Gordita Si, Fea No – On Being a Plus Size Afro-Latina – Marlena M. Matute

While I identify as Afro-Latina today, my parents never really bothered to explain the race component of our background.  I find that to be interesting, considering they are both of African descent, thanks in part to the Afro-Antillean migration in Panama for the construction of the Canal, and my mother is of the Ngäbe-Buglé (Guaymi) tribe. Much like most Latinos do, they simply identified themselves with their nationality, so we were Panamanian and that was it.  However, there was one thing that was made very clear to me at a young age – because I was born a girl, it meant that my body would always be policed. 

It’s not a secret that standards of beauty play a major role in our society.  However, I’d argue that this system is a bit more dysfunctional within the Latinx community (both here and abroad) as it is explicitly racist and heteronormative, probably even more so than most Western societies. I say this because not only is fairer skin, straighter hair and slender bodies held up in higher regard, but so is the performance of gender and the concept of “mejorando la raza”/”bettering the race.” 

The idea being that: your worth is entirely attached to how beautiful and feminine you are as this is what will ultimately attract a spouse. This is something that is instilled in girls, making sure that they dress according to their gender, that they don’t stay too long in the sun otherwise their skin gets dark, and being taught how to take care of men, from cooking, cleaning and even raising children as they are often times made to take care of their younger siblings. Mainstream media, both by Americans and Latinos, has not helped with this image of what a Latina is or rather should be. 

As a child I attended a school that was predominantly Latino, however, most were Mexican, Colombian, Dominican and Ecuadorian. They all had straight hair, some were even blonde, and were of fairer skin so I stood out because of my darker skin, my thick curly hair and my size. I was bullied and constantly told that there was no way I could be Latino like them. And because I had no evidence to show otherwise, I believed them. 

I desperately sought for my existence to be validated because the things people would say made me believe that I shouldn’t even exist. As if I was some kind of abomination just because I didn’t fit into the perceptions of what many consider to be ”Latinidad.” At my worst I hated my body, my curls, my skin color, and even my name. I never felt beautiful save for those rare moments when my curly hair would be complimented. It would be such a rush that I became incredibly obsessed with making sure that my hair was perfectly coiffed at ALL times. Yet even that rush would be short-lived as my family and even people from my predominately West Indian-populated church would often try to push me to relax it as that would make it “beautiful.” My mother, thankfully, styled my hair in its natural state, mostly in braids and in two-strand twists.  I like to think this was her attempt to instill some kind of self-love in me, in spite of everything else I was going through at the time. Keep in mind that this was before the natural hair movement of the mid to late 2000s, so there were always women around me who had issues with me rocking my natural curls.

Other than my hair, the only thing that I wasn’t ashamed of were my one-of-a-kind handmade clothes made by my mother.  My female classmates would often eye them with envy as they weren’t pieces that they could go and buy for themselves. Things changed, once my mother left my father after 10 years of domestic abuse. Suddenly I had to buy everything I wore from stores, and for a poor girl who was bigger than most of her peers, this made things difficult. Without my father’s financial support we ended up living on a basis of needs, but never wants.  Not only did I lack the necessary income to dress like my peers but I was fat so I couldn’t fit the clothes. By that point my body really became “a problem” that needed to be hidden until it was “fixed.” I was “gifted” memberships to Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers for my birthday from my aunts from the age of nine and onward. At one point one of them even suggested to my mother that she pack SlimFast shakes for my lunch. Thankfully she never did, but the damage to my body image and self esteem was done. I started to wear oversized hoodies and long sleeves straight through spring and summer, in order to hide “problem areas” like my arms, which were always particularly offensive to my mother. 

The biggest blow came from my second cousin on my mother’s side who, on more than one occasion and in front of the entire family, declared that it is lucky that I took my education so seriously because “no man would ever marry me” because I’m too “fat”, and therefore, ugly. No one stood up for me. I was 17. 

