There are few Orange Is the New Black fans who haven't fallen in love with Dayanara Diaz. Her character's naiveté and charming innocence — not to mention the fact that she's in love, pregnant, and incarcerated — make her easy to root for. And as it turns out, in real life, the woman who plays Dayanara, actress Dascha Polanco, is no less appealing: She's stunning, she's proud of her Latina roots, she embraces her fuller-figure, and she's humble.
"People have said that was the hottest scene of the show," Polanco says. "And I just think, 'You didn't notice my thighs?!' But you only know your faults yourself."
As both a plus-size woman and a Latina, I have had a strong affinity for Polanco since Orange Is the New Black first aired. She was someone I could relate to not only physically, but culturally — a first for me when it came to television. It's difficult to imagine that Polanco herself has struggled with body image (I mean, just look at her!), but she's no stranger to the feelings I, myself, have been working with my whole life.
"You look at novelas [Spanish soap operas] and things like that," Polanco tells Bustle. "The women are so small! Full head of hair. Fair-skinned. You get trained to think that way. My insecurity growing up [only] limited me in moving forward."
Polanco says that being fuller-figured was actually what prevented her from pursuing acting long ago (opting instead for a Bachelor's degree in psychology and later working as a hospital administrator). It wasn't until her fiancé (who she prefers not to reveal the name of) enrolled her in acting classes that Polanco began shedding her insecurities and embracing her talent — and her body.
Her big break, of course, came when Polanco's agent set her up with an audition for Orange Is the New Black. She didn't know anything about the show, other than the fact it would be a Netflix original. She just knew it was an opportunity.
"It was a cold reading! You just get your script and go," she says. "I had been auditioning for many things, and I went in with the mentality of 'I'm going to do the best I can.'"
When she got the part, Polanco was thrilled — but the fear that viewers might respond negatively to her looks was still there, of course. But those fears abated the moment Orange Is the New Black aired, when she began receiving notes of love and encouragement.
"I read messages from little girls telling me they think I'm beautiful," she says. "And that validation — receiving love — means more than anything. As imperfect as you are, you're still perfect."
Still, when Polanco was asked to show her body on-screen during a sex scene (what she describes as her most nerve-wracking scene to date), she was petrified. Putting yourself out there to a public and media that take any opportunity to criticize or taunt can be disconcerting for a man or woman of any size. But people's reactions to the scenes totally caught her off-guard.
"People have said that was the hottest scene of the show," Polanco says. "And I just think, 'You didn't notice my thighs?!' But you only know your faults yourself. Very few will notice your defects."
With the help of her supportive fans, Polanco says she's been learning to embrace her shape. "It's important for me to be able to accept myself and be proud of my shape and my thighs — and to be able to say I like to eat hamburgers," she says. "I firmly believe that the beauty of life is being able to have variety and being able to have control."
It is this same idea of embracing the person you are — "defects" included — that led Polanco to join the Orgullosa Campaign, started by Linda Nieves Powell with the intention of creating an initiative that celebrates "the cultural pride and undeniable bond that Latinas share by inspiring women from across the globe to reveal what it means to be a Nueva Latina."
"We are told to embrace our culture and our origin whilst being influenced by America and being Americanized," Polanco says. "Culturally, we end up with a fusion of both. But being a 'Nueva Latina' is being able to be proud of that. Being able to say 'I am a Mexican-American and I love tacos and pan de bonos and pancakes and burgers!'"
Still, there is a kind of brutal, cold honesty prevalent in the Latina culture when it comes to weight — especially between mothers and daughters. I, for one, remember watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black and almost breaking into tears during a scene that really resonated with me between Daya and her mother, Aleida. When Daya arrives at Litchfield and asks her mom to borrow a khaki jumpsuit because the orange one is basically hideous, Aleida (in catty and snarky fashion) says, "Not one that would fit you."
Polanco is no stranger to that kind of snark as well — and she aims to combat it.
"There's a contradiction to it, because you'll be told 'tu eres gorda' [you are fat] and that you have to lose weight — but then [you're] fed a plate of rice and beans. You're never good enough," Polanco says. "But everything is evolving and changing. This is where the 'Nueva Latina' comes in. It's a cycle we're breaking now."
Image: K.C. Bailey for Netflix