Weight and Body Image in Latin American Women’s Texts
By Renée S. Scott
When people learn that I research the representation of food and weight in Latin American women’s literature, they frequently ask me two questions.
The first question is how I became interested in such an untraditional topic. The answer goes back to the year 2000, when I was evaluating texts for an anthology on Uruguayan women’s literature (Escritoras uruguayas: una antología critica, 2002), I came across the short story “Inmensamente Eunice” (Immensely Eunice, 1999) by Andrea Blanqué. The story is about a fat, single woman. We read about Eunice’s challenging job search, because potential employers don’t like her size, and also about her satisfying romantic relationship with a blind man. One day her lover announces that he plans to seek a cure for his blindness. Afraid that once he recovers his sight, he will be horrified by her large body, Eunice embarks on various diets to lose weight. She is successful. At the conclusion of the story, the man does in fact recovers his sight, but in an ironic twist, rejects her new, thin body, and thus she loses the affection of the only man who ever truly paid attention to her. Blanqué’s text intrigued me, and I began to wonder whether there were other texts that dealt with contemporary society’s obsession with the slender body.
As Naomi Wolf proposes so eloquently in The Beauty Myth (1991), the relentless emphasis on women’s physical appearance can trap them in an endless cycle of insecurity, and self-hatred of their own bodies, regardless of all the professional and personal progress that has been achieved since the women’s liberation movement. Even though the use of food and women’s weight in Latin American fictional texts as a tool to criticize the cultural emphasis on thinness is a relative new occurrence, the topic of food being used to express gender concerns is certainly not new. As early as the 17th-century Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz uses food, and cooking, as an expressive device to convey the social, economic and intellectual oppression that patriarchal society imposes on women in her “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (Reply to Sor Philotea, 1691). More recently, since the 1980s, authors such as Mexican Laura Esquivel, in her famous 1989 novel Como agua para chocolate [Like Water for Chocolate], present the kitchen as a self-empowering site, where women develop alliances with each other and freely express their own subjectivity. Nevertheless, as I found out in my search, texts that specifically address food and weight emerge only in the 1990s. A younger generation of female authors has now turned its attention to the exclusion and marginalization of the heavier woman, criticizing in its texts current notions of beauty, and proposing a feminine identity on their own terms. Several writers explore bulimia as well, attesting to more recent social interest in eating disorders. Thus far, as I posit in What is Eating Latin American Writers? (2009), most of the fiction works on women’s weight and eating disorders in Latin America have been written in Argentina and Mexico, although a few come from Chile, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Uruguay. The fact that the majority are from Argentina and Mexico is not surprising, considering their large populations and their active feminist scenes (organizations, magazines, etc.). Also, in examining Mexico, we need to consider the influence of its neighbor, the United States, which has its own highly feminist sensibilities. Interestingly enough, the majority of these texts have yet to be translated into English, or even recognized outside the countries where they were published, for that matter.
The second question I am often asked is if there is even an issue with weight in Latin America. “Don’t Latin American men like their women meaty?” is the common refrain. This question is much more complicated to answer than the first. The term gordita (fatty) is indeed an endearment that men commonly use to address their wives, girlfriends and sisters, suggesting a more accepting attitude towards women’s body size. In her study of fatness in Caribbean culture and literature, “Así me gustas gordita” (I like you plump, 2005), Emily Branden points out that Latin American men indeed do appreciate a more voluptuous female body. However, the fat they love is concentrated in specific parts of the body, specifically large breasts, wide hips, and curved rears. And in the study on fatness acceptance, “Que gordita: A Study of Weight Among Women in a Puerto Rican Community,” Emily Massara finds that women think they have a weight-appropriate body if they retain a visible waistline and also associate weight with fertility and well-being; but Massara’s findings are only based on the responses of a group of Puerto Rican immigrants living in the Philadelphia area. It is clear, from reading Latin American magazines and watching television, that the beauty image consistently promoted in these outlets is that of a young, thin woman. The only exception seems to be the archetypal mother, grandmother or trusted maid in the soap operas, given acceptance as fat and lovable. It is worth noting that the 2011 seminar in Miami “Soy hermosa, libre de preocupaciones relacionadas con la comida y mi cuerpo” (I am pretty, free of worries related to food and my body) brought together experts from Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador and the United States to discuss weight issues and the sharp increase in eating disorders in their countries. Nine out of ten sufferers of bulimia and anorexia are women, and the Colombian expert commented that in the city of Medellin, for example, where many young girls aspire to be models, 17% of them suffer from some kind of eating disorder.
Women today face a cruel conundrum. On the one hand, they are still expected to be the principal providers of nourishment for their families; therefore, they must stay close to food. On the other hand, they are under constant pressure to manage their weight in order to be “presentable” and conform to the physical silhouette promulgated by the media and gender industries.
