I have always seen being bi-racial as a blessing — Colombian on my mother’s side, American with eastern European roots on my father’s. It meant that from a young age, I was exposed to two completely different cultures and languages, two completely different ethos and two completely different ways of approaching life. And I never really struggled with which to identify with. Though I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the states, I always felt more connected with the Hispanic part of me. It could be because I grew up primarily with my mother and fully Colombian big brother, or perhaps because whenever I took that five-hour plane journey from JFK to Medellin, I was met with passion and energy and vitality. It always felt like home.
As with any culture, though, there exist the goods and the bads, and those depend on the individual and his/her unique personality. For me, I gravitated toward Colombia because I felt it somehow possessed more heart than anything or anyone I’d encountered in New Jersey. I loved it there. I loved how friendly and welcoming the people were. I loved the food. I loved the spice of the Spanish language. But that didn’t mean I was equally enamored with every aspect of the culture I perceived.
One of those aspects was the confusion I felt over societal perceptions of beauty. I had always believed America had a clean-cut image of what was beautiful and what wasn’t. Mainstream U.S. media always puts out that image of the woman who is slender, tall, somewhat boyish in frame. You grew up knowing skinny was “better.” And there were no gray areas, really. Certainly not in the eyes of a young girl.
But Colombia was, and still is, just perplexing. Colombians believe that the “perfect” woman has curves, and a lot of them. She definitely has big boobs and a big butt; she has a flat stomach; she has toned but meaty thighs. Take Sofia Vergara — one of the most beautiful and sexiest women in Hollywood, with the ultimate hourglass figure that every Colombian woman wants to possess. But, there existed a very fine line between good curves and bad curves — between voluptuous and fat.
The confusion, for me, has always stemmed from simply not being able to have the boobs and the ass without the belly. It can’t be denied that a big part of bone structure and physique come from genetics. I had the Colombian half, which meant I had curves. But I had the Americas/Eastern European side, which meant I had the big bones and the height. And the combination of the two made it so that if I was to maintain curves, I was to maintain them everywhere — in the parts deemed “good” and the parts deemed “bad.”
Saray Perez, a 20-year-old, size-seven communications student in Medellin, points out that although “fat” women aren’t rejected or discriminated against, they aren’t seen as appealing either. “Fat women are considered to be cutesy; they don’t really get any attention or have an easy time finding a partner,” she said. “Women who don’t have the generous bust and butt, the abs and the thick thighs aren’t seen as having a good physique.”
And as a teen, I quickly became the “cute” one of my social circle in Medellin. Whenever anyone would talk to me about aesthetics, I’d be told that I had a beautiful face, and that I would have all the right attributes of a woman if only I dropped the belly fat. Back when that sort of thing made me sad, I’d try and try to tone my abs, but found that in exercising, I’d lose some of my “good” generous bits, and then be told I looked like a boy. It was a lose/lose kind of situation.
Obviously just because a lot of people within a culture prefer something over the other, it doesn’t mean everyone does, nor does it mean that everyone can adapt to the preference in question. Johana Gonzalez, a size-20 Colombian woman who moved to Puerto Rico, reports "a huge stigma against anyone overweight, so when I was young and in school I felt obligated to lose weight. But that just wasn’t possible to do whilst maintaining an hourglass figure. It just doesn’t happen.”
Looking back on it, I still appreciate that curves are seen as a beautiful thing within the Colombian culture. So often they’re viewed as a negative in the states, and it’s refreshing to know that at least the other half of my culture is a little more open to voluptuousness. But that’s not to say I appreciate how confusing it is for a young girl to hear that she should be voluptuous because voluptuous is beautiful, but not too voluptuous because too voluptuous is ugly.
“A woman who is too voluptuous is often criticized, devalued or underestimated,” says Anna Maria Salgado, a 21-year-old, size-four student at the University of Medellin. “But the line between too voluptuous is so vague that I don’t know how anyone is supposed to know what to do.” Salgado spent a few years studying in London, and quickly found that other cultures were embracing the beauty in the big as she'd never seen before. “I became aware of the many outlets for promoting acceptance of every body type in other cultures, and it’s obvious that my culture still has a lot of work to do.”
I suppose it does have a lot of work to do, but so do most places. I would spend entire summers in Medellin, and throughout them I’d be critiqued for being too big — but what I found was that it wasn’t out of cruelty or malice, like it would often be in the states. I don’t know where the root of it came from, and sure, sometimes it made me feel like shit. But in the end, I still felt more accepted than in Jersey or New York, because I was curvy. Even if sometimes I was too curvy. And even if that was the most confusing thing I’d ever heard.