Three years ago, I moved to NYC to study, and each time I go back home to Colombia, it always feels like a different experience. It feels familiar, full of love and laughter, food you missed, and places that bring you memories. When you go for the holidays especially, being home is filled with friends and family reunions because you haven't seen them in a long time. We catch up on work, life, dating . . . you know, the basics. Except that, for some friends and family in Latin America, those basics also include an opinion on how you look, with no filter whatsoever.
In the past, I have overlooked that minor detail because I grew up proud and happy with what I saw in the mirror. I have always been thin, and I loved making the joke that my friends loved to hate me because no matter what I ate, I didn't gain a single pound. I grew up in a bubble where nobody bullied me about my body because of the false notion that being skinny equaled being beautiful, and a lot of people wanted to be like me. My friends and family call me flaca (skinny), and that has always been my nickname. But recently, I faced the reality of having people giving me an opinion that I didn't ask for.
It started happening a year ago when I was back home for my holiday break. After spending a year trying to finish a thesis and working a full-time job, there was no time for working out. I got back home, and people were happy to see me . . . and also happy to tell me I didn't look so skinny anymore. "You've got some curves," "you look so healthy now," "you look prettier now that you are a bit fuller" . . . all comments made to be compliments, but they didn't feel like such. I tried not to think too much about it, but then, over the Summer, I posted a picture at the beach, and someone felt the need to comment on Facebook that I was not "La Flaca" anymore. It hurt me. It didn't make me sad to think I wasn't as skinny as before, but it embarrassed me to see a comment so personal in such a public platform. I couldn't believe people think this is acceptable.
It only got worse when I went back home again this year for the holidays. Two people approached me in the same way, and even someone in my family who hadn't seen me in forever called me "fat" straight to my face and without an inch of regret. I went on a downward spiral and refused to take pictures at the beach, covering myself in the ones I did take, and overthinking every outfit I wore so it didn't make me look chubbier. At that moment, I understood what my friends had gone through their whole lives and realized no one should ever feel that way, no matter how much or how little you weigh. Since Latinx don't really talk back to their older relatives — we just don't! — I had to find a way to teach this family member who just called me fat a lesson in the most respectful way.
"Do you really think I'm fat?" I asked, in the nicest way possible. Let me clarify: I'm not fat. I do not feel fat or think I'm fat, but even if I were, I think that calling me — or anyone — that is very harmful because it really messes with your head, and it can trigger bigger issues that could potentially be harmful to your overall health. In asking that question, I wanted more than just to make a point; I wanted to make this a learning moment. As a response, this relative said she wanted to compliment me because I look better with a little more weight. It made her admit that she could have complimented me without making direct comments to my body because it was not called for.
As Latinx, we come from a culture in which commenting on other people's appearances is taken lightly, including making comments about other people's bodies. "La gordita" or "gordo" are popular nicknames that are supposed to be cute, and direct assumptions about people's bodies are completely normal. My friends have been told "you look like you have a good appetite" or "you should stop eating so much," straight to their faces, as a "joke." Deeply engrained in our culture is the thought that people close to us are entitled to make these comments and that we should not take them personally.
But they are personal. Commenting on the appearance of others is probably one of the most personal things there is. My friend Adriana Convers, a woman who is proud of her body and wrote a book about it, has taught me a rule that I think is great and we should share with our friends and family to avoid these types of comments in the future. She calls it "the three-minute rule," and it's very simple: if you feel the need to say something to a person about how they look, consider if they can fix it in under three minutes. Do they have spinach on their teeth? It can be fixed easily. Do they look like they didn't sleep? No need to tell them; they probably know.
This was also a learning moment for me, because it took me this far to understand how deep a comment that seems harmless can be. It took me gaining a few pounds; it took me feeling it personally. It is never so serious until you're on the receiving end, and it's unfortunate that anyone has to go through that.
We love our family, our friends, and, in general, our Latinx heritage. But we don't have to tolerate things that hurt us because they're "part of our culture." Comments about other bodies are hurtful and unnecessary. We all have mirrors at home; we all know how we look; we don't need a reminder, especially when it's a condescending comment. Let's teach our loved ones that it is possible to focus on the positive and help people fight their insecurities by not feeding them with our words. We can all be kinder, and we should be.