Annotations on body positivity, part 1

Whenever someone mentions body image, I’m always shoved into two places — how childhood impacted my sense of self, and developing a sense of who I was during the birth and growth of social media, whether it be MySpace in 2003, Tumblr in 2007, or Instagram in 2010.

Needless to say, this will be broken into several parts, and will be quite personal because we can never talk about our experiences with body image enough. I’m under the impression that most femmes’ experiences are full of antiquated gender roles and body shaming from loved ones, and we have a lot of collective healing to do.

Trigger warning: talks of ED.

Gordita. Buchua. Nalgona. Pelua.

How many of us have internalized body image issues? That’s absolutely a rhetorical question.

As someone with parents who migrated to the United States, I spent holidays “back home” in the Dominican Republic with family. Childcare during the summer and winter breaks were too expensive for a stay-at-home mom and a dad who went to school full-time and drove a taxi/was a mechanic/tutored his classmates for money, sending us away for months was the only option.

Farhu and I, 1993

If you’re of Dominican descent, you might be able to relate to this routine, or something similar to it:

  1. grab water from la cisterna and fill your American-recycle-receptacle-turned-water-container to the brim for everyone else to use that day — this usually takes a few trips, and you have to be very careful — if you fell into that black nothingness, there was no way upl you were likely going to drown after having a panic attack. One hundred percent safe.
  2. If you were a gringa (fellow first gens with immigrant parents can relate to that word) and couldn’t handle the bone-chilling cold water, boil a pot of water and mix the two together.
  3. After you’ve reached your desired temperature, (gingerly) pour water over yourself. If you decided to skip boiling hot water, take a minute or two to shout during initial contact.
  4. Use jabon de cuaba to lather yourself up, and repeat the process until you feel clean. But watch out for water bugs, flying roaches and cienpies, or you’re gonna have a bad time.
  5. Okay, towel dry! Apply lotion, pat yourself with baby powder, fix your hair (either put it back up in rollos or flat iron it, especially if your hairstylists/relatives/the entire beauty industry in D.R. tells you tienes pelo malo), put your sunscreen on, douse yourself in a body mist, then your choice of perfume, get dressed, and put on the face of the day.

Total time spent? Approximately 2 hours. It’s fine though, cause your 4 cousins, two aunts, and uncle need to do the same anyway, and you don’t want to sit around en la marquesina or en el balcon waiting on everyone else now, do you?

No, no one is ever early to anything, and when you get to the function or family gathering, everyone is always glaring at one another from head to toe, searching for one thing to nitpick, come up with one backhanded compliment and pass it off as a joke. This was the ponte decente pa’ la gente routine we got conned into every summer and winter break.

As a caribbean person, self-image, especially when it was tied to body size, was an exhausting thing to maintain. You were either too skinny or getting fat, not eating enough and being forced to partake in the slice of cheese, two crackers, black coffee at 8 a.m. (this stunted my growth, I’m convinced), a full blown breakfast at 10 a.m. (sometimes pancakes or pan de agua with eggs and gouda cheese), pica pollo for lunch at noon (shout outs to Pollos Victorina), an afternoon snack at 2 p.m. (I always begged for Helados Bon), dinner at 5 p.m. (a type of meat, with rice, red beans, greens and tostones), and cena at 7 p.m. (rice, ketchup, fried cheese, and a fried egg). If you were eating too much, at every single point during the day someone would fix their face to remind you that you needed to watch your figure.

I was overweight until I was 14, when puberty really had its way with me. There was this sick sense of pride tied to the sudden weight loss, too — while all of my cousins, aunts, and my mother, struggled with squeezing into pants, I strutted my stuff in a size 5, then a size 3, then a double 0.

It took so much for me to hit that last size, too.

As a freshman in high school, I barely ate. Two chocolate milk cartons and a peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat was what the lunch ladies knew to save for me.The bones in my neck, ribs, pelvis and back popped out, so I kept my hair long and pin straight to cover it. I felt big staring into mirrors, despite being under five feet and 90 pounds. I’d obsess over the way I looked, hide my face behind a curtain of hair, pinch the less-than-ideal parts of me, felt hurt because I didn’t feel comfortable in my body, and took pride in my wasting away. You rarely caught me in a photograph; I shredded the ones where my face looked too big, or thighs happened to touch in that moment.

I lived the entirety of my teenage years looking in a fun house mirror.

Classmates and I (middle) during prom, 2007

My family used to all sit down and eat together as a way to catch up with one another. I would wait for my parents to leave the kitchen before I threw my food away at the lowest part of the trash can and covered it with paper towels. No one ever saw the evidence. And, well, no one actually cared, because I looked good, even if I was harboring an eating disorder, as my therapist and high school guidance counselors suggested.

It didn’t matter to me either. I was met with envy, praise, doted as the “ideal size.” It was the only thing I could say I had — I wasn’t as smart as my younger brother and was compared to him all of the time (this affected him, too). Shyness was second nature to me.

But, I was finally skinny! No one could call me nalgona or gordita anymore. People started to notice me. Those days of having my cheeks or chichos pinched aggressively were over.

Now a month before my 28th birthday, I’m caught thinking of all those days I spent swimming in a pair of size 26 Levis or my size 24 wool uniform pants and am overcome with so much sadness for that girl.

I’m back to being overweight, and damn near obese if the BMI was an accurate and valid measurement of health. But, I am neck deep a period of personal transformation where I try, at least once a day, to be kind to myself, even if I don’t genuinely feel it. Being around other femmes with similar body image issues — of all sizes, shapes, and medical conditions — and seeing them on their way towards being comfortable within themselves has been extremely helpful. That sense of support, the constant uplifting, hearing their stories, their traumas, and being part of their personal journeys; because of them, I know it’s coming — completely trusting, honoring and loving myself. And quite frankly, I can’t wait to be submerged in self-love.

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