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Real Women Don’t Always Have Curves
Isaura Abreu
headshot

My family has always considered education more important than appearance. Back in the Dominican Republic where I grew up, I enjoyed studying English, history, and science; I felt good about myself because I did well in these subjects and I was interested in learning. My family encouraged me to study hard. They told me that as a girl I could do whatever I set my mind to.

No one in my family talked or cared much about the shape of our bodies. But when I was about 13 and my friends started getting curves, I began noticing that my body—compared with my friends’ bodies—was a toothpick. No matter what I ate, I stayed that way. I started to obsess about it.

Sometimes I looked at myself in the mirror and I didn’t find anything beautiful. Instead, I felt awful about myself. My friends told me, “Isaura, you look beautiful! Why don’t you want to go out with us?” I’d tell them I was tired, but I was lying. The truth was that I wasn’t feeling pretty enough to go out with them.

I worried that people would laugh at me for trying to look pretty when I was not as pretty as my friends, or maybe someday my friends would get embarrassed hanging out with me. I knew that my friends would never say that to me directly, but still I was scared and I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I was self-conscious about not having curves and felt that I was the skinny and ugly one in the group.

Guitar Bodies

In the Dominican Republic, clothes weren’t as fashionable as here in New York, but my oldest friend always dressed sexy. She wore mini-skirts and T-shirts showing her belly, or tight, skinny jeans. Meanwhile, I wore wide jeans and long shirts.

My father did not like me to dress sexy because he said that I was too young. But since my friends dressed in a way that really showed their bodies, I noticed they were bigger than me. They had guitar bodies—wide hips, large breasts, small waists—and they looked older than they were.

I am sure all schools have “popular girls.” In my school, I thought some of them were damn ugly, but guys considered them pretty because of their expensive clothes and their full butts. Meanwhile, I was neither curvy nor rich enough to buy the cool clothes that would distract from my skinny body.

At that time I was the best friend of one of the popular girls, Ruby. She was pretty; tall and fair-skinned, with brown eyes, long brown hair, and a perfect body. I felt terrible when I compared myself to Ruby, because boys always called her pretty and sexy and “rubia,” meaning “blondie,” but they said none of these things to me. (The word “rubia” is frequently used as a compliment in my country.) But I did better than her in school because I had something that she didn’t: intelligence and ability in class. That was my small consolation for being less attractive to boys than her.

Sometimes Ruby wasn’t so nice to me. She called me names, and when she was with other popular girls, she didn’t talk to me. To be truthful, I wasn’t hanging out with Ruby because I liked her; I thought that maybe by hanging out with her I could be as popular as she was.

I never told anyone about my insecurities because I felt I’d look weak and lonely. Maybe I did not say anything because I was scared to hear how they would respond. If they said, “Yes, you’re right—you are ugly,” I would feel worse. So I stayed quiet about it and kept my insecurity inside.

When I moved to New York, however, my insecurities only increased. I already worried about my body; now I was also nervous about new people, a new culture, and a new language to learn.

In 8th grade, my teachers were good and they helped me to overcome struggles with the homework and new vocabulary. Once I became better at English, my insecurities went away. For that first year in the U.S. I was hanging out with girls who didn’t care too much about what others said when it came to clothes, hair, and body type.

All Judgment

But when I started high school the following year, everything changed. I saw that the girls were into dying their hair, sexy clothes, and makeup. I also saw that the boys responded to those things, so I started to put a little makeup on my cheeks, wear tight jeans, and dry my hair in the salon so that it would be straight instead of curly. I wanted to look prettier and I wanted boys to notice me, too.

The girls at my school all criticized one another. I’d hear comments like, “That girl does not have any curves, she is so ugly,” or “Why don’t that girl put a little makeup on her cheeks—she looks so pale.” Usually the girls who criticized were the popular girls who seemed not to have anything else to do. The popular girls wore the most expensive clothes from AéroPostale, American Eagle, or Old Navy. They also wore makeup and had guitar bodies.

