WASHINGTON — Looking in the mirror, Nina Garcia has never seen J. Lo’s curves. Her skin isn’t tan like Sofia Vergara’s, and her hair isn’t as long as Shakira’s.
There was an ideal she felt she needed to fit, and she didn’t fit it.
“When I look back at pictures of myself, it always surprised me that I looked like a normal, healthy kid, when back then I thought I was bordering on overweight,” said Garcia, 19. “I was never one of those kids that’s naturally petite, but I looked like a regular child. I always heard growing up ‘Latinas are curvy!’ and I thought that my 8-year-old prepubescent self should have a ‘good figure’ and that’s why I always considered myself big.”
For Nina, and others like her, impossible beauty standards can negatively impact self-esteem and eating habits. Eurocentric body standards have, for many decades, been heralded as the ideal in American pop culture and fashion industries, experts said, but Latinas also contend with the added pressure of stereotypes about what Latina bodies should look like in order to be considered beautiful by society. In recent years, some Latinas have begun to recognize the futility of chasing these standards, and have made it their mission to help others embrace their bodies.
“I have really big boobs, so large that I just had a breast reduction,” Garcia said. “It was weird because I knew I should ‘have big boobs’ but I never felt like my butt was big enough or my waist was small enough — I felt curvy in the wrong ways.”
Garcia, who is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., grew up playing multiple sports in an effort to mold her body into what she considered an acceptable shape. Despite what her body could do on the court or the field — in tennis, volleyball, lacrosse, field hockey and soccer — she still felt inadequate, she said.
At home, she recalled, her tías and abuela would serve her second and third servings of food, while in the same breath criticizing her for not being able to “look a certain type of way.” In the fields of dance and gymnastics, which she was also a part of, small bodies are the ideal. It made whatever look she was supposed to be able to achieve — whatever shape her body was supposed to fit — feel even farther away, she said.
Maribel Martinez, a TikTok-famous plus-size model and lifestyle influencer, said she has long contended with a similar pressure to conform to a standard, even if it seemed contradictory or confusing.
“On one hand, [Latinas] may be expected to embody traditional values of modesty and purity, which can contribute to body shaming and the suppression of natural desires or expressions of sexuality,” Martinez wrote in an email. “On the other hand, the hypersexualized portrayal may lead to objectification and the pressure to conform to sexualized ideals, impacting body image and self-worth.”
Martinez, better known as @MaribelSpiritualJourney on social media, engages her audience of 3.7 million followers on TikTok and 45,000 on Instagram to embrace what’s outside of the dominant beauty standard.
Martinez’s followers look to her, decked out in cosplay as strong girl Luisa Madrigal from the hit Latino Disney film Encanto, as a confident, powerful personality fighting against stereotypes. She uses this persona to inspire others to embrace what makes them different — and powerful.
Stepping outside of the beauty standard wasn’t always easy, Martinez said. But the confidence she found in body building and EFC boxing, a fighting competition based in Florida, ended up being what was best for her body, she said, even if it wasn’t conventional.
Garcia, who said she was taught to prioritize aesthetics over her athletic ability, has had to relearn how to find confidence outside of her appearance. For years, she struggled with disordered eating. Recovering from it has been a journey that has forced her to prioritize her body — what it needs and how it works.
The decision to get a breast reduction, she said, would take away one of her most stereotypically Latina features. It was taking this step away from the dominant beauty standard that gave Garcia the confidence she had been needing to begin to accept herself and focus on her own needs.
“Going into my reduction, I was really unsure and nervous. I kind of didn’t want to go through with it, because so much external validation came from that part of my body. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the main part of my body that attracted compliments,” said Garcia. “I’m so glad I did it, though. I feel physically better and I realized that I don’t need to depend on my body for cultural validation.”
According to a study from the International Journal of Eating Disorders, a peer-reviewed journal that covers research in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and nutrition & dietetics, Latinas like Garcia are statistically more likely to have binge eating disorders than their male counterparts or non-Hispanic women.
Research into disordered eating among Latinas is sparse, however.
The journal wrote that studies have “primarily focused on young, white female populations from relatively affluent backgrounds.” Little is known about the “prevalence of eating disorders in ethnic minority groups, particularly Latinos,” researchers wrote. In population-based surveys conducted among adolescents, Latinas were found to have the highest reported use of “dieting and using laxatives or diuretics and unhealthy weight control behaviors.”
Latinas also face greater difficulties, experts said, whether they be cultural, familial, or socioeconomic, when trying to receive treatment for eating disorders.
Garcia said she never received treatment for her disordered eating — much of her family still does not know about her struggles. Stories like these are why Isabel Vasquez, a dietician and body positivity social media influencer, has made it her mission to promote Latino inclusivity in the world of nutrition.
Vasquez is the lead registered dietician with Your Latina Nutrition, a small business with a commitment to improving and empowering Latinas’ relationships with their physical, emotional and mental health. Having grown up with an eating disorder, Vasquez uses her personal experience to inform her work and philosophy. She aims to shed light on the hypocrisy behind dominant Latina body standards and the hopelessness that comes from trying to achieve them.
“Each decade there is a new food group that’s demonized or a new body type that’s glorified,” said Vasquez “It’s impossible to keep up and it’s impossible for most people to obtain any beauty ideal, let alone people that don’t even just have the same color skin as what’s glorified or the same texture of hair or don’t eat the same types of foods that are [said to be] healthiest.”
Vasquez said that recognizing just how irrational these standards can be is the first step towards breaking them down.
Vasquez and Martinez hope that by putting these messages out to their online communities, they will begin to erode the dominant message of what is healthy and beautiful.
“We need to be more open-minded and inclusive and understanding that you can’t judge somebody’s value — nor can you even judge their health status — just based on looking at them,” Vasquez said.
Fabianna Rincon is a junior attending the School of Communications at American University. She reports in English and Spanish and aspires to focus on political journalism. Reach her at fabiannarincono [at] gmail [dot] com or on Instagram at @fabianna.rincon.