Battling Body Image in Latin America

Battling Body Image in Latin America

It all began in a discount swimwear shop in Chapinero, Bogotá. Surrounded by rack upon rack of sequined bikinis in every shade imaginable (and for the price of smashed avo at home), I was too distracted to browse and buy. Instead, I was completely mesmerised by the mannequins.

Walking into a clothes store in Australia, you’re met by a crowd of towering, androgynous bodies. Their plastic collarbones jut out sharply above two white curves insinuating breasts, spindly necks barely holding up the faceless head. They’re all identical – even their long, frail fingers are frozen in the exact same position.

But los maniquies in that swimwear shop were moulded differently. They were of average height, probably considered short by some countries’ standards, and their breasts were swelling and spilling out of the bikinis. They had butts you’d definitely classify as bootylicious, wide thighs and the kind of hips that probably don’t lie.

Regardless of age or gender, swimwear shopping can be a painful process. Standing beneath bright, artificial lights in what essentially is Lycra underwear doesn’t do wonders for your self-esteem, and I can attest to the fact that the humiliation is worse under the glare of six-foot, supermodel-esque mannequins. But in the swimwear store in Bogota, marvelling at the mannequins, each slightly different to the next, I suddenly felt compelled to buy a halter-neck, leopard print swimsuit and rock it with pride.

Body image is a desperately complicated subject. Being of the age, gender and disposition that I am (early twenties, female and self-conscious with an incessant internal dialogue), I grapple with my own body image issues on a daily basis. Hang out with my friends for a while and you’re sure to hear someone complain about their excess stomach/thigh/arm/calf/ear fat and lament the fact they’d been eating healthy all week and then gorged on a halal snack pack at 2am on Saturday. A quick scroll through Instagram, and you’re greeted by pouting girls clutching packets of skinny tea that promise to turn you into a hotter, slimmer, more ’grammable version of yourself. In Australia, we’re told thinness is what we as women should crave, that you can gain an element of femininity by literally losing part of yourself. And so develops an obsession with healthy eating, “cutting down” and juice cleanses that cost as much as a flight to Melbourne.

In Colombia, the mannequins, the multitude of telenovelas on TV screens and the popularity of beauty pageants constantly underscore the desirability of breasts, butts and hips as indicators of femininity and beauty. On top of that, because the western media is so prevalent, the ideal body becomes a troubling mix of Latina voluptuousness and western thin-waistedness. Essentially, a body type that is fucking impossible to achieve.

These factors could potentially point to the high, and increasing, rates of plastic surgery in the country. Medellín, as well as being home to Pablo Escobar and a bunch of westerners searching out cocaine, is often referred to as the plastic surgery capital of the world. Stats suggest a plastic surgery procedure is carried out every five minutes.

Studies that look at the ideal body and beauty standards in Colombia emphasise the relationship between its sordid history and the complexities of the female body. It’s a country still marred by violence and political unrest. While peace is now on the horizon, Colombia went through 50 years of La Violencia (literally the violence), a bloody civil war that left millions displaced and a yawning gap between the rich and the poor. After Honduras, Colombia is the second most unequal country in Latin America, evident in Bogotá where one minute you’re strolling past black taxis and Ralph Lauren storefronts and the next you’re in the slums. As a result certain body images become imaginary vehicles for social ascension. For women who live in lower socioeconomic areas, finding a rich partner is far more likely to guarantee them security. In other words, for Colombia’s poorest, looking good might be their get-out-of-jail-free card from a life of crime and poverty.

In the early 2000s, there was a telenovela in Colombia called Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso, which literally translates to “Without tits, there is no paradise”. Still popular today (production for a sequel is underway), it followed the story of Catalina, a 17-year old girl who starts working as an escort for a powerful local drug lord. Much of the storyline focuses on how she needs to get herself some money in order to get herself bigger boobs so she can make a better life for herself.

In the opening credits of the show, you see a dismembered Barbie-like doll being repaired, and improved, at the hands of a guy. She has the same body proportions as the original Barbie doll, but the dude “fixing” her selects the largest breasts possible as he puts her back together. To get all first-year uni student on it, the Barbie doll is profoundly western, but the addition of the disproportionate breasts hints at the pressures placed on Colombian women, forced to conform to western body ideals while also expected to exhibit their Latina-ness through their voluptuousness.

At first, there was something refreshing about being in the nondescript swimwear shop, because the mannequins somehow confirmed that my body shape, me in my current form (i.e. a daily consumer of white chocolate Oreos), was acceptable. But despite my initial excitement and my declaration that from now on I would eat what I pleased, shake my hips like a true Latina and embrace each and every one of my stomach rolls, I realised there was still a rigid idea of how a woman should look.

 The whole notion of an “ideal body” paints beauty as something that is not inherent within one’s self, but something that can be attained if we adhere to particular norms of femininity. It’s a goal to strive toward. The unattainability of the ideal westernised body means that those who achieve it suddenly seem superior, belonging to some separate illustrious group, free of the traits (overindulgence, indiscipline and laziness) that we instinctively assume the overweight possess. In some ways, back in Bogotá, those mannequins were confirming the stereotypes I had about Latina bodies, and at the time I found myself subconsciously inscribing Colombian women with certain qualities – believing that Latin women all looked like Sofia Vergaras and Shakiras. Now I get that whether thin, curvy, short or tall, few women are immune to the pressure of looking in the mirror and seeing only their flaws.

Despite the fact I felt more comfortable with my body in Bogotá than I do on the beaches of Sydney, being there failed to rid me of my own insecurities. I still pose for photos with my arm at an awkward angle so it looks thinner and drink vodka sodas when I’d rather be chugging on piña coladas. Whether they’re on the cobbled streets of Paris, in the colourful markets of Morocco or laid out on the beach in Rio, beauty standards are still fucking women over.

Cover by Rory O’Bryen