Being an underemployed 25-year-old woman, my pop-culture savvy relatives think it’s beyond hysterical to compare me to Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character on Girls. I’ve never seen the show—which has been slammed for its all-white, all-upper-middle-class cast and story lines—but it seems like a half-assed comparison. But I guess we’re both irritable, potty-mouthed writers?
So when a recent Girls episode became the latest office gossip—the show’s third season wrapped last week—I couldn’t help but tune in. I learned Dunham’s character Hannah had spent an entire hour flouncing around in an itty-bitty green bikini (though I didn’t learn anything about the latest issue of our mag, i.e. the purpose of our meeting). Spicy scenes in any other TV show in these sexy-obsessed United States would NOT be news. So why the uproar? A colleague offered up her perspective on the controversy: To her, Girls is nails-to-chalkboard irritating, but hey, Dunham’s Bikini Gate is doing a lot for “fat acceptance.”
I stumbled confused back to my desk and Googled: “Lena Dunham pant size.” She fluctuates between a size 8 and 10. I get that we’re supposed to be reclaiming the word “fat,” but can we define our terms here? If sixes are thin—not everyone can be a size 6, dear! —isn’t there a middle ground? Or do we just pretend Dunham is heftier than she is because of how her body compares to the Anglo, skinny status quo so many celebrity women adhere to?
(Not saying all white people prefer their women extra-thin, but I don’t think any of y’all would argue that it’s not how the “white beauty ideal” is presented in the media.)
To be fair, I have a feeling that my über-sensitive, feminist woman coworker meant to say that Hannah’s constant nudity/skimpy attire is doing a lot for “body acceptance,” still based off the problematic assumption that bodies like Dunham’s need to be accepted, because they’re so totally weird. But she didn’t. Which makes the implications of her words all the more damaging: Dunham can’t possibly be both chubby and sexy, because those two adjectives are mutually exclusive. (For her part, Dunham has gone said in interviews that both fans and critics of the show have complained that some of Hannah’s love interests on the show are way too hot for her and would definitely never bang her IRL.)
Which was like an “amen, thank you virgencita santísima for making me a Latina” moment for me. That sounds a bit ridiculous. But let me explain.
Now, Latinas have just as many body-image issues as our Anglo, Black, Asian, Native, etc., counterparts. On top of that, our dominant culture—both in the States and in América at large—has some serious hang-ups that openly prioritize whiteness and European features as more attractive. Who among us hasn’t sat down with an abuela or tía to watch a Mexican novela with an all-light skinned, all-blonde cast? Both Brazil and Colombia are among the 10 nations with the highest rates of plastic surgery. The Southern Cone made headlines in the late 90s with an eating disorder epidemic as hosts of young women struggled to achieve the US/European super-model body. Women of color—Latins and Filipinas among them—in California were diagnosed with mercury poisoning in 2012 after using tainted skin-lightening cream.
So Latinas are clearly not exempt from the global rush to look like a Barbie.
But we’re supposed to be sex kittens, regardless of our shapes, a problematic gender role in itself. Still, there’s no denying that hourglass shapes, obscenely big booties and some fluff around the panza are all acceptable—even desirable—permutations of a woman’s beauty for Latinas and in Latin America. (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve walked the streets of Mexico City or Lima and been shocked to see a conventionally handsome man walking arm-in-arm with a beautiful, shapelier woman—and I’m no size 6.) We’ve internalized all sorts of colonial, Westernized doubts about our mestizo beauty, the idea that women—and especially women of color, overly sexualized and exoticized by the mainstream—have to take up as little space as possible.
But at the end of the day, Latinas and women of color of all body types are holding it down and embracing (or at least trying to embrace) our magnificence at any size or shape. Which should be a source of pride, as well as a reason to give a shout-out to women-of-color feminism for kicking ass. (Not to say white women can’t do the same—it’s just especially encouraging for women of color. We love you, Gloria!)
Much like the beautiful Dunham, hippy Jenni Rivera or drop-dead-gorgeous Mindy Kaling, and the always fabulous Celia Cruz, being a “non-ideal” body type doesn’t (and should never) tend to stop Latinas from feeling—and dressing—sexy.
And it certainly doesn’t stop us from nabbing hot girlfriends and boyfriends. Why should it?