By most Latin American standards, I’m no beauty.

My waistline isn’t cinched and I don’t fill out jeans in an overwhelming way. While some in South or Central America and the Caribbean may find my light eyes and blond hair interesting, freckles and pale skin are not all the rage. Slim thighs don’t inspire.

Jennifer Lopez, Sofía Vergara, Shakira, Salma Hayek and Roselyn Sánchez are Latin America’s beauties, guitar-shaped with whittled middles and toned volume everywhere else.

Beauty, defined by one’s culture, is a topic that fascinates me.
Latina beauty icon Sofía Vergara

Gwyneth Paltrow sets the U.S. standard for many 
I have friends who would appreciate their shapes if they had the grace to be born in a different part of the world. In Latin countries the men would adore them, I say, though it makes little impression. They live here where of course, most strive to be thin, thin, thin.
Evolutionary and behavioral science PhD and Psychology Today contributing writer, Gad Saad, notes that a number of universal beauty metrics do exist. Studies show that babies around the world will stare at symmetrical faces longer than asymmetrical ones; clean skin and high cheek bones are consistently attractive and waist-to-hip ratios matter, whether it’s an intentionally plumped-up female figure in central Africa or a skin-and-bones catwalk model in the U.S.
That said, social influence is huge.
In the months before Luis and I married, I reshaped my body in reaction to a number of pounds I put on while briefly living in Budapest, as daily apple strudels will do what they do. My cousin introduced me to the book, Body for Life, which chartered regimented eating and workout plans that I followed to a T. With no particular goal in mind, any excess I had fell off. To date, that is the smallest I have been as an adult and I did enjoy fitting into sizes I never had before.
In Savannah, people congratulated me on how great I looked, wanted to know what I was doing. But when I arrived in Cuba in April after not seeing Luis since January, his friends and family nearly gasped in concern at the sight of me. Was I ok? Was I sick? Why had I dropped so much weight? I wasn’t eating enough they whispered.

The striking difference in opinion intrigued me. I thought: what is pretty and who decides?

Personally, I’m a firm believer in doing the best with what you’ve got, whether it’s big, brown eyes, a pretty pair of lips, rounded, strong shoulders or nice feet. There are clever ways to tuck in and around what you don’t like and accent what you do.

But Latin women are considered some of the most desirable in the world, crisscrossing various cultures.  So what is it that attracts so many?

Based on my experience around Latin women, of which there are many in my life, they’re feminine, they like perfume and jewelry. They put on clothes that hug, not hide, their curves. They make outfit changes on New Year’s Eve.

Last December we had dear friends stay with us to celebrate. Santiago is from Cuba, Karina is from Panama and at the time she was 6-months pregnant with their fourth child.

It was closing in on midnight and she asked me if I was going to switch out my leather leggings and sweater I had on for a dress. She had an additional outfit for herself for the ball drop. I nearly laughed out loud thinking, I’m happy to be clean. My daughter was 5-months-old at the time, Marcos was 5 and Luis, Jr. 14. It was nothing short of a miracle I was even awake. But the truth is that even had I not had a house full of young kids, I still wouldn’t have made the wardrobe switch. It’s not in my DNA.

A lot of women here, and of course I’m including myself, often look for convenience. Many of us want to look nice, but there is practicality behind it.

I’m a simpleton. I like modern, straight lines. Nothing frilly. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry or makeup and the bottle of Bvlgari perfume Luis gave me five years ago sits on my dresser half full.

I tend to get into rhythms, scoring a few things I like each season and wearing them until I can’t anymore. Luis teases me and calls them my uniforms.

That night, Karina ultimately decided to forgo the costume change, perhaps because of me, but a few minutes later she did return with a freshened face and newly applied lipstick. I think I swiped my lips once with gloss in an effort to keep up.

4 thoughts on “THE CULTURE OF BEAUTY

  1. Another great post!!! Here's an associated idea: it seems to me that Brazilians, for example – even though they may be very image conscious – are more comfortable in their own skins, whether or not they fit the societal ideal. It's not that they don't also strive to get the “right” shape (often resorting to plastic surgery for remarkable results), but it just seems that whatever shape they do have they flaunt as desirable. That, too, must be a latin/mediterranean thing, right? I have fat, balding Italian friends who believe and project that they are God's gift to women. And it works! Probably doesn't hurt that they have Italian mothers reinforcing their delusions on a daily basis. Madonna!

  2. Hey Mel! I love all of your posts! Orte is currently dealing with the same issue you talked about in this post. He recently lost about 20 pounds using running and nutrition. Me and me family and his staff all think he looks great. However, his mother is concerned he looks too skinny and sick. So interesting the different perspectives from different cultures.

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