Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina

Hijas Americanas, written by Rosie Molinary

Rosie Molinary is an author and educator who grew up in South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. During Rosie’s formative years, Columbia’s Latino population was quite small. She grew up without Latino girlfriends and only a few Latinos who attended her high school. When it came to relationships, the two Latinos boys that she most frequently interacted with were more like play-brothers than possible boyfriend candidates.

After graduating high school, Rosie attended Davidson College, what some considered a “Southern Ivy League University” and during her college years, Rosie embarked on a journey of self discovery and faced several identity crises. Rosie grew up in a home that embraced her heritage, but everyday she entered a world where she was forced to explain her ethnicity. During her time in South Carolina and at Davidson, she felt trapped in a Black or White paradigm. Since many of her peers were not exposed to Latin culture, Rosie found herself trapped between her Puerto Rican heritage and mainstream America.

After graduating from Davidson with a degree in African-American Studies, Rosie accepted a teaching position at an inner city school where she was exposed to the diversity that she craved. During Rosie’s teaching experience, she learned a wealth of information from her culturally diverse student population. Rosie’s students made her feel at home because they did not confine her to a Black or White paradigm.  She wasn’t some strange Puerto Rican who happened to grow up in the South; she was their vibrant and intelligent history teacher.

Rosie Molinary is the author of an emotional, informative, and insightful book entitled Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, which shares the stories of dozens of Latinas who struggled with beauty, body image, and self identity issues as they attempted to integrate their heritage into mainstream American culture.

Phillips: What are the beauty and body image issues that are unique to Latinas?

Molinary: Many young Latinas want to be accepted into what they consider “American Culture.” They desire a facial structure that matches “American Standards.” In the United States and Latin American countries, many Latinas are resorting to plastic surgery.  The way the mainstream American media covers and portrays Latinas doesn’t encourage us to embrace our natural beauty.  Often times, in Hollywood, Latinas are portrayed as sexy sirens with voluptuous goddess-like bodies, so young impressionable Latinas feel like they need alter their noses, enlarge their breasts, or get butt implants.

In terms of minority groups, Latinas are among the poorest but have one of the fastest rising rates of plastic surgery.  For the young Latinas reading this interview, I ask that you examine all of the risks associated with plastic surgery procedures.  On top of that, changing your body doesn’t change your mind. We [Latinas] much change the way we think about ourselves. This isn’t an easy process; it’s a journey of self acceptance.

Phillips: What role does Hollywood play in Latinas creating their own standard of beauty?

Molinary: When I began writing Hijas Americanas, I thought my survey respondents would feel like diversification had taken place in Hollywood. When I was growing up, I can only recall a few Latinas on television or in Hollywood movies. I was pretty confident that Latinas would feel like we have more representation in the media and that it was a good thing. The results of my Hijas Americanas survey revealed that Latinas felt confined to Hollywood stereotypes.

Often times, Hollywood movies portray Latinas as The Siren, a highly sexually charged woman who men desire; The Maid, an attractive unskilled laborer who is used as a sexual object; or The Girl in trouble, the attractive young girl who lives a dangerous lifestyle and is seeking refuge. The Latinas of today aren’t facing the exact issues that I dealt with but, they are dealing with their peers comparing them to Hollywood’s Latina movie stars. When I was growing up, I felt unidentified. Today’s young Latinas feel confined to media stereotypes.

In America, we live in a capitalist society and the media is a tool of capitalism. Our economic system is based on constant consumption. So advertisers and media outlets send women messages that we need to continually improve our physical appearance; the goal is to increase their profits, not to empower women. The media’s goal is to continually keep us [women] desiring new products to correct our perceived imperfections.  Some women feel that we need to correct ourselves to attract a man. The truth is what men want is emotionally and visually different than the messages that Hollywood communicates.

Phillips: What hair issues affect Latinas? Do Latinas prefer to relax their hair or wear their hair in its natural state?

Molinary: I’m glad that you asked me this question! One of the reasons that I accepted this interview opportunity was to talk about hair issues that affect Latinas. Hair is an important issue to me. In response to your question, I think a woman’s hair is very personal. It’s not fair to tell another woman how she should wear her hair.

On behalf of women, I feel comfortable saying that all women have probably coveted another women’s hair. I know this because I coveted Selma Hyatt’s hair. For me the question was: “Do I want to try to have another woman’s hair or should I embrace my own hair?” When I was growing out my hair in college, I didn’t have any hair products designed for my hair type. During that time, ethnic hair had yet to be explored by hair product companies. I had what I considered crazy triangle shaped hair. After spending hours trying to straighten my hair, I can remember the Carolina humidity causing my hair to return to its natural crazy curly state.

After I reflected on all of the time that I invested into trying to manage my hair and buying new hair products, I learned that I spent 12.5 days per year doing my hair. Also, I realized that all of my new hair product purchases were significantly cutting into my budget. So, I made a deal with myself, I would spend 90 minutes per week on my hair and I wouldn’t buy any new hair care products until I used all of my on-hand supply. I share this experience because I want to encourage women to evaluate the energy, time, and resources that we spend on our hair. I think we need to evaluate the trade-off that we make with regard to our hair.

