At my large, Mexican American family’s reunions, judgmental comments about my body shape were always present. One of these moments occurred when I was 14 years old at my cousin’s birthday party. We had just finished singing happy birthday, and I had served myself a plate of cake and ice cream with Jell-O. As I was sitting down to partake in the celebration, my aunts came up behind me to exclaim that my body was too “gordita” — “fat” — to be indulging in a large plate of dessert.
I was so mortified by their comments that I immediately stood up to throw away my plate. I didn’t understand how the food that brought me so much joy and signified the importance my culture could be something shameful. This moment was the beginning of my discomfort associated with indulging in food.
My negative view of food was solidified by growing up constantly listening to my aunts hate their curvy bodies. After church on Sundays, my family would always gather around the family’s heirloom, our wooden table. These moments united us a family and brought us together. One Sunday when I was 15, I remember sitting around the table enjoying myself and laughing with my family. Then, my aunt came up to slap my leg, exclaiming that I had “piernas de puerco” — “thighs the size of a pig.” And then for the next hour, my family picked apart one another’s bodies.
As I grew older, the special table became a place of regulating our bodies. In Spanish, my aunts would recommend extreme diets, with the hopes that one day they would feel beautiful. One day my aunts told me, “Drink a freshly squeezed grapefruit before every meal — you’ll slim down faster!”
Another aunt joined in to say, “Grapefruit with apple cider vinegar to slim your belly down!”
And they would always say, “Espinacas con limón en cada comida” — “Spinach with lemon in every meal.”
As they all sat there at the table, jotting down their dietary creations, I wondered if one day I would be sitting in their spots criticizing and trying new diets with my own cousins. All I knew was the negative body image they had shown me, and I was willing to do anything to fit their standards of beauty.
In the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I began to work out and cut my eating portions to have a slender, “ideal” body. After a night’s workout, I looked into my closet mirror hoping to see some change, but the image reflected back at me was the same curved reflection that my aunts were criticizing as they sat at the table. I became frustrated with not seeing overnight results from just a week’s worth of exercise — I wanted to feel beautiful immediately, not in five months.
At my next family gathering, I told my aunts about my desire to work out and diet even more. My aunts exclaimed that I should try the “apple diet” — they told me I was only allowed to “eat small pieces of apples for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” One of them scolded that I was not “supposed to eat any other source of protein or carbs” in order to lose the most weight.
The next time my family went to a buffet for a Sunday dinner, I started my apple diet. In the middle of that loud and crowded restaurant, people were serving different foods on trays. But I pushed plates served with steaks and mashed potatoes away, thinking that if I cut those meals altogether, I would become slim and happy.
I continued this diet and blamed my favorite childhood foods as the causes of my imperfections.
After a week of this diet, I became ill. I barely had any energy and was constantly on the verge of passing out. I was hospitalized the moment I began getting massive headaches. As I lay on a hospital bed and IV fluids flowed through my veins, my doctor asked, “How much have you eaten today?”
I hesitantly told the doctor, “An apple.”
I was embarrassed to admit how badly I had starved my body of nutrition. Out of concern for my health, the doctor referred me to a nutritionist to ensure I was taking care of my body.
My health scare made me realize my habits of starvation were a very serious eating disorder. At my family’s next buffet outing, I decided to let myself eat the foods I wanted. I ate small amounts of chicken with Alfredo pasta and had a plate of ice cream for dessert. I reflected upon not pushing away another plate of food, enjoying my favorite foods in moderation and finding that my beauty is within me — that was my discovery.
Afterward, I started to eat with moderation and began to work out. Even the first time I went to the gym, I looked in the mirror and saw a different person — a person who didn’t need to fit a specific body type to feel beautiful. The answer all along was to accept my body shape and find the confidence to embrace my curves.
Now, at our family reunions, I am able to serve myself a plate of dessert in moderation without self-guilt to prevent me from enjoying my food.
I hope that next time my aunts sit around that same wood table, it will be to compliment one another’s inner beauty — never again to criticize their bodies and physical appearances. I can now say with confidence that I am defined by the love I have for my family, the influence and power of my culture and the confidence of my inner beauty — not my body size.
Shirley Ojeda writes the Thursday column on body positivity. Contact her at [email protected].