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My Cuban Body

posted Apr 6, 2016, 3:02 PM by Ulad Slabin
©  Carolina Hospital

“Hot pants” is what we called the very tight shorts we used to wear in the ‘70s. One hot Friday night when I was fifteen years old, I sneaked out of the house wearing a shiny blue plastic raincoat over my hot pants and my spandex tube top. It was Mami’s idea to put on the raincoat over the hot pants. She wanted to avoid Papi’s anger when he saw my cloths, or lack of them. My petite older sister (by two years), two inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter, dressed the same way. So what was the problem? The problem was that I was younger but I had developed sooner. Plus, the fashion in the ‘70s only helped to attract attention to my early development. It was impossible to hide curves and protrusions within miniscule pieces of cloth or skintight polyester blouses and pants. In Papi’s eyes, I was flaunting my womanhood, yet I didn’t have the maturity to deal with its consequences. His instincts were right, but his volatile approach was not.
That night I eagerly went to my classmate’s party. My sister and I walked into the screened patio in the back of the house where the stereo had been set up. I removed the raincoat. Immediately, all eyes were on me. I felt self-conscious, yet as I danced slowly with different boys — for us, success was measured in slow dance — I discovered the power of flesh.
I felt exhilarated by my ability to attract the opposite sex. However, I also felt the fear of unleashing a power I had little control over. In addition, my father’s anger and my mother’s collusion sent me mixed messages. Was there something wrong with my emerging womanhood? Instead of enjoying my new curves, I began to feel shame and embarrassment.
I also had to deal with the fact that I was different from most of my petite blond classmates. Being rounder, shorter, and hairier than they was a great source of anguish. My solution was to diet, straighten my hair, and wear platform shoes, the highest I could tolerate. But the damage was done. I grew up unhappy with my physical appearance, always self-conscious of my looks.
Mother didn’t help. It wasn’t that she disliked my looks. The opposite: she constantly noticed and complimented the very things I wanted to forget. For instance, she always told me I was lucky to have thighs and calves that were beautifully endowed, not thin and scrawny like hers. She believed I had inherited their thickness from my father’s Catalán side. That was the last thing I wanted to hear, that I looked like my short, overweight, bear-like hairy father (by Anglo standards) with whom I did not get along during my teen years.
Ironically, my mother also suffered growing up because of her physical appearance. She was often called a tomboy and was fed thick mango and papaya shakes in the hopes that she would put more fat on her bones. You see, for the Havana of the 1930s and ‘40s, she was too thin and too tall at five feet seven. Plus she lacked the thick, long, wavy hair I so detested in myself. That is why as she watched me diet, exercise, and straighten my hair, day in and day out, she would say, perplexed, how growing up, she would have given anything to have had the physical traits I so rejected in myself. I didn’t understand or care. I wasn’t living in Havana. I was living in the land of Twiggy.
Back then no one talked about being anorexic, but that is exactly what Twiggy looked like — a beautiful anorexic gazelle with long, blond, perfectly straight hair that probably weighed more than she did. Soon all the models became Twiggy look-alikes, and she became the standard for us to aim for, an impossible goal for a Cubanita with already emerging curves and protrusions — but what did I know?
I wish I had known that beauty comes in all sizes and shapes and that the media promotes artificial standards of beauty. It would have helped me to understand that people’s perceptions of beauty are shaped by the culture and the times they belong to. For instance, what was undesirable in the Havana of my mother’s youth was longed for in mine. I have tried to explain these things to my own daughter, now a teenager.
Just the other day, she pointed out to me how Marilyn Monroe weighed 160 pounds when she was America’s most admired sex symbol. Of course, that was before the age of Twiggy. But perhaps her awareness, especially growing up in a city like Miami, full of cultural diversity, will help her and her peers become more tolerant of themselves and their appearances. Perhaps being different will be easier for them than it was for me.
One rainy afternoon, I sat in the back of Sister Helen’s class, sleepily listening to her read classic love poems. I soon grew tired of hearing about angelic ladies with alabaster skin, hazel eyes, and golden hair. Suddenly, a sonnet by Shakespeare shook me from my stupor.

My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

That afternoon, Shakespeare’s verse filled me with hope. I felt redeemed. Perhaps out there existed a young Shakespeare who would find beauty in my own brown wires and raspy voice, who didn’t mind heavy treads and olive flesh. Shakespeare’s words taught me an unforgettable lesson about the force of words while validating my own reality. That sonnet planted a seed. Yet, it took many more years, marriage, and motherhood for me to finally be pleased with my Cuban body. It shouldn’t have to take that long.