Carrie is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.
“You are getting fat, Carrie,” my host mom says to me as I sit down outside with my afternoon cup of coffee. “You were getting thin but now you’re getting fat again.” It shocks me because, while my weight and stature have been discussed before, she has never outright referred to me as fat in the year I’ve been living with her. It has been awhile since I’ve worked out though. I came back from Bogotá in February with pneumonia, which threw off what had been good momentum for me. I had been running three times a week and doing Pilates 6 days a week prior to that. Three weeks of being in the city fighting pneumonia and then a few weeks of recovery meant that pretty much all of February and March were in the exercise abyss. Okay, fair enough. I don’t think I was getting fat though. I feel the breeze of an oncoming storm, a good 10 degree drop in temperature, finish my coffee and go to change into my running clothes.
I first became aware of the Costeño love for beauty pageant after the drama of the 2016 Miss Universe pageant. I was preparing for my upcoming service at the time when Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner, crowning and then de-crowning Miss Colombia. “People are really mad” a currently serving PCV posted on the Facebook group we had made to prepare for service. “Beauty pageants are a thing here.” Back then, I really doubted that so many people could be that affected by the results of a beauty pageant. Sure, the mistake made for great jokes and memes, but to be angry about it seemed a bit of an exaggeration to me.
We arrived in country just as Carnaval season was kicking into full gear. The first weekend we spent in our training sites I remember as an introduction to the festivities of Carnaval, and the prevalence of beauty pageant culture on the coast (as my time spent in the interior has limited, I cannot be certain if this culture extends throughout the entirety of this diverse country). I was introduced to at least four different barrio queens that weekend. My host mother explained that each barrio had a queen, the school had a queen, there were queens for each grade, there were queens from the senior foundation…and the list went on and on. And of course, there was the Polonuevo queen. She was royalty it seemed as far as the town was concerned.
Each queen wore a variety of Carnaval costumes, full of color and sparkles, sometimes with long, full skirts, and other times incredibly short. Hair and makeup were extravagant as well. As someone who had never been around anyone who participated in beauty pageants, it was a shocking experience.
Costeños love beauty pageants. It became apparent very quickly. And the resulting attitudes toward beauty standards were exactly as you might expect. Women and men constantly comment on each other’s bodies – you’re fat, you’re big, you’re tall, you’ve got scars, you’ve got weird teeth…and on the list goes. During training, I’d hear complaints from my fellow volunteers, especially female, about being tired of hearing about how fat they are.
I arrived into this culture a fat girl. I’ve been fat my entire life. A combination of thyroid issues and lifestyle. I’ve struggled with my self-esteem and it’s taken me a very long time to come to accept myself regardless of the scale. I remember distinctly when my mindset about my weight really shifted. I was in Costa Rica and had just spent the entire day hiking around an active volcano. I was sweaty and tired but happy. My Fitbit said I’d walked over 35,000 steps and nearly 40 flights of stairs. It hit me: sure, maybe I was a bit slower than others, but there has never been a time where my weight has kept me from experiencing life. I’ve climbed mountains, swam with elephants, seen cities from the tops of castles and bell towers. I’ve met amazing people, tried amazing foods, and had some just incredible experiences – and not once did I have to weigh in to be allowed to do any of it. Sure, I would like to lose some weight someday, but it’s not a requirement for enjoying my life. I’m healthy (been medically cleared twice for Peace Corps services!). Even still, coming into a culture where my physical appearance was room for conversation was going to challenge the self-esteem I’d spent my life building!
And then, I decided to crank the volume up on the comments. My long-distance boyfriend proposed on his trip to visit me. If commenting on my weight was considered acceptable before – well now I’m getting ready for a wedding. This is a time when even in America, commenting on someone’s weight is suddenly considered appropriate conversation. “Are you going to get skinny for your wedding” was one of the first questions a fellow teacher asked me.
I think about that question a lot, often because it still gets asked. I also think about the student who, during our lesson about supermodel Alek Wek (a unit I developed on challenging beauty standards) said, “she’s ugly…her skin is too dark.”
The beauty pageant culture is big here. It’s hard to miss the effects it has on people’s opinions on what is and is not beautiful.
My answer, by the way, is “no, I will not get skinny for the wedding. I’ll try to get strong, but the most important thing is happy.”
And I say that a lot now. More than I’ve ever said those words in my life. I say it every time a young girl comments on my weight. I can lecture about the importance of self-acceptance in my classes. I can participate in girls’ empowerment activities like Camp GLOW. But, at the end of the day, I figure my time is best spent leading by example.
This is just my experience. I am a fat PCV. I embrace it. But, it is not the defining part of my service. Life doesn’t require a weigh in to experience it. It’s taken a long time to get to that point in my life, and while sometimes the comments do needle at it (and sometimes they force me out to a run), they can’t take that away from me.