Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dear Latinas: Are we content being mannequins?

"Flying Mannequin (3302472992)" by Christine Zenino from Chicago, US - Flying Mannequin. Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the past several weeks I've written two pieces for AL DÍA News media about how the entertainment media objectifies Latinas. Hollywood to Latinas: Shut up and get naked deals with a study that says Latina portrayals in mainstream films (regardless of "attractiveness" of the character) are more sexualized than for any other racial or ethnic group. The second, Hollywood to Latinas, part II: Shut up while we ogle you, touches upon the choice of Emmy award-show organizers to put Sofia Vergara on a revolving pedestal (and her choice to comply) while the CEO of the academy of television arts spoke about the industry's advances in diversity.

Vergara, who has been dubbed "Sofia Vengüenza" (Sofia Shame) by Vanessa Smith, the VP of Marketing and Advertising of ImpactoNY, has responded to criticisms of allowing herself to be used, essentially, as a mannequin by saying her critics have no sense of humor. Other responses, often from Latino men (straight and gay), have posited that those critical of the Emmy bit and of Vergara don't understand Latin American cultural mores and more significantly, are simply jealous because they are ... unattractive. Well, no. Smith, for example, is a Costa Rican and extremely attractive. She's also smart as a whip and undoubtedly understands that Vergara's portrayal (on screen and off) as a dimwit distinguished only by her exaggerated accent and by her killer body has a real impact.

The fetishization of the "Latina" body has given Venezuela a curious coming-of-age tradition: cosmetic surgery. Rita di Martino (who founded a support group for the victims of faulty breast implants), told that many Venezuelan girls receive the gift of plastic surgery when they turn 15. The article goes on to state that "in 2011, Venezuelan women had nearly as much cosmetic surgery performed as their British sisters, an industry study says. Britain is over twice as large as Venezuela — and over three times richer." In fact, according to an article that appeared in the Guardian in 2011, Venezuelans often take on debt to finance their perfected bodies. "The demand for surgery is such that banks offer attractive loans for procedures, with slogans such as: 'Have your plastic on our plastic.'"

In the United States, the proliferation of beauty pageants intended for young (and very young) Latinas points to the pervasive idea that notice comes to Latinas most readily via beauty. While there is money to be made from winning pageants, participating in them is costly. And what the pageants reinforce in terms of body image and perceptions of beauty can be reprehensible (make-up on five year olds, anyone?) and downright destructive (in 2013 the Little Miss Hispanic Delaware title was taken away from 7-year-old Black Dominican contestant Jakiyah McCoy and given to blond, light-skinned runner up Tiffany Ayala). 

A study from the American Association of University Women found that Latinas between the ages of nine and 15 already have a negative body image that further drops by 38 percent as they get older. Celebrities from Demi Lovato to Shakira have admitted to body image issues severe enough that they led to eating disorders and cutting (Lovato) and prompted therapy to help deal with them (Shakira).

While body image ranks much lower as a concern for women in general in mid-life, middle-aged Latinas who undergo breast cancer surgery have greater "body image disturbance" than their peers of other races and ethnicities (Women over 50: Psychological Perspectives By Varda Muhlbauer and Joan C. Chrisler). Is it because we're more tied to the "ideal body" (generous breasts to balance a generous booty and a slender waist between) than any other race/ethncity? Maybe. 

"Latinas ... are generally thought to be more traditional in their gender role attitudes," write Muhlbauer and Chrisler, "and that might account for part reason why they have been shown to be more distressed than Black and White women after breast cancer treatment."

I'd say traditional is the wrong word, I prefer conventional. Looking at Vergara's stint on the display stand points to a conventional gender role attitude that also finds expression in some of the defenses of it. 

If you noticed, Vergara said very little while up on the pedestal. The sense that we should beautiful and seen but not heard still infects many aspects of Latina life — from Latinas who suffer domestic abuse in silence to those professionals who are told they are impolite or "too American" when they voice an opinion. Likewise, Vergara's little jokey moments were (very carefully) not rebuttals of the objectification taking place in front of her. In fact, she dealt with them in exactly the way Latin American women have long been taught to deal with piropos de albañil (the sometimes hilarious but always grotesquely sexual "compliments" catcalled from the street), that is, to neither confront and correct but to deflect through good nature and an understanding that "boys will be boys." 

Latina "femininity," of this type is never proactive, but reactive; never challenging, ever accommodating. I'd like to think we have no desire to raise daughters like this: mannequins of a type, docile and interchangeable. I'd like to think we ourselves have no desire to be like this. But perhaps we do. I recently heard a 30-ish Latina professional brush off criticism of Vergara's choices — not because she likes the stereotype the actor has chosen to embody — but because she's made so much money doing it. It's the same justification Eva Longoria uses whenever she hears criticism of the show she produces, Devious Maids.
That's another Latina stereotype, of course. That we'll do anything and everything for the bling.


Inset photo: "ReuseumManniquins" by Kencf0618 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.