Being a Fit Woman of Color in 2016

The Prelude.

I read Ann Vatow’s recent post in the Daily News where she calls for changes in her NYC neighborhood, Inwood, due to the area being “too noisy.” Having grown up and lived in Washington Heights (right below Inwood) up until this past February, I do not doubt that some nights can be louder than others but let us also remember for a second that she is talking about New York City, Manhattan at that–not a small town in Wisconsin.

What bothers me about Ann’s OpEd is not that she makes an unclear connection between a kid blasting his “dancehall” speaker on the sidewalk (I’m sorry, but can I ask for a definition please?) and the effect of train noise on a child’s reading ability, or that she admits to aggressive behavior towards a passive kid, nor that she depicts herself as a victim without a crime being committed against her. What is off putting is her third paragraph– “shocked by my aggression with a possible criminal”– as if she can easily pinpoint who is a criminal and who is not with her naked eye (is she also saying here the kid was being aggressive? Because her actions make her sound short-tempered and violent…)

She’s painting a clear picture of Inwood, a mainly Black and Hispanic neighborhood, as one of the loudest in New York City. But that’s not all. She’s also painting Inwood as one that is violent,–“the uptown street where we faced off”–full of debauchery & parties,–“I decided I was done being a noise victim in Inwood, a north Manhattan hamlet that…has reported the city’s highest volume of 311 loud-party complaints”–and filled with strife for the innocent passerby–“a gesture I assiduously avoid in my work as a yogi and health educator.” Is Ann making the assumption that this kid is in some way a part of and a reason for these 311 loud party complaints? His playing music on the sidewalk hardly seems like a party, where illegal substances are at times involved. Off of one interaction, Ann paints a kid listening to music on the sidewalk as a menace to society. She quickly mentions New Yorkers complain about noise the most, without delving into how noise is an issue in other parts of the city as well.

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Jay-Z and friends at La Marina. Courtesy of Johnny Nunez/WireImage & NY Daily News

For example, I have no doubt people near universities like NYU and Hunter would have the same complaint. Bars, lounges, smoke shops, late night hot dog stands cover all of New York City and all come with a noisy crowd. On top of that, very little nightlife closes before 4AM in the city. But Ann does not provide further clarification on her noise complaint statement. Instead she follows up with– “Nationally, too much racket has triggered violence, from California to Cleveland”–painting two places heavily populated by Black & Brown people as examples of what could become of the neighborhood if her noise ordinance is not addressed. Hmm…

 

She ends by painting herself as a helpless passerby “Yet I felt like the louder I yelled for help, the more I was ignored” in need of saving from this “violent” seemingly non-white stereo kid.

…To make matters worse, I still can’t figure out why a photo of Jay-Z and two black friends was the header image… Oy vey…

One.

I grew up questioning a lot of my identity. My parents immigrated from Dominican Republic, both by the age of 25 so I felt a lot of pressure to be “someone” because I saw their poverty as an endless struggle. My parents wanted me to become a famous lawyer or a recognized doctor or event the President of the United States of America. They made their vision incredibly clear– they wanted to see their daughter prove to the world that my nationality and my poverty did not make a second-class citizen. I wanted to become a screenwriter, a well-known novelist, someone who gave back and connected with people who understood my experience. My parents told me I had to be fierce, I had to just take the bull by the horns, I couldn’t be stopped. I felt empowered. One day while he did the dishes I told my father I wanted to be a writer and I never forgot how low I felt when he asked me “How will you do plan to make a living then?”

Two.

When I was 12, a boy I thought was cute laughed at the pants I was wearing. He asked me why my thighs jiggled so much when I walked and I never wore those paints again. Girls would laugh about my mole and boys would look at my tummy with their lips turned down. I learned to base my value off looks, and not much else. I started to think my thoughts and interests really didn’t matter, because my mom would scold me more for not doing the dishes or washing the tub but never sat down to ask me about my writing. By the time I was in High School I had conflicting feelings about being Dominican and about being a woman because I didn’t have an exotic foreign beauty (like Shakira) or non-White features (like Jessica Alba) to help people pay attention to me. I didn’t think I could become successful or make a difference if I wasn’t pretty or blessed with a pair of long gazelle-like legs. An old friend once said I would be America Ferrera’s character in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants because I looked like her. I was so ignorantly disgusted by the comment that recalling it stung for years after.

