Dieting while Latinx

“Wellness” sometimes comes at the expense of your culture.

Every Latina woman I know in Miami is on a perpetual diet. The first words spoken at family parties in my house are always, “estas mas gorda/flaca” (you’re fatter/skinnier, both used interchangeably); everyone, from my hairdresser to my mom’s costurera (tailor) to the nice cashier at our corner Walgreens, always has something to say about my weight. “Tienes que aguantarte la boca,” (you have to watch what you eat) or “What diet are you on? You look skinnier!” are comments I receive from at least two different people on any given day.

My parents are Cuban immigrants. For two decades, my mother has been on one constant dieta, either in search of a new diet or talking about one. I’m sure the discussion of her weight existed long before I did, although I — the chubby-cheeked, Honey Bun-obsessed youngest daughter — have always been her accomplice.

My mom suggested I go on my first diet when I was 10 years old. I had just been cast as Belle in our elementary school production of Beauty and the Beast, which the school put on every few years. But the problem was that all my Belle predecessors were much thinner than I was. As small and compact as fourth graders come, I was round, and couldn’t run the mile in gym class. “Vamos a parar de comer arroz,” (we are going to stop eating rice) my mom declared, because we were always in this together. I cut out rice entirely so I could fit into the tiered, golden dress for the show’s finale. My mom’s aunt, Tia Aleida, a skilled tailor, was asked to sew the other outfits from scratch for me. But the yellow dress the school used every year had to fit.

Well, it didn’t. Aleida ended up having to make alterations to the dress and even then, the puffy sleeves cut into my skin and left marks on my arms. I learned the skill of sucking in my gut and smiling through the pain of wearing something a size too small.

Across generations, dieting is second nature for the women in my community. Latinx women were 30 percent more likely to be overweight compared to non-Latinx whites, according to 2015 data. From 2011 to 2014, Latinx children were 1.8 times more likely to be overweight as non-Latinx white children. One study that examined why more Latinx women are overweight found that one reason is the heavier ideal body in Latin America, aka the J-Lo ideal: all hips and ass, but no fat. My grandmother told us stories of how she’d try to build her curves in Cuba — drinking malta con leche condensada (a malt drink mixed with condensed milk) and lying down to “rest” immediately after in the hopes of gaining weight around her hips and thighs. Her body wasn’t coined the “S mayuscula” (capital S) by neighbors and friends out of pure happenstance. Other reasons included a “distorted and inaccurate body image” because of a tendency to underestimate our true weight, and “food consumption patterns derived from this heavier ideal body and the poor nutrition of traditional Hispanic food” — like my childhood favorites, pollo a la milanesa (breaded chicken with a thick cheese sauce) and croquetas de jamón (ham croquettes, which are always fried).

Even without techniques like my grandmother’s to fit an idealized body type, the typical Cuban-American diet is carb-rich and sugary: fried plantains, mounds of white rice, café con leche with excessive spoonfuls of white sugar. Our local haunts sell portions big enough for two large meals. I imagine back on the island such a diet might have been balanced out by a more active lifestyle, which can’t be said as much for the car-centric city of Miami. But when attempting to change our lifestyles the only healthy alternatives are what we consider “white” food. White rice becomes brown rice, platanitos (fried plantains) become broccoli, café con leche becomes black coffee. Rather than teaching Latinxs to cook their own meals in healthier ways, with mindful proportions, we are presented with ways “to lose 30 pounds in 30 days” or recipes catering to wealthy, white American “wellness.” The lack of information about how to radically change a diet based in culture and lifestyle can make healthy habits inaccessible to people like my mother.

My body is a rite of passage into the long line of women in my family, and I was to live my life constantly trying to change it, hide it, make it look less like them.