I hated the way they criticized people and how they excluded girls who did not look a certain way. If you were skinny with no fancy clothes or curves or makeup, it’s like you were lower class. You could never be their friends or hang out with them.

image by Elijah Hickson

Boys didn’t help, either. They’d point out things about girls’ figures, saying things like “You have a good body, you have big boobs,” or “You so ugly, you look like a flat table.” Then, after criticizing girls for not being perfect, they’d turn around and call girls “dummies” for spending so much time worrying about how they looked, asking why they were always in the bathroom fixing their hair and makeup.

Be Popular, or Be Myself?

Over time, I started to question why it was so important to have the approval of people who made such superficial judgments. I wanted to be comfortable with who I was, instead of trying to be an Isaura who was not real. So when I was 15, I started to search for the real me.

I thought about the advantages and disadvantages of being popular versus just being myself. I always saw girls running to the bathroom to put on makeup and perfume and brush their hair. I was following their example, but then I asked myself, “What is the point of all of this?”

These girls’ actions had a consequence: They were late to class every day because they spent at least five minutes in the bathroom between classes, which meant they lost 50% of their class participation points for being tardy. It didn’t seem worth it.

I thought, “Why do I want to be in the stinky bathroom, carrying a bag of makeup? Hell no, I am all right without that.” I made the decision that I want people to love me for who I am and not for who I am trying to be. I am no Miss Universe, and I don’t care.

I started to be more confident and to be myself, to smile and not be scared of what others said. My strategy worked: I got a boyfriend, who said I was pretty and he liked the way I was. He said I wasn’t like those girls with tons of makeup, who looked pretty but had nothing in their minds.

What he said made me feel different and self-confident because I knew that what I was doing was something I should feel proud of. The fact that now I was myself meant I no longer let anyone put me down. Even without makeup, I felt like the most beautiful girl in the world.

The Beautiful New Isaura

Today, my new boyfriend tells me that he loves me for who I am because I am not fake; I am just like God made me. My boyfriend is a tough guy; he tells you right away what he thinks. He told me that boys actually want girls with a good education and self-confidence, who are not too crazy. He said guys usually hang out with crazy girls just to relieve their sexual urges, not because they are taking them seriously.

I was surprised he told me the truth; boys aren’t usually that honest when they’re looking to take a girl to bed. Since we had that conversation, I’ve noticed that some of those girls who are more concerned about their appearance than how they do in school end up with an unplanned pregnancy, or falling in love with men who will never take them seriously. I feel really sad for that kind of girl. I am sure they are beautiful on the inside, but they haven’t found someone to tell them how pretty they are when they are themselves.

It wasn’t just because of my boyfriend that I wanted to change, though. I chose to change because I was not getting any benefit out of trying to be someone that I was not. Now that I’ve stopped paying so much attention to what other people say about me, I feel like a new Isaura.

This Isaura is no longer overly concerned about her body. She is involved in programs at school like photography and writing. She gets extra help in her classes when she needs it, because she is focused on passing the Regents so that she can go to college and become an elementary school teacher. She doesn’t care if other people like her the way she is or not, because now she is independent.

Women, Stand Up

It’s sad that the obsession girls (and boys) have with perfect female bodies doesn’t stop when they leave school. I have seen cases where women spend thousands of dollars in surgeries to enlarge their breasts or reduce the size of their stomachs. A relative of mine, for example, got surgery to reduce her stomach. She works as a nurse, but she doesn’t have a college degree. What if she had spent the money instead on advancing her education so that she could get a better position?

By expending so much of their energy on their looks, women are making themselves appear weak when they are not, and it’s causing us to lose power in society. Most members of Congress are men. Why? I think part of the reason is that society believes we are not capable of doing that kind of work. If society had different priorities, maybe more women would become famous leaders instead of being seen as sexual objects.

We have to stop with our insecurities. We need to grow and show men, and ourselves, who we really are—with curves or without.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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(NYC-2012-05-05b)

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