From middle school well into my first year in college back in 2008, I wore mostly dark men’s clothes. (I figured that doing this would help me become invisible because that was really what I wanted.) The exceptions were the clothes I wore for church; those had to be more feminine to keep in line with the very conservative ideals of my family’s christian denomination. Needless to say, I didn’t get my first pair of “women’s jeans” until I was about 17 and even then, I would only wear bootcut jeans because for some reason I believed the flare on the bottom would make me look smaller. I have no idea where this logic came from, but thanks to two college friends I tried on my first pair of skinny jeans at 21 and never looked back since. This was also about the time I stumbled upon plus size fashion and body positive blogs, starting with The Big Girl Blog by Cece Olisa, which has since changed its name over the years. 

Reading through these blogs inspired me to give myself permission to take some chances with fashion. I slowly started to stop hiding my body or caring about the size of the clothing tags, and more about how things fit. I started to experiment, first going for a more of a preppy style complete with pastel flowy tops, cardigans, scarves, blazers and oxfords in order to get into spaces that usually have gatekeepers, specifically those associated with the predominantly White career-field I had hoped to enter. I also began to blow out my hair so that it would hang in straight and more “controlled” strands instead of its naturally coily state. I was still desperate to belong and in the process, I found myself pushing away my identity, if only because it was too complex for my peers to understand. I was the only WOC in my incoming class at grad school, much like how it was for me in all of my major classes in college.  Yet the fact is I’m still Black and Latina, no matter what I study and wear so any sense of belonging that I felt was very superficial.  

In time I stopped seeking validation from my family and those immediately around me, from the men and women I gave power to by letting their words and microaggressions take me down. Everything kind of came to a head when I was 25 and decided to cut off over 10 inches of my hair – the only physical trait that I’ve ever received compliments for. I’ll spare all the dirty details but my mother was not happy with this change. 

My style now is more eclectic than before as I tend to “stylistically code-switch”, depending on the occasion, where I’m going, and who I’m with – though scrolling through my IG, it is apparent that I do favor alternative style the most. However, the important thing is that I dress solely for myself. I also wear my culture with pride instead of apology for being different, incorporating things like my Kuna mola headbands and shirts as well as my Guaymi chaquiras (handmade beaded collars)  to everyday outfits. I’ve also sought to honor my African ancestry by incorporating African print pieces to my wardrobe. 

And in the process I started blogging myself, creating content that counters the authority of beauty and fashion. My blog has also been therapeutic as it has helped me unravel my toxic self-hate.  After being constantly told that due to the texture of my hair, the color of my skin, my body type, my size, my non-traditional performance of femininity, and my income level all meant I shouldn’t expect love, respect or even nice clothes. I showcase my personal style to inspire others on a similar body love journey as well as to provide Afro-Latina representation within the plus size fashion space – where there isn’t much of it. I hope that in doing so this helps to change the mainstream perception of what it is to be Latina as Afro-Indigienous Latinas like me exist.

This journey to self acceptance and body love hasn’t been easy and to be completely honest, even after getting to this point, I’m very much still a work-in-progress. The hardest thing has been ignoring the negative comments from family that I still receive after all these years. Words have power, especially when they come from the people who are supposed to uplift you. The good thing is that those words can be weakened if not completely silenced with the right circle of support. Surrounding yourself with people who celebrate you instead of criticizing is such a game changer. I found my circle by starting my blog and meeting people within this same space. Thanks to my circle, I have a more positive response to the negativity. For example whenever I’m feeling a particular way about my body, I rock a crop top – something people like to say plus size women shouldn’t wear. When I’m told that the shorts I’m wearing aren’t a good choice because they show off “too much of my fat legs”, I put on my shortest pair. I’ve learned that no matter what people are going to look, judge and talk, so you might as well make it worth their while. 

I always joke that my family and society isn’t ready for me to dress the way I really want, but with every outfit I put together I am getting closer and I’m happy about that. I’m also glad that part of this journey got me to create a platform that (I hope) continues to challenge the narrative of ethnicity, race and class through fashion. 

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