How My Latino Father’s Machista Beauty Ideals Gave Me Low Self-Esteem

I learned what was and wasn’t appealing about a woman’s appearance through my dad’s lens.
The author and her father.
The author and her father.
Lola Mendez

I absolutely adore my father. So much so that it’s hard to talk about him without lapsing into clichés. My dad is my hero ― and for good reason. He’s overcome impossible hardship and thrived along the way. When he was just 24, he fled a violent military dictatorship in Uruguay and walked across South America to escape certain death. As a Latino immigrant in the United States, he successfully ran a small business for over 20 years.

Although he left everything behind in Uruguay almost 40 years ago, he still carries a slight machismo with him. Machismo can be defined as a “strong masculine pride” and is often attributed to a doctrine of sexism among Latinos.

My Uruguayan father isn’t machista in the traditional sense: He doesn’t believe in supposed gender roles regarding domestic labor or career limitations. His particular breed of machista assumes beauty is purely external ― especially in the female form. This mentality leaves no room for him to express his emotions as he associates any sort of softness with femininity. He’s always demonstrated hard masculinity, even in times of illness and mourning.

It’s difficult to understand the complexities of any society’s beauty standards. Growing up in America with an immigrant father made it especially challenging to conceptualize that the aesthetics that were normal for him were aspirational for me.

Whenever my father speaks positively about a woman, he describes her as beautiful or exotic ― the latter a term my American mother could never be. My mother may be the only woman that he respects for more than just her physical beauty. Perhaps she evades his critical eye because she isn’t Latina. She’s never fawned over his appearance or needed his recognition to be comfortable and confident in her own skin.

As a niña, I remember my dad boastfully telling stories about how he was a self-declared international playboy in his glory days. I idolized my father and was extremely susceptible to the messages about beauty that his stories portrayed. He had a box of love letters and steamy pictures of impossibly beautiful women to prove it. The heartfelt declarations of love came from slim, yet curvy women. They were models, ballerinas and socialites. There wasn’t a wallflower or unshapely woman in sight. These values greatly influenced the types of women that I thought were attractive and desirable as a young girl.

“As a niña, I remember my dad boastfully telling stories about how he was a self-declared international playboy in his glory days.”

I learned what was and wasn’t appealing about a woman’s appearance through my dad’s lens. His perception of beauty impacted the healthy development of my body esteem. It wasn’t his intention, but he created an impossible beauty standard to emulate.

It didn’t help my self-worth when my father used to tease me in Spanish about my appearance during my formative years. In Uruguay, insulting someone is endearing. I loved it when my dad would call me baby, but it crushed me when he’d call me fea and gorda ― ugly and fat ― which was how I saw myself as a child. My father was coming from a place of love, but there was truth to his words and that hurt. Using these terms were his norm, and he felt they were lighthearted jokes. I knew he also said derogatory things like this to my mom and to his Uruguayan friends, but I was too young to realize that the sentiments weren’t meant to be personal insults.

I was always outspoken and would stand up to him and ask him not to call me those hurtful words, but he never respected the request. My father never considered the consequences of his remarks. He always told me to never hide from criticism and to have thick skin, even against his words. Regardless, I internalized his idea of beauty, which negatively impacted my self-worth.

As young as 12, I aspired to be seductive someday so that I would be beautiful like the women my father admired. Like many adolescent girls, I’d spend hours standing naked in front of my full-length mirror trying to navigate the unexplored lands of my body. I started to develop early but was sure my breasts were growing in all wrong. I thought they were so ugly as they weren’t round or perky but just looked like extended pockets of fat protruding awkwardly off of my chubby body. I didn’t feel proud of my developing body, I felt ashamed. I wanted to fast forward to the moment where I’d look like the Latina women that I idolized.

“He always told me to never hide from criticism and to have thick skin, even against his words.”

It was just as impossible to live up to the beauty standards of my Latina idols as my father’s flawless former flings. I’ll never be able to live up to the expectations I had as a young girl about what makes a woman desirable. My naturally curvy body shape excludes me from attaining what I thought was the ultimate female form. I can’t be both thin and curvy like Jennifer Lopez or Sofia Vergara ― both who work tirelessly to maintain their curves, sex appeal and youthful appearance ― even in their late 40s. Latinas are idolized globally. A third of all Miss Universe winners have been Latinas. Venezuelan women have been crowned Miss Universe seven times ― more than women from any other country.

Women are hypersexualized for physical traits that we can’t control ― such as our curvaceous bodies. In my 20s, my round body transformed into the curves I always desired, but unlike my idols, I don’t have thin legs, sculpted arms and a flat tummy to accentuate my bust and behind. Instead, I’m curvy all over.

I face the scrutiny that comes with having a voluptuous body. Catcalls, sexual harassment and assault have become a normal part of my life. When I tell my father about this abuse, he suggests I leave my hair messy and wear baggy clothes ― he believes my external beauty and curvy body is what’s attracting this unwanted attention. This narrative further exhibits that he only sees beauty at the surface level. By suggesting I change my appearance to avoid being mistreated, it makes me feel as if it was my fault if I looked appealing that my appearance made perps feel invited to speak to me in a nasty way or to give unwanted touches.

Trying to get my father to understand his rhetoric toward beauty is challenging. I’ll call him out when he says something sexist. I angrily scold him whenever he whistles at a woman. If he acts flirtatious toward a young female server, I’ll stop him dead in his tracks and ask him how he’d feel if a man of his age talked to me that way. I’ll continue to reject his detrimental brand of masculinity ― even if he continues to refuse to see the damage of his words.

“Trying to get my father to understand his rhetoric toward beauty is challenging. I’ll call him out when he says something sexist. I angrily scold him whenever he whistles at a woman.”

I’m now in my late 20s and don’t hesitate to engage often with my father to help dismantle his unintentionally patronizing perspective. I do so because I love him, and I want him to recognize how harmful an external perception of beauty can be, not just for his daughters, but for all women. I want him to understand that our value as humans is so much more than our physical appearance. He usually laughs it off, but I continue to persist.

I know I can teach an old dog new tricks. He’s 71, and I finally got him to give up plastic straws, so there’s hope he can transform his mentality toward beauty too. Should I ever be fortunate enough to give him a granddaughter, he’ll know he’s never allowed to call her gorda or fea and that he must compliment her mind, not her appearance.

It’s a complex process to disabuse the inheritance from my father that beauty is only skin deep. My father’s patriarchal worldview toward beauty continues to be the only factor that strains our relationship. I spoke to my dad to let him know that I planned to write about my lifelong struggle to live up to his impossible image of beauty. We were discussing his immigration to the United States, and he started speaking of his ex-wife.

He energetically recalled that she was beautiful and exotic but added that he wasn’t in love with her. I couldn’t help but laugh as I told him that he’s solidifying my perspective that he sees women as physical objects. I inquired about her intelligence, personality and her aspirations. He dismissed these questions by saying that of course, she had all that too. But what he remembers about her is her physical appearance.

As a grown woman, I know now that beauty goes far beyond what can be seen externally. But this is a lesson I had to learn on my own. This has been consistently reinforced by my experiences traveling the world and having my own perception of beauty challenged.

I’m still learning to love myself and my beauty ― both externally and internally. Women of all sorts of shapes, sizes, races and ethnicities are beautiful. But, I still struggle to find space for myself in that rhetoric. I still struggle to see my body type as anything but sexualized. I don’t appreciate being told I’m beautiful ― I’d much rather be complimented on my abilities and accomplishments.

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