In the same vein as my last post about the plethora of identical nicknames, I have to bring up the tradition of totally direct and mildly offensive commentary throughout Latin America.
It’s not that anybody intends for it to be direct and offensive — it just is. To me. Because I’m from MURRICA and up there, you don’t comment on someone’s weight under penalty of death (stares).
But down here? Everyone from abuelitas to acquaintances comment on my weight or appearance (“You look really swollen”, “Ah, you’ve gained weight since the last time I saw you”). It’s not done so out of ill-will or an attempt to make me feel bad about myself; it’s just how the culture is.
It’s normal to state blatantly obvious facts about weight, physical appearance, and changes since the last time they saw you.
When I first was introduced to the Latin American Honesty Policy, there was a fair degree of shock, horror and recoil. But dealing with these comments made me realize that I was actually fighting a battle against my own culture – it showed me just how obsessed we are with weight, image and prettiness in the USA. And that my own foundation and cultural construct have been formed by these ideals, even though I’d never consciously agreed to it.
And it’s not that Latin American countries don’t have their own particular and peculiar battles with image, prettiness and femininity. It’s just that every country does it a little differently. And the Latin flair, in this case, does not necessarily hold ‘thinness’ above all other categories.
Despite my awesome mother counseling me at a young age (I think around 7, if not younger) that all the pictures I saw of women in magazines were photoshopped to look more perfect –that real women didn’t necessarily look like that, even though our senses are saturated with the ideals — it’s hard to escape the sweeping radar of Image Obsession in America.
But rationally knowing about my cultural construct and the presence of rampant photoshopping in advertising doesn’t mean that it acts as any less of an influence in the unspoken undertones of my home country.
Even though I’ve lived in and out of various Latin American countries since 2006, these direct, weight-focused comments still sometimes surprise me.
Let’s use a recent trip to Argentina to visit Jorge’s buddies as an example. We arrive to his friend’s house, and within thirty seconds there is ample commentary about how much weight Pablo* has gained. “Man, look at this stomach! You’re such a fatty!” Everyone proceeds to pat it and otherwise jostle him about his belly. “Dude, you’re losing all your hair and gaining all the gut!”
Hold up a minute. Where I come from, this is totally offensive and pretty rude as well. Granted, my partner and his friends have a certain style of humor that only long-term, intimate friends can access. Even still, where I come from the only acceptable form of weight commentary is when you’ve lost it. Any gain is usually commented on behind the person’s back, or in worried whispers from across the room.
And any reference to loss of hair or weight gain is usually only acceptable in a self-deprecating approach, as in, if Pablo were from the USA, only he would be able to joke about his hair loss or weight gain. He’s the only one allowed to mention it, bring it into the conversational sphere, or otherwise put it on the table.
The other acceptable way of commenting on weight? When it’s animals! (“GOSH, what a fat kitty!” “Your dog is a beast, he needs to lose weight stat”)
Otherwise, in the USA it tends to be used as a comparative or degrading tool (“Did you see how much weight Suzie gained? Ugh, what a cow” or “I’m so much skinnier than him, I eat way better”).
Which is why I have countless memories of those record-stopping moments throughout my travels in Latin America: where someone commented on my weight, past or present, and my jaw dropped a little and I watched them for a moment just completely shocked by their brazen commentary. The reaction cycle went something like Shock, Offense, Self-Criticism, Embarrassment, Self-Counseling, Ruminating, and then finally Getting Over It.
It takes some time to get used to.
But in Latin American culture, it’s just a commentary expressing a physical fact.
You are fat, or you’re skinny, or you’re pale, or you’re losing hair, or you’re dark-skinned, or you’re extremely hairy, etc.
It doesn’t carry the same weight (no pun intended) as it does in my home country. Calling someone fat isn’t an insult.
Some of these characteristics are culturally subjective and change over time — like what was ‘skinny’ in the 1700’s is now considered ‘slightly overweight’. Or what is ‘overweight’ in one country nowadays is seen as ‘healthy’ in another culture.
Despite the way these comments can sometimes sting, whether directed at me or I overhear them and feel stung on their behalf, like Jorge’s friend Pablo….I think they’ve got it right.
They’re just physical qualities, some of which change over time, some of which are interpreted differently according to culture.
Fatness is a loaded term in the USA. We equate ‘fat’ with any multitude of things, and a lot of people internalize secret beliefs they have linked with characteristics they deem undesirable. Commentary on a physical quality can mean anything from “ugly”, or “undesireable”, or “unloveable”, etc. Someone who has freckles and desperately wants to not have freckles can take a comment about the existence of her freckles to mean that she’s never going to be able to find a worthwhile partner.
Logically speaking, it’s ridiculous. But I’m willing to bet every human being has harbored some secret belief like this at one point in their life. Though our human intellect has discovered distant galaxies and is capable of high-level reasoning on a daily basis, we’re stunningly adept at holding ourselves prisoners to illogical beliefs and fallacies.
Physical characteristics have nothing to do with any of these secret beliefs we may hold about ourselves. Really, the commentary is just serving to highlight what it is that we need to address on the inside. The way it makes us feel is a good clue about where our insecurities lie…and WHY.
Being fat, tall, thin, balding, hairy, too-dark or too-white…These things don’t actually say anything about your worth, your intellect, your contributions, or who you are on the inside.
And that’s something we really tend to confuse in the USA.
We are so much more than the sum of our physical qualities. In fact, the physical has nothing to do with the pure, spectacular perfection that exists on the inside.
*Name has been changed because nobody except for Jorge has really ever agreed to appear in this blog. And really, now that I think about it, Jorge hasn’t agreed to be in this blog either. I better go ask him real quick.