Latina View: When Having Curves Gets Complicated

Is there a problem with the way Latinas dress? That’s certainly the impression one gets after a slew of recent stories about men literally driven to distraction by the outfit choices of Hispanic women.

Just last week, longtime University of Florida professor Timothy Taylor was fired for reportedly stating during a lecture that Latin American women dress more provocatively than American women do. The comment was merely the latest in a string of what university officials deemed inappropriate remarks Taylor has made toward women (which allegedly included asking a female student, in class, to dance to her cell phone’s ringtone).

But lately even men without a proven track record of boorishness have been accused of reacting, well, badly to Latina bodies. This past summer, Debrahlee Lorenzana filed a lawsuit against Citigroup, claiming that she was fired from a branch of Citibank for being “too sexy”—and, specifically, that her curves, especially when clad in a turtleneck or pencil skirt, were to blame.

And, of course, earlier this month, Mexican TV reporter Inés Sainz caused a national debate over whether tight jeans and a fitted white blouse were appropriate attire for covering the New York Jets, after her choice of outfit resulted in several players acting in what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later deemed an “unprofessional” manner.

These incidents attracted the usual discourse—civilized and not-so-civilized—about whether a woman is responsible for the way men react to her appearance, and if it’s all right for men to disrespect a woman because of the clothes she has on.

But what no one is talking about is that Latinas are the ones being singled out for the way they dress—and that, in part, our body type may be to blame. The breathless coverage of Mad Men’s voluptuous Christina Hendricks is proof that, when it comes to the feminine form, our culture hasn’t seen a lot of prominent curvature in recent years. Which may explain why American men seem so flummoxed by the return—brought on, in large part, by the rapidly-growing numbers of Latinas in this country—of hips and thighs, breasts and bootys.

When a woman has a shape, it shows, even when she isn’t showing off. As television’s reigning bombshell, Sofia Vergara, confessed in a Self magazine cover story this month, she once seriously considered having reduction surgery on her size 34DD breasts, lamenting, “No matter what I wear, I look like a stripper.”

Vergara may have been poking fun at her figure, but there’s an important subtext to her comment: The actress’s concern about her body is not so much about what it actually looks like, but about how it is perceived. In other words, it is our society’s reaction to shapeliness—not the shapeliness itself—that poses a problem. For those who would say that a woman built like Vergara should make more of an effort to “hide” her figure instead of opting for body-hugging outfits (which, indeed, is what plenty of commentators said about both Lorenzana and Sainz), keep in mind it is this very sentiment that has resulted in the demand that Afghani women shroud themselves in chadris, lest men lose control, and that has also led to the stoning of women in places like Pakistan for engaging in “immodest” behavior, such as dancing.

Yet we Latinas also feel conflicted about the message we send based on what we wear: in a poll about Professor Taylor’s “provocative” comment, nearly 20% of respondents agreed that Lorenzana and Sainz reinforced “negative stereotypes about Latinas by dressing the way they do.”

This feeling is a direct result of years of having to combat an American culture that more often than not likes to characterize Latinas based on our sex appeal, instead of our smarts and strength. (The phrase “hot tamale” comes to mind.)

But just as other groups of American women have been allowed to embrace their sexuality while also achieving respect at home, in school and on the job, so, too, should Latinas begin to demand—and expect—the same.