I was only 9 years old when I watched a beauty pageant for the first time.
My dad and I were sitting in our living room, watching the 2003 Miss Universe pageant on television. I was in awe seeing so many women dressed to represent their country. I felt intimidated by their beauty and grace. I couldn’t help but compare myself to the models. They all looked the same — slender, tall and elegant. I doubted whether I was equally as beautiful as these models.
From the kitchen, my mom yelled out, “Let me know when Miss Mexico comes out! I want to see if her beauty is enough to represent the Mexican woman!”
And I wondered if I would ever be as beautiful.
As the show continued, my feelings of insecurity grew. I wanted to be beautiful like the girls on the screen. I wanted reassurance from my mom that I was beautiful enough to represent Mexico, too. I got up from the couch and ran toward my mom, asking her, “Mom, am I pretty enough to represent the Mexican culture?”
She answered, “Tu siempre seras mi gorda hermosa” — “you will always be my curved beauty.”
Her answer made me feel uncomfortable. I felt betrayed that my own mother would judge and categorize my body. I wanted her to say that I was just like the models on the television, but I didn’t look like them, and they didn’t look like me. I hoped my mom could solve my insecurity, yet she only furthered my insecurities by labeling me as a “gordita” — “curvy girl.”
When Miss Mexico finally came out, her majestic image was full of beauty. My parents were filled with joy watching a Mexican woman fight for a chance to be crowned Miss Universe. I wanted to bring my parents the same happiness and excitement. I wanted to emulate her elegance but knew I didn’t look like her.
At 11, I began to severely judge my body by society’s standards of beauty. Girls around me were slender and wore skinny jeans — I wanted to be beautiful like them. So, I went into Hot Topic and picked out a pair of skinny jeans that had been labeled “plus size 18” on the tag. I felt uncomfortable being labeled as plus size. This explicit judgment of my body size haunted me as I entered the fitting room to try on the jeans.
As I struggled to fit into the jeans, I realized my body didn’t fit into the jeans the way I had imagined — my curvy rolls looked tightly out of place. My body did not fit the slim beauty standard I saw everywhere. I felt like a loser who was never going to be able to wear anything that would make me look beautiful.
I felt dehumanized when I compared my tummy rolls to the bodies of slimmer girls. The slender clothes that looked good on them looked awkward on me. This became more noticeable as I hit puberty and was teased for my bigger boobs and thicker thighs. I felt incapable of ever being considered a beautiful girl.
At 13, I started being bullied for my body. I went to a middle school that required women to wear short skirts and men to wear pants. Whenever I would put on my uniform, girls would tease me for my body. They ridiculed my curvy body and thick thighs. I felt ugly because my body wasn’t perceived in the same way as theirs.
I was so ashamed of my body that I felt like I had to hide it. I felt limited to only wearing black outfits and long pants to cover my curves. As a result, I would get punished for breaking my school’s uniform code — but I just didn’t want to be ridiculed for my body. This continued throughout high school, and my uniform became black outfits to hide my body rolls.
At 17, my perception of my body started to change. In my first semester of college, my English professor gave a lecture about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. As I analyzed the quote, I realized how toxic my view of my curvy body was. I realized that I needed to learn to love my body. And that the only person who could do that was me.
As I stopped comparing my body to others, I discovered the power of self-love. I refused to accept that beauty was tied to body size. I learned to accept that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. My beauty was my self-confidence, not my body shape. I finally had understood what my mom meant by “my curved beauty” — it was just another great quality to embrace.
At 20, I became a plus-size model. I felt so empowered to say that I was a model with a curvy physique. I became a model only to display my confidence in the hopes that I could transmit my body-positivity perspective to other girls who still couldn’t see that beauty is within them, not within their body type.
At 23, I have learned to love and accept my body. Unlearning society’s obsession with tying beauty to body shapes has been a journey. I can now confidently say that I represent the beauty of Mexican American women.
I no longer feel stigmatized for my body shape. I am proud to be a “curved beauty.”
Shirley Ojeda writes the Thursday column on body positivity. Contact her at [email protected].