Maybe if I had known then I was beautiful, and that my thighs were made for running, and that my words could actually touch lives maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many years trying to hide.

Three.

When I decided to leave Tumblr and start blogging seriously on WordPress, my very first post, “I am The Little Dominican”, found me still questioning my identity but also my place in the Fitness industry. I dislike most Fitness magazines for encouraging women to worry about losing those 5 five pounds, and supporting the idea of a bikini body and still telling women that they should “tone” instead of telling them the truth–that when they say they tone they’re actually saying they want to build muscle!! I have had moments since that post where I have considered rebranding under a different name, a name that didn’t call my nationality out so heavily, one that didn’t require me to be “Dominican enough” to be accepted by my readers and audience. At the same time I have considered a more inclusive name, something less niche and culturally specific. But reading Ann Vatow’s article, makes me realize I can help young girls of color see themselves in their own light–rather than the light of the media.

I wanted to find women I could relate to (this was before Massy Arias, Serena Williams, and Misty Copeland). I wanted to see overweight women like me who had discovered the joys of a healthy, fit lifestyle. I wanted to find women who embraced lifting and who understood exercising did not mean losing your curves or boobs. Women who talked about ways to make rice and beans and flan a part of a balanced week. Women who could talk about the discomfort of being a full-bodied woman in the gym, and the best products to frizz at bay during spin. Women who did yoga–because yes yoga is not just for white people– and women who knew Eating Disorders do affect Black & Hispanic girls. Women creating conversations about the health issues affecting communities of color and doing the work to educate family and friends.

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Dominican “Tres Golpes”– fried eggs, mashed plantains, fried cheese & salami (featured here: chorizo, not usually included). Photo Credit: Dominicanese/Zetaboards

Growing up I never thought Dominican food could be healthy. Because my legs were strong and my shoulders were broad– I feared being “manly” or “bulky” when I should’ve been using my genetics to optimize my athletic body. I thought doing side crunches would get rid of my side handles because it was what my mom taught me. I thought I could never lose weight because I was “big boned” and because not exercising was the norm in my family. I know times have changed. But I also realize there was only one Hispanic woman speaking at the food & tech conference I attended this past weekend– it’s incredibly telling.

It’s telling when we body shame athletes– i.e. Serena Williams–but praise other athletes for “looking strong and fit with… muscular legs.” The media is telling young girls of color that being strong, being fit, being muscular, is only okay when you’re small and lean. So what happens when you’re fit, strong, muscular and curvy? What happens when you only see beautiful thick and fit bodies dancing in music videos but not in fitness videos or in fitness pages or on fitness panels? We need more perspectives from female athletes of color. Otherwise how do girls of color learn what it means to be comfortable in their skin, especially when they don’t fit into commercial sizes? And how do they learn to what a healthy fitness plan looks like or how to properly fuel their bodies when their parents might not have the proper knowledge? Now, I educate my parents on balanced meals and the benefits of exercise but when I was little a plate of full of carbs was the norm.

Four.

Here’s the truth: I am a Dominican woman who loves boxing, and being The Little Dominican Fitable to lift 35 pounds over my head and sitting down to a huge plate of tres golpes. But I am also a Dominican woman who loves looking at beautiful pictures of food, and writing about how women can learn to love their bodies–especially when they want to change their lifestyle. I am a Dominican woman who lost 35 pounds and still had hips! I am a Dominican woman who lifts heavy and has never been confused for a “man” because I had some extra muscle– can we please stop repeating that lie already? I am a Dominican woman who knows from experience Eating Disorders do not discriminate, nor are they caused by “fake anxiety issues” (true story, my dad used to think so) and I know how much it sucks to spend $60 on a blow out that literally blows out the moment sweat happens.

Epilogue.

So maybe sometimes I am not the “most Dominican” around, but that would also be denying my childhood as a New Yorker and American. I accept my love for platanos and obscure bands like Mumford and Sons. Because I am unique and my experiences can help other women (present and future) live healthier lives, love the food they eat and the body they have. And that’s pretty damn exciting to me!

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