I was always bigger than other girls my age. I remember crying in a fitting room when a Dora the Explorer T-shirt didn’t fit. We’d have to go to the pre-teen aisle instead of the kids one, and I always remember asking my mom why I couldn’t wear what I wanted. She’d always tell me that “Esa ropa era para las niñas chiquitas” (that those clothes were for little girls), and I had simply outgrown them. She hunted for the shirts that might fit, exclusively taking me to J.C. Penney when she found a brand that had my size. She tried her best not to make me feel less than for my broad shoulders and big frame.

At the age of 10 I should not have felt less than because of an ill-fitting Dora the Explorer shirt. I should not have felt that I had to stop eating rice. My mother would rationalize the number on the scale — “I know you’ve always been big-boned,” she would say. Still, I could see that the number shocked her. She said we could change together; with me by her side she was a little less alone in the struggle.

My family says I inherited my mother’s hair, her eyes, her love for the beach, and her spontaneity. But she also passed along the inability to feel at home in my own body. My body is a rite of passage into the long line of women in my family, and I was to live my life constantly trying to change it, hide it, make it look less like them.

My grandmother loved cooking so much that even as she got too old to reliably work a stove, she found a way to fry her platanitos, or make a mean flan. In college, I taught myself how to make pastelitos from scratch. Every time I send a photo of a new Cuban dish I’ve cooked to my mom, I can tell that she’s proud. I want to honor our traditions, but at the same time I’m dogged by thoughts that I should also eat more salad, cut out carbs, try intermittent fasting, and change the recipes I grew up on.

Looking at photos of myself back when I was 10, I always wonder: Who thought I was fat? I was just a kid, maybe a little big boned, maybe with bigger thighs and hips, even before puberty. But already the dieta culture was inside me, hoping I’d shrink. When I was 12, I started going to Weight Watchers meetings, confessing the food I ate to a group of 20 middle-aged women. My mom wanted to join and insisted I come along; children were allowed to join the program with parental permission and a doctor’s referral. (Recently, Weight Watchers announced Kurbo by WW, an app intended to track weight loss, food consumption, and physical activity in children as young as eight.)

At the age of 10 I should not have felt less than because of an ill-fitting ‘Dora the Explorer’ shirt.

The trainer who led the meetings bumped up my calorie allowance — a typical woman my weight might be allowed 23 food points a day, but I was allowed around 30. Because I was a minor, my mom would stand next to me by the scale and scrutinize my progress. “Porque has subido tanto?” (why have you gained so much?) she’d ask when I was five pounds heavier than the week before; she’d smile when I had lost two or three. Even now, some of the lessons have stuck with me — like only eating one banana a day because they’re high in sugar.

After Monday meetings, about 10 of us splintered off to speed walk around the quiet neighborhood behind the strip mall where they were held. My mom and the other women would talk about the lawns of the homes we’d walk past or the dogs we’d see on our routes. I rarely chimed in, but I felt a part of the weight-loss team. I enjoyed these moments with these women to whom I felt connected, even if for just an hour or two a week, and it was always something I did alone with my mom, without my older sister. To me, Weight Watchers was no different than the ballet or guitar lessons I was shuttled around to after school. My mom and I were taking steps towards having “healthier” habits. But I knew, even then, that I was just beginning the diet I’d be on for the rest of my life.

I don’t remember why we stopped going to Weight Watchers, but one day we didn’t go back. After that, at the age of 12, I reached the lowest weight of my life: 150 pounds. So did my mother. “Those sandwiches are really working for you, Paola!” one girl commented on my Facebook photo in the sixth grade. I managed to maintain that number for a year or two. I’ve never been that weight again.

My mom and I cycled through a slew of other programs. We signed up for Jenny Craig and had personal trainers at LA Fitness, where I once fainted on one of the squatting machines after only eating a pastelito de queso (a Cuban cheese pastry) for breakfast. In seventh grade, we decided to do a seven-day juice cleanse, something I saw in one of the glossy magazines I read. But my very Cuban mother had no idea how to make green and healthy detox juices, so I drank only Capri Sun, the juice we had that was closest to the ones featured in the magazine, next to photos of women whom we’d never look like. It wasn’t until I felt lightheaded at dance practice that I finally caved and ate my first solid meal: a single bowl of black beans. From then on I took prepackaged salads to school while my friends ate cheese sticks and chicken fingers in the cafeteria. Most days I threw the salad in the trash and didn’t eat at all.

