Letting Yourself Go

“It is never too early nor too late for the well-being of the soul”
— Epicurus

In memory of Gloria Anzaldúa (1942-2004)

Type the words “Latin girls” into Google. What do you get? Porn. Apparently, what you need to know about Latin girls can be found at 8th Street Latinas, which provides access to “these desperate ladies.” LatinGirls4Free.com invokes visitors to “fuck me hard papi” — I suppose that is an answer of sorts. You really hit it, though, with LatinDreamGirls.com, a site that links to a vast array of valuable resources such as: LatinWives.com, LimaLadies.com, BaranquillasBest.com, and HipHopBadGirls.com. Should the net prove incapable of sating your thirst for knowledge about Latin girls, then this website’s video, “Big Butt Brazilian Babes”, might do the trick.

“Black girls” or “Asian girls” in the Search window result in the promise of porn living and Manila hotties. “White girls” and “Caucasian girls” lead someplace else entirely. Amidst articles such as the one expressing concern over the susceptibility of South African white girls to internet addiction (Allafrica.com) and links to Sims designs for the “classic white girls room” (StrategyPlanet.com), there emerges a clear focus on health issues, many of which intersect with self-image. In this corner of cyberspace, girls are the subject of study for eating disorders, metabolic rates, and growth hormone levels. A study at Girlpower.gov indicates that white girls appear more likely to try smoking than Hispanic or African-American girls, and Thebody.com uses its platform to disabuse readers of the myth that “White Girls Don’t Get AIDS”. White women: pathologized. Women of color: sexualized. Strange discrepancy.

The interrelated questions of culturally divergent beauty ideals and the racialization of sex appeal stretch beyond the tawdry confines of cyberspace. Two examples include the recent release of People en Español‘s “Los 50 Más Bellos” (50 Most Beautiful People) issue (June 2004) and The Guardian‘s publication of “The Big Fat Con Story” (24 April 2004), an astonishing excerpt from Paul Campos’ forthcoming The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession With Weight Is Hazardous To Your Health (Gotham Books). Here, then, are three facets of beauty culture: the standard that makes you effective masturbation material; the standard that makes for the charmed lives of public role models; and the standard that you live within your own skin. As divergent as they might appear, all three facets illustrate the political implications of aesthetics and the possibilities that accompany Latinas’ entry into mainstream culture, including both what we offer and what we stand to lose in the process.

People en EspañolLos 50 Más Bellos” represents a major personal achievement according to editor Richard Pérez-Feria. His editorial in this issue explains that when he came to People en Español, his dream was “to create the most beautiful Spanish-language magazine in the country.” Thanks to the work of his staff, the current issue exceeds this dream to realize “one of the most beautiful magazines in any language.” Pérez-Feria roots his desire for such beauty in memories of his mother’s enjoyment of National Geographic as well as his own history of devotion to the likes of Sports Illustrated for pleasure, Time for politics, and Vanity Fair for culture. In other words, Pérez-Feria considers the “Los 50 Más Bellos” issue of I>People en Español successful because it draws these pleasures together to provide a blend of personal, civic, and social development that, I would argue, is reminiscent of the dynamic cultivation of self explored within Michel Foucault’s The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, Volume 3 (Vintage 1988).

Although Foucault focuses on transformations in Roman culture during the first two centuries CE (otherwise known as anno domini), his intellectual trademark is to fashion a history of the present by giving attention to turning points in the past — those moments when the path that has led to our present might have taken a different turn entirely. In contrast to subsequent Christian condemnation of the body, the Romans believed that careful management of the whole self was simultaneously a basis for ethics and for sexuality. In People en Español, each star’s photograph is accompanied by comments about their everyday regimen, the rituals, pleasures, and privations that define their relationship to mind, body and soul. Public personae such as actor Christián de la Fuente, model Inés Rivero, photographer Mike Ruiz, beauty queen Amelia Vega, and news anchor Jorge Ramos explain the exercise and diet routines, hobbies, credos, and various devotions (Catholicism, family life, etc.) that structure their lives. Though you might expect people held up as paragons of all that is sexí to display abandon or excess, the majority of these beauties define themselves in terms of control. I noticed that no one reported screwing as a way to stay in shape.

The issue of “control” is also at the core of Campos’ exposé on the war against fat, a war that he believes is fronted by doctors and public health officials, but waged by the pharmaceutical and diet industries. He points out that in January 2003, “as America prepared to go to war with Iraq, the US surgeon general, Richard Carmona, warned the nation that it faced a far more dangerous threat than Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Rather than focusing on the danger posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, Carmona told his audience, “Let’s look at a threat that is very real, and already here: obesity.” This warning represents one of many that define the United States’ most pressing public health problem in terms of the nation’s “expanding waistline”.