Generational differences appear in the ways various Latin American authors approach female size issues. Older writers (born in the 1940s and 1950s, before the social gains of the women’s liberation movement) tend to display a conflictive attitude towards appearance and weight, even as they overtly make a distinctive attempt to accept their bodies as they are. Younger authors (born in the 1960s and later), are more likely to reject social norms regarding women’s size. Consider the aforementioned Como agua para chocolate, a text that popularized food discourse in Latin America. Set on a ranch on the Mexican-U.S. border during the Mexican Revolution, the book—a combination of narrative and cooking recipes—tells the doomed love story of Tita de la Garza and Pedro Muzquiz, who cannot marry because according to a family tradition, Tita, as the youngest daughter, must remain single to take care of her aging mother. Pedro marries her older sister Rosaura to stay close to Tita, and she utilizes the book’s cooking recipes to prepare delicious and sensual dishes to retain Pedro’s love. Although the novel vindicates a woman’s role in the kitchen, the representation of its female characters reflects dominant cultural prejudices. Tita is revealed as a woman of strikingly youthful freshness and arresting proportions: “her breasts moved freely, since she never wore a brassiere, while her sister Rosaura is so fat and grotesque that Pedro would rather sleep in another bedroom than with her." Clearly, Esquivel’s objective is to accentuate poetic justice by contrasting the beautiful heroine who is forced to relinquish the man she loves with the anti-heroine who marries him. And yet, the notion that only the young and slender body is attractive to men contrasts drastically with her attempt to put forth a feminist narrative.
Afrodita (Aphrodite, 1999), by bestselling author Isabel Allende, is a light and humorous book of personal anecdotes, literary texts and cooking recipes that exhorts women to abandon their inhibitions and pursue the pleasures of the flesh. Nevertheless, multiple negative references regarding weight, which go hand in hand with mass culture messages, do not conform to the book’s initial liberated proposal. Allende repeatedly laments not being able to enjoy the delicious desserts she includes in the book because she does not want to gain weight. She confesses that she bought sexy lingerie “to veil [her] cellulite,” and even though she believes that licking chocolate mousse off a lover’s skin is highly sensual, she advises against it because the mousse contains too many calories. Thus, just like Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate, Afrodita reflects a feminist consciousness by presenting cooking as an element that empowers women, but at the same time recirculates negative attitudes about weight that comport with the current masculinist-driven obsession with the thin female body.
Authors born since the 1960s, however, forcefully argue against a society that diminishes and marginalizes the large body instead of focusing on resolving more pressing social and economic problems, such a family dysfunction and poverty. For example, the short story “Inmensamente Eunice,” which originally piqued my interest in issues of food and weight, presents an intelligent and active protagonist, contradicting the notion that overweight people are stupid and lazy. The numerous descriptions of her—the “gigantic breasts,” her “massive bed”—renders visibility to the fat body ignored by society by giving it a space in the text. Just as fascinating is the male character, who by being literally blind is to be free from the social gaze, and therefore can appreciate the protagonist’s body, transforming her into the erotic being that society states she cannot be.
In another take, Puerto Rican Mayra Santos Febres likewise criticizes society’s obsession with the female body in her essays and fictional texts. Her short story “Un dia cualquiera en la vida de Couto Seducción” (A regular day in the life of Couto Seduccion, 1998) pokes fun at current paradigms of female beauty by presenting an obese male protagonist, who as his name suggests, is sexually irresistible. The story is told from the perspective of one of his thirteen lovers, who anxiously gather every month to partake in Coutos’s “insatiable and infinite body” that will sexually satisfy all of them. Hence, in this sagacious story, the gazed upon—normally the woman—becomes the gazer. Completely contradicting contemporary norms, the protagonist’s large body is the very reason for his irresistible sexuality. The story also reiterates the prevailing double standard for women and men when it comes to weight. Blanqué’s and Santos Febres’ texts reflect the growing interest among Latin American authors to address the existing fixation with slimness, and to suggest that body size is an individual matter that should be decided by women themselves, liberated from media and social manipulations.
Literary critic Nelly Richard encourages Latin American women to create texts that are thematically and stylistically different from the “hegemonic discourse utilized to dissimulate the masculine contract that legitimizes its appropriation of culture” (“De la literatura de mujeres a la textualidad femenina,” 1994). These short stories fall into the category of texts favored by Richard and also show a progression among the younger group of writers, toward texts that contest cultural norms of how women should look. It will be interesting to see how Latin American authors in the future continue to advance the discourse on body weight to represent women’s social reality and assert their agency. Personally, I welcome any discourse that entertains and challenges oppressive social conventions of female physicality. Let’s keep in mind that ultimately it is a woman’s prerogative to define what beauty means to her and what kind of body she wants. She can have the cake and eat it too.
Renée S. Scott is a professor of Spanish at the University of North Florida. Her research focuses on Latin American literature, with an emphasis on gender, ethnicity, and food. Her most recent book is What is Eating Latin American Women Writers? Food, Weight, and Eating Disorders.