Even as the dietas failed me, I couldn’t bury who I was, and neither could my mother. The pastelitos, the black beans, this was the language of our gatherings that crossed 90 miles of ocean from Cuba to Miami. This food was more than sustenance — it kept us living and laughing in the language of the island.

Once I left for college and started cooking in my apartment for the first time, I found myself searching for home. I was determined to make my favorite plate, ropa vieja — technically meaning old clothes, it’s shredded chicken in a thick flavorful sauce. My mom texted me her “recipe,” measurements made in “un chorro” (stream) and “un chin” (pinch) of vegetables, spices, and wine. The key ingredient is Sazón Goya, a prepackaged seasoning; my mom is notorious for dumping an entire box on one round of chicken.

I scanned the aisles of the Target in my very white college town for Goya products to no avail, so I tried to find a homemade recipe for the seasoning. After all, it was just a mix of cumin, coriander, turmeric, garlic powder, and some other things. But as I gathered the spices I realized the sazón also had high amounts of sodium and coloring additives that, of course, aren’t great for the body. As I scrolled through DIY sazón recipes online, many bloggers said they’d created their own versions to avoid this. Yet all throughout my childhood, my mom had added heaps of it to what she cooked. We didn’t have to stick to green smoothies or store-bought salads — something as simple as mixing the seasonings yourself could change our food from decidedly unhealthy to less so. But someone like my mom, an overburdened business owner with two kids, didn’t have the time it takes to search for such information, or make her own seasonings.

This food was more than sustenance — it kept us living and laughing in the language of the island.

While I’m walking home from class every day, my mom calls to catch up on her work drama, my stress over classes, and, of course, any new dietas we might try. Even though she’s in Miami with my dad and sister, I’m still her accomplice — my sister has always been stick-thin with a fast metabolism, so my mom could never hound her for downing an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts. And my dad, who religiously lifted weights in his bedroom every night — his huffing often sending my mom and I into a fit of laughter — could never bond with her over crash diets like I did. To the rest of my family, our attempts to lose weight were just temporary, something new coming along every few months. Recently, my mom bought an exercise trampoline on Amazon; my sister sends me videos of her jumping up and down with Pitbull blasting from her headphones. “Me hacía la idea que estaba en la discoteca lol,” (“I felt like I was at the club”) she texted after one of her daily workouts.

I returned home recently for a weekend and went out to dinner with my boyfriend’s family, also Cuban. The meal had just finished, and sitting at the round table were five generations of Cuban women. During the tradition of post-dinner talking — la sobremesa — my boyfriend’s mother, aunt, cousin, and grandmother listed the parts of their bodies they would change given the opportunity. “It wouldn’t bother me if I had fat everywhere, but because it’s just in this one area it does,” his mother said, grabbing at the skin spilling over the waistline of her jeans. A little plastic surgery for a muffin top, they said, some liposuction at the lower belly, something to get rid of the flab under their arms. They bounced back and forth, nitpicking. I could feel their eyes on me, and all the parts of my body they might have critiqued when I’m not around.

Sometimes I think about all the time I’ve spent dieting, planning my next weight-loss venture, poring over calorie counts, discussing everything about my body that I want to fix with women around me. I’ve spent almost my whole life joining in on la sobremesa with other women, trying to become thinner. That night with my boyfriend’s family, I was tempted to join in. Another me might have — the me who still weighed herself, who didn’t avoid doctors appointments because she knew she’d have to stand on a scale again, who obsessively scrolled through photos of white, blue-eyed women in bathing suits she could only ever dream of wearing. That me might’ve joined in, but I stayed silent.