However, according to Campos, the flaw with this position is that it rests on poor scientific foundations. The main culprit is not in the body, but in the BMI, or body mass index calculation that sets the reigning criteria for who is fat — and the BMI is unforgiving. “According to the public health establishment’s current BMI definitions,” writes Campos, “Brad Pitt, Michael Jordan and Mel Gibson are all ‘overweight’, while Russell Crowe, George Clooney and baseball star Sammy Sosa are all ‘obese’. According to America’s fat police, if your BMI is over 25, then you are ‘overweight’, full stop.”

What are the repercussions of this criterion other than, of course, making people neurotic and hungry? One: it seriously undermines recognition of fat as a “cultural construct” that diet and drug companies deploy to terrorize us into a size six. Two: it deflects attention away from other issues that can have a much more direct impact on our life chances than where we park the potentially fatal wideness of our backsides on the BMI chart. Not only do beauty standards change from place to place, they do not apply to different genders equally and have been known to change over time. For example, bounteous Mae West was a dish in her day while applying the same BMI to famous couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston shows her to be more than 50 pounds underweight. Campos therefore insists that variables like gender, class, and racial identity be taken into account when anyone assumes the aesthetic, political, and ethical responsibility for deeming large cross-sections of the population both physically and, at a deeper level, morally sick

If one were forced to come up with a six-word explanation for the otherwise inexplicable ferocity of America’s war on fat, it would be this: Americans think being fat is disgusting . . . In 1853, an upper-class Englishman could be quite unselfconscious about the fact that the mere sight of the urban proletariat disgusted him. In 2003, any upper-class white American liberal would be horrified to imagine that the sight of, say, a lower-class Mexican-American woman going into a Wal-Mart might somehow elicit feelings of disgust in his otherwise properly sensitized soul. But the sight of a fat woman — make that an “obese” — better yet a “morbidly [sic] obese” woman going into Wal-Mart . . . ah, that is something else again. (Campos, “The Big Fat Con Story”)

Attention to weight-related health risks is undoubtedly necessary. Weight-related health risks are a serious issue for racial minorities, not because such populations are naturally gluttunous, but because the connections between racialization and poverty have direct repercussions on mortality. Esteemed bodies have access to high quality foods, proper medical care, and healthier environments. Because of such privileges as well as the luxury of weight being a priority in life, esteemed bodies achieve a cultural ideal: thinness. This achievement, the result of careful control of one’s desires and pleasures, signals for Campos “the transformation of the Protestant work ethic into the American diet ethic.”

Where do Latinos fit into this transformation? Does Catholicism ward off the American diet ethic? Unlikely. As we have already seen, People en Español is filled with sexy people. Almost all of them perform rigorous physical regimens. They control themselves. The other extreme, the wild abandon that defines sexiness online, scoffs at self-control. The third standard, the one that makes you happy with yourself, is the one that looks poised to fall under the campaign against fat. Citing a study at the University of Arizona, Campos points out that white girls are less happy with their bodies than black girls even though white girls tended to weigh less. This is corroborated by my ad hoc unscientific test with Google, and presses Campos to ask a vital question:

How would a proposal for ‘culturally sensitive public health intervention programmes’ sound if it were translated (accurately) as a proposal to make black and Hispanic girls as neurotic about their weight as white girls tend to be, because these groups represent the best opportunity for expanding the market for the useless, expensive and dangerous products of the weight loss industry?

This is a pressing question, given that Latino people are the target of competing industries. If white people are crazy about being skinny, then market potentially unhealthy processed food to other groups. People en Español features ads for new products like Post’s “Fiesta Fruity Pebbles”, Burger King’s “Fire Pouch Grill”, and Jack in the Box’s “Pannido”. The prize, however, goes to McDonald’s four page “Go Active!” spread which provides a three-step guide for managing to eat at McDonald’s yet stay healthy. On the other hand, the weight loss industry also stands to profit from Latinos. Luis Garcia of Hispanic communications agency Garcia 360º makes the case that Latino shoppers are especially desirable because of a tendency to shop in groups, to spend more on clothes and cosmetics, and to exhibit brand loyalty. Moreover, Garcia’s “Hispanic Advertising Trends — 2004” on Refresher.com draws a powerful analogy between where Latinos are today and where the baby boom generation was several decades ago. Because of sheer numbers, young Latinas and Latinos in the US represent the potential to transform spending patterns as radically as the baby boom generation.

Where does this transformative potential lead? I said I would comment on the possibilities that accompany Latinas’ entry into mainstream culture. The overwhelmingly dire scenario I’ve explored so far is but one possibility; it needn’t be the only one. Comments by makeup artist Scott Barnes on Jennifer Lopez’s page in People en Español articulate this point: “Jennifer is one of the most beautiful women in the world because of her inner strength. No amount of makeup or photography will change that . . . She has redefined what is considered beautiful today because she feels so comfortable in her own skin.” This beauty is a form of control, too. Perhaps one day, a reincarnated Foucault will pinpoint a moment where the culture of control that makes people unhappy with themselves is transformed into a culture of taking control of one’s own happiness.