Racialicious posted a great piece, originally published on Guanabee, by Alex Alvarez called Body Language: How Nicknames Objectify Minority Women And Why I Don’t Care “How You Meant It.” It explores the relationship between culture, language, and women’s bodies, which is a complicated topic (like doctoral thesis complicated) that Alvarez does a nice job on, despite the small space:
“Gordo/a,” “gordito/a,” “flaco/a” and “flaquito/a” are also quite common. Quite literally, they mean “(little) fatty” or “(little) skinny.” Take the Univision TV series “El Gordo y La Flaca,” . . . starring Raul de Molina and Lily Estefan. . . . On a personal note, I cannot tell you how much I wished my parents would have called me “sweetie” or “pumpkin” instead of “my little fatty.” Kinda stings when you’re going through puberty. To have complained about this, of course, would make me seem like an “acomplejada,” or like I had a complex about my weight and appearance. Which would have been pretty much exactly on the money. Growing up, I had always noted the difference between my family’s lack of barriers and delineations when it came to discussing bodies, particularly women’s, and the unspoken barriers among Anglo families on TV. And perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all this is that my family member didn’t mean anything by it. They weren’t actively try to make me aware of my body. They loved their gordita, after all. But, growing up in an increasingly multi-cultural world, I was exposed to different ethnicities’ relationships to their and others’ bodies. And I would have really preferred that verbal distance between my body and the world around it. Acomplejada as that makes me.
Such physically-conscious nicknames reduce the object to nothing but a body and, while innocuous to some, they are wrought with (somewhat) unspoken criticism, even if only in the sense that it makes one aware of their weight and form each and every time one stops to think about their nickname. Particularly for females.
Now go read the whole thing and come back here so I can tell you something.
My coworker, who is South East Asian (I am being intentionally vague here again; I know that SE Asian is not a monolithic cultural entity), and I were talking about cultural approaches to women’s bodies yesterday. She told me that where she is from, it is perfectly acceptable for friends and family to approach women and remark about how much weight they’ve gained, the some way one might comment about a new hair style or a new pair of shoes. From my experience, although close interfamilial relationships are fraught with weight and body-related land mines, family friends and distant relatives generally have the tact to avoid inquiring about any recent weight gain.
The fact that I equate keeping a sock in it about my weight with tact is pretty telling, no?
I will be seeing a good chunk of my family, and probably a vast selection of my in laws, at some point this summer. While my small immediate family is fairly accustomed to their incredible shrinking and then growing and then shrinking and then growing again relative, I so rarely see my extended family that for all I know, they’ve only ever seen me fat. Or skinny.* While I feel fairly confident that my reserved (we’re Presbyterians, for shit’s sake) white upbringing will render weight-related comments verboten, I am nervous about incurring their unspoken judgment. In my “grass is greener” moments, I sort of wish that at the next massive extended family dinner, my relatives would just comment about my weight, and get the topic out there. I even have a response all worked out:
“Yes, I have gained weight! Quite a bit. My husband and I both have great jobs and are living comfortably, so we’re able to eat really, really well. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Then I would laugh all the way back through the buffet line.
*True story: I went back to my (rural, small) hometown area for my (step)grandmother’s funeral five or six years ago. I was thinner than usual (about an 8, I think) and was dying my hair dark brown at the time. I stood in the receiving line, and after the tenth or so bereaved individual walked past me in without so much as a word of condolence, I entreated my mother for explanation (or just the dispensation to get out of the damn line and go sit down) and she told me that this parade of great aunts and uncles, shirt-tail cousins, and lifelong community acquaintances did not recognize me as a granddaughter, and instead assumed I was my serial monogamist cousin’s most recent girlfriend. This realization that I was a stranger to my own people failed to spark any urge to “get to know my roots,” FYI. I also felt really badly for the cousin’s actual girlfriend, who was in attendance although not in the receiving line, and so was being roundly disregarded by an entire community while being allowed to remain in a seated position. They have since split up.