How COVID Helped Latinas Confront Body Image Issues

Latinx Heritage Month illustration.

Amelia Manley / Verywell

“Te vez mas gorda—it seems you’ve put on some weight,” was the first comment my father made to me after we met up for the first time seven months into the pandemic. 

In early 2020, I’d been working a few contract jobs. Having recently graduated from college, I was navigating this new phase of life while figuring out how to make my own living. But once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, I lost all of my work in a matter of days. I fell into erratic routines: eating and sleeping irregularly, ceasing to exercise, and at times, not moving much at all. 

I never thought about how my body would change because of the ways I changed until eight months later—while on a walk with a friend—when we stopped to take pictures among some flowers. 

“Your tummy looks so cute!” she said, hyping me up. 

“My tummy?” I thought. I’d been wearing a shirt I believed was long enough to slide over it, so her comment confused me. But when I looked through the photos, my stomach peeped out from under a shirt that used to fit me well. 

Suddenly, I could see how my face, my upper thighs, and my underarms had all changed. In the coming months, this realization would lead me to become overly critical of myself and obsessive about tracking my eating patterns. I quickly realized that any love I previously expressed toward my body was conditional. I’d only love it if it looked a certain way.

I’m not alone. ​​For many Latinas, shutdowns have led to a reckoning with their relationships to their bodies and eating habits. 

According to a survey conducted in February 2021 by the American Psychological Association, 45% of women reported undesired weight gain during the pandemic, with an average gain of 22 pounds.

The changes we’re seeing in ourselves have forced us to face our internalized toxic beauty standards and negative views toward fatness head-on.

Complicated Relationships With Weight and Food Start Young

For many in the Latinx community, grappling with weight and eating begins at an early age. Comments from family, images in media, and even socioeconomic status all impact the way we perceive our bodies.

Nathalia Parra, 26, first became aware of her weight in the second grade, when she felt as though her belly stuck out too much in her school uniform. Her mom, in turn, told her she shouldn’t be eating pizza during recess at school. 

“It was hard, especially having two older sisters that look completely different than me, and I looked bigger than them,” Parra tells Verywell. “I remember feeling helpless, like, ‘This is [the body] I got; what do you want me to do about it?’ I just remember feeling like this wasn’t my body—it shouldn’t be.”

Natalia Lopez-Thismon, 35, remembers first thinking about her weight as a young girl when a family member commented on her wanting a second sandwich. 

“I don’t remember exactly what their words were, but it made me hyper-aware of the fact that I was ‘overeating,’” Lopez-Thismon tells Verywell. “I was a little girl, you know? Probably around 10 years old. It was the first time that I ever thought, ‘Oh, I have weight that I should worry about.’” 

Economic hardship further complicated Lopez-Thismon's relationship with food.

For a time, Lopez-Thismon and her family were part of the 16% of Latinxs facing food insecurity, a factor at play in her eating habits as a young girl. She’d eat her breakfasts and lunches at school and, for dinner, her family divided up whatever food they had at home. 

Candy Giron, 26, also depended on free meals at school and managed a tight budget for food, which impacted her eating habits.

“My mom worked 15 or so hours a day, so meals were whatever we could get,” Giron says. “I think meals started to change for me around high school because I had to start paying for them. We didn’t always have money, so I would reduce my meals to avoid the extra cost for my family, and so my mom wouldn’t feel pressured to buy us more meals. This started to become a habit—I would eat less and less. I would eat at home, but in a sense, it’s almost like I felt I had to earn my way to eat.” 

How the Pandemic Changed Our Bodies 

When it came to coping with the stress of the pandemic, Gianni Arroyo, 24, turned to food—specifically, pastelitos de guayaba. 

Her college sent her home during her second to last semester before graduating. After settling back in with her parents, and amidst a global pandemic, she felt there wasn’t much to do but eat. 

