too hideous to look at.” With this in mind, her romantic involvement with the leading man played by Jaime Camil starts off with him using her as a way to keep their company afloat, essentially lying to her about his feelings. Many scenes early in their relationship involve him being disgusted at the thought of kissing her or his friend mocking him for having the affair.
When I first watched, it made sense to me, I had fatphobic sentiments ingrained as a young child because that’s the perspective I grew up exposed to. As a teenager, having experienced weight gain between elementary school and high school, watching these specific scenes struck a nerve. I began to look at myself differently and more negatively than I had before. At first, I had seen my weight gain as an inconvenience, making it hard to fit into clothes or being something that made me stand out among my thinner peers at school. Watching this representation in the media that I consumed a lot of, tapped into and amplified existing insecurities about my self-worth and sense of worthiness of love. In my head, if this woman who looked similar to me — glasses, facial hair — was considered among the ugliest and was also seen as bigger— while being significantly smaller than me — I could only imagine how other people saw me. Seeing this and other telenovelas tell the same story of fat women being undesirable and unattractive confirmed feelings I’d already had based on how people in my family expressed themselves.
While combatting fatphobia there are also the difficulties of experiencing fetishization as a fat woman and a Latina. When I began to realize how other people may see me, I was hit with the fact that the “spicy Latina” stereotype didn’t include fat women. When people in U.S mainstream media considered Latinas they were the Jennifer Lopez type of thin women who were “curvy in the right places” and were undeniably attractive. Since that did not necessarily apply to me, it made the dichotomy between pretty and ugly more obvious—if I wasn’t the beautiful woman people thought of when they thought of Latinas, I was the funny fat girl that no one considered. These are harsh remarks for me to make about myself, but this is what went on in my head, especially as a teenager. I didn’t see the “spicy Latina” trope for what it is—the dangerous fetishization of Latinas—but as a way to determine what kind of women are considered desirable.
The difference between fetishization and attraction has been difficult for me to figure out. As I grew older, I began to put myself out there on dating apps and what I found was a different kind of attention that I was not comfortable with. I joined an app that was supposedly made for plus-size women and I figured it would make it easier for me not to question if a guy was attracted to me. The morning after I made a profile, I woke up to 10 messages from what I describe as “people’s dads and uncles” trying to talk to me. Men that could easily be my dad would comment on certain parts of my body, talking about me like an object to play with. I immediately deleted the app after a day out of disgust towards them and myself.
Ever since this experience I’ve thought back to other times I’ve talked to guys and reevaluated our interactions by thinking: Did they actually like me or was I just a fetish? Fetishes are associated with “abnormal” attractions to certain things and seeing that a body like mine can be seen in that way adds a layer to what it means to exist in a plus-size body. Absurd is the fact that I need to have conversations like this with myself but it is a reality when you’re body can either be hated for what it is or on the other extreme be “loved” in an objectifying manner.
As I have worked to not only feel more confident about myself but also rid myself of any fatphobic sentiments I still have, one thing I know for sure is whatever body one is in is valid and worthy. “Fat” isn’t a bad word and it shouldn’t be considered such an awful thing to be or to have on your body. The word’s connotation has always been negative in my experience. Not once growing up did I ever hear or see anyone call a fat woman beautiful or even use the term in a purely neutral manner. Part of breaking the stigma of the word down is normalizing using it as a descriptor and not as an insult to ourselves. More often than not, when I refer to myself as fat in front of others they are quick to jump in and say “no you’re not, you’re beautiful” in an attempt to comfort me. First of all, I never said I wasn’t beautiful and second of all, I am fat and that is okay.
Straying from those ingrained sentiments is difficult but even more difficult is letting my existence be a supporting character in my own life.