As I mentioned before, I have thick, crazy curly, triangle shaped hair. I relaxed (chemically treated) my hair so that I would have an easier time managing it. I now have a son, adopted from Ethiopia, and he has curly hair. After taking plenty of time to reflect on my hair, I decided to go natural as a way to connect with my son. I want him to have someone at home who shares features with him.

Phillips: Do Latinas feel pressured by American culture to disown their heritage?

Molinary: It really depends on the community where Latinas were raised and who they were surrounded by while they were maturing.  If a Latina grows up in a community that embraces diversity and she feels like she can share her culture with others, I think she will feel proud of her heritage.

But if a Latina grows up in a community that doesn’t welcome diversity, then she might experience difficulty embracing her roots.  I grew up on a military base in Columbia, SC and many of the children were from diverse backgrounds. As I mentioned before, I didn’t grow up around many Latinos but I felt like all of my peers on base brought something unique to the table.  I didn’t feel like I had to disown my heritage but I did feel exhausted by constantly having to explain my culture.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from growing up in environments with few Latinos is to always assume right intention.  Most people are just curious and oftentimes they may not have the right language to ask culturally sensitive questions, so they ask you questions in the language that they know.

I learned that I have to use other things besides language to effectively communicate with those curious minds. These situations can be uncomfortable for both people but are teachable moments.  If we use these situations to educate people who are asking uninformed questions, we may help them to never ask the same question again.

Phillips: What are the current beauty and body image issues that Latinas face?

Molinary: In Hijas Americanas, I address issues that affect Latinas but beauty and body image issues affect women of all ethnic backgrounds. After interviewing women for my book and conducting various seminars, it became quite clear that women who have body image issues lack self confidence, which translates into various vulnerabilities. The evidence of these vulnerabilities is often reflected in teenage pregnancy rates, underperformance in grade school, lower college entry rates, and poverty levels. Educating young women and helping them to gain a broader perspective on beauty and body image can help to combat these challenging issues that impact our society.

Phillips: How do the beauty and body image issues affect Latinas in relationships?

Molinary: My research indicates that insecure young girls have a high propensity to make risky sexual decisions. During teenage years, girls being a process of identity development and if they feel like something is wrong with their physical appearance, this can lead to poor decision making. The teenage years are a defining time for young girls and an important part of the journey toward womanhood. If young girls have mentors to assist them with their development, the young ladies have a greater sense of self identity.

When young girls learn to accept themselves and their bodies, they become confident young women. The process of growth and development isn’t easy but understanding oneself is necessary for beneficial relationships.  The process of learning about yourself is empowering and clarifying. When you do the work, it ends up being an awesome thing.

Phillips: In your book entitled Hijas Americans you use the term “Whitewashed.” Can you discuss the meaning of this term and its impact on Latinas?

Molinary: ‘Whitewashing’ is a disempowering world view that puts White culture on the mountain top. Often times, minority groups view themselves at the bottom of the mountain and they aspire to climb to the peak of Mount Olympus. Minority groups must learn to embrace their culture. When we overvalue another culture and devalue our culture, we become disempowered. We put ourselves at a disadvantage in a variety of areas in life.  ‘Whitewashing’ is about placing White culture on a pedestal, because of its perceived power, and simultaneously giving away your power. Latinos and other minorities must find cultural balance so we that we don’t continue to give away our power.

Phillips: What are the similar issues that affect African-American and Latina women?

Molinary: Hijas Americanas was an eye opener for women of all different backgrounds because the detailed accounts communicated the universal transformative experiences of transitioning to womanhood. Beauty and body image issues affect the majority of women. A major part of the problem is that we live in a society that is consumption-based and advertisers promote beauty products that encourage women to correct or conceal a perceived problem. The media hasn’t portrayed the average African-American or Latina woman as a standard of beauty. Both African-Americans and Latinas are stereotyped by mainstream media. Both groups of women aren’t given proper representation in mainstream media outlets.

We have more representation now but I think both groups of women are typecast in the media. Because we [African-American and Latinas] are assertive, we are perceived as threatening or the “Angry Black or Angry Latina Woman.” Stereotypes are like using the Cliff’s Notes instead of studying the entire subject matter. The mainstream media continues to use the Cliff’s Notes with African-American and Latina women. Hopefully some media executives will read this interview, read Hijas Americanas, and put away the Cliff’s Notes.  We [African-American and Latinas] deserve much more than just Cliff’s Notes.

Phillips: What suggestions do you have for Latinas to address their body image concerns?

Molinary: Body image issues are rarely only about the body. Women are unhappy with themselves and taking it out on their bodies. The first step is to get to know yourself, start the process of honoring yourself, and begin the process of making room for your whole self.  When women become more comfortable with themselves, they become more comfortable with their bodies.

Forget other people’s standards! You don’t have anybody else’s body. The only body that you need to put on a pedestal and honor is your own body. Now is the time to embrace yourself, define who you are from the inside out, and express your uniqueness. The process of being yourself doesn’t require you to spend lots of money on products, plastic surgeries, and diet plans. Your body is a gift and it deserves to be honored each day.

You can purchase Molinary’s book, “Hijas Americanas” on Amazon.

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