Her weight gain was gradual. First, she gained 10 pounds. She tells Verywell her parents complimented her on how “healthy” and “good” she looked, saying that she looked “too skinny” before. 

She gained another five pounds and says her friends began talking her up about her new curves. Eventually, she headed back to college to finish her last semester.

After graduating, she gained 15 more pounds and noticed her clothes no longer fit. Her favorite pair of jeans would rip at the seams whenever she tried to put them on. 

“Every time I take a selfie, I don’t see what my loved ones see,” Arroyo says. “I see someone that needs to lose, at minimum, 10 pounds...It’s the most ridiculous body dysmorphia.”

Now, to support herself in loving the changes in her body, Arroyo has been intentional about clearing out her closet. She’s thrown out all of the clothes she will likely never fit into again. 

“I don’t want to reach for something and then be extremely sad that it doesn’t fit me anymore, Arroyo says. “So I’ve been purging my closet, and I’ve also been trying not to look at myself with disgust and being nicer in the ways I speak to myself.” 

Jenny Viveros, LCSW, saw her eating habits and routines change through the pandemic, too.

“When 2020 began, I felt like there was a fear: Are we going to make it out alive?” Viveros tells Verywell. “So I was eating and shopping a lot more. Eating more Oreos, ordering more pizza, and eating more ice cream because it made me feel good. I’d stopped dancing and moving—something that was like therapy for me.” 

Shortly after, she realized her energy and motivation were connected to what and how she was eating. She turned to Zoom to start dancing and hosting classes again. 

"A lot of the time, our bodies are speaking to us and we’re not listening,” Viveros says. “A part of self-love is listening to our bodies and supporting them the best we can. Things will affect us emotionally and our bodies will break down. So as a dancer and a therapist, I want to encourage people to connect with their bodies and what they need. Understanding how we could best support our bodies is the best form of self-care. That means supporting our body through every one of its stages.”

Showing Yourself Grace

Jacqueline Guevara, DSW, LSCW, a licensed clinical social worker in Arlington, Virginia, has seen several of her Latina clients grapple with their body image during the pandemic. 

“People have been spending a lot more time with each other than before because we’re all stuck indoors, so it’s been easier to become more agitated and irritable, but also more vigilant,” Guevara tells Verywell. “Sometimes we have these maladaptive coping mechanisms—we try to find that one thing we can control, and if we’re predisposed to eating disorders or body image issues, that is something we can grab hold of in a maladaptive way.”

She advises her clients to push those thoughts away.

“I always tell my clients: thoughts are not facts,” she says. “Do not believe the first thing that pops into your head. A lot of times our body image issues or eating disorders are spurred on by dysfunctional thinking.’”

Instead, Guevara encourages her clients to take a look at their overall wellness: their family, their friends, their job, their intimate relationships, and school.

“It becomes so much easier to focus on the negative and what you can't do, versus, showing yourself grace and really changing your relationship with food and changing your relationship with your body,” Guevara says. “[My clients and I] have talked about intuitive eating, rejecting the diet mentality, and challenging what your emotions are saying or what they're asking you to do and overall honoring what your body can do.”

Similar to Arroyo and Vivero, I’m trying to create a healthier space, both physically and in my mind, where I can cultivate a more positive relationship with my body. 

I’ve cleared my closet of any items I don’t fit into anymore. There’s no need to compare my body as it is now, to the version of myself who wore these clothes years ago.

I’m also speaking to myself a little differently. I’m reminding myself that my body carried me through one of the most tumultuous years of my life. It deserves to be honored and cherished. 

1 Source
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  1. Franko D, Coen E, Roehrig J et al. Considering J.Lo and Ugly Betty: A qualitative examination of risk factors and prevention targets for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and obesity in young Latina women. Body Image. 2012;9(3):381-387. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.04.003

By Natalia M. Pérez-Gonzalez
Natalia M. Pérez-Gonzalez is a freelance journalist whose work appears in Elite Daily, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and more.