Last Wednesday at 8 p.m., I got an email from my senior TODAY producer with a crazy request: Could I come up with a food segment for the following morning?
If you don’t know the behind-the-scenes of the show, while last-minute news stories are an everyday occurrence, the food and lifestyle segments are typically booked weeks, sometimes even months, in advance. They take days of planning, work and preparation, so this was a pretty big ask.
But I love a challenge and I thrive under pressure, so I quickly said, “I can do crazy!”
I looked in my fridge and figured out recipes for ingredients I had on hand, wrote up talking points and stayed up all night prepping, cooking and styling my kitchen so that everything would look beautiful on camera. I slept less than two hours, did my own hair and makeup and put on a new orange dress I felt was perfect for the sunny-citrus-celebration theme I had planned. Just a little over 12 hours after that initial email from my producer, I was live on the air with Hoda, Carson, Dylan and Craig.
The segment went perfectly, and I had so much fun chatting and sharing my recipes. At one point, Hoda stopped and complimented my dress and the energy I always bring to show. Carson joined in and said I was “sunshine personified.” My producers congratulated and thanked me. I felt happy and proud of my work. My social media notifications and inbox filled up with new followers and messages, mostly positive, but … a few had a different perspective.
I’ve worked on TV for a decade and am used to negative comments and messages. It’s an unfortunate part of the job, but you learn to deal with it. Most times I ignore or delete them, choosing to prioritize the overwhelmingly good energy that comes through. But this time, there were a few messages that I just couldn’t ignore.
The objection was my sunny orange dress, which on my curvy figure showed a bit more cleavage than I usually would on camera. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I was pressed for time, and don’t have the benefit of the incredible wardrobe team who would help out in moments like this back when we were all in the studio. But I also knew it was nothing terribly unlike dresses I’ve seen on countless actors and singers who appear on TODAY. In fact, a friend who did a cooking segment on the 3rd Hour that same day, wore an almost identical dress in a different color. Our bodies are different, but the dress and neckline were exactly the same. Yet, she didn’t receive comments like this:
“You are not working in Spanish television where women’s fashion is more revealing than American.”
“Kids are watching!”
“Suggest you wear more appropriate attire next time you appear on a U.S. channel."
“Do we have to look at your body?”
“I’m going to write and report you to the Today Show.”
I’m Latina, but I don’t work on Spanish language TV like Telemundo or Univision — two networks that are American/U.S. channels. (Telemundo is, in fact, a part of NBCUniversal!) At no point during my segment did anyone mention anything about me being Latina. The reason this person brought it up (as well as the parts about "reporting me," as if I hadn’t just appeared on TV in front of millions of people) is because the real complaint was never about my dress. (I’ve gotten similar comments in dresses with no cleavage.) The real issue was that, as a vibrant, curvy, Latina woman, I was thriving and being celebrated in a space that rarely makes room for people who look like me. And I was doing it not playing by rules designed for someone else, but rather on my own, authentic terms.
The real issue was that, as a vibrant, curvy, Latina woman, I was thriving and being celebrated in a space that rarely makes room for people who look like me.
I was four the first time I heard something critical about my body. Standing in my preschool ballet class wearing pale pink Capezio tights and a black leotard giggling with my friends as we tried to plié without toppling over, I heard our teacher’s voice ring out over the chatter: “Alejandra! Stop sticking out your butt. You look like a duck.”
The room filled with laughter, and I froze, suddenly hyper-aware of my body and unsure how to fix what my teacher said I did wrong. I hadn’t been sticking anything out — I was just standing there. This was the way I was shaped, with a butt that, yes, curves out quite a bit. Just like my mom’s and my grandmothers’, it's a trait inherited from generations of Puerto Rican, Taína, African and Spanish women who also stood with a similar curve and width and fullness.
Unlike those women who all grew up surrounded by women who looked like them, I grew up in a mostly white New Jersey suburb where I was always darker, curvier, chubbier and frizzier than everyone else around me.
I also inherited my bra size from these women. By third grade, I wore a C-cup bra and, coupled with my hips, my dramatic hourglass figure had become the defining characteristic of my body, a constant topic of conversation on which everyone in my life — from classmates to teachers to complete strangers — felt entitled to comment.
Unlike most stories I read about changing bodies, I distinctly remember that my discomfort was never about the way I looked. I liked my boobs and my butt and the color of my skin. What I didn’t like were the comments, which always seemed to come at the most unexpected moments, catching me off-guard when I was relaxed and happy, cutting words that always managed to replace the good feelings I felt with sudden shame and insecurity.
I quickly learned there was nothing I could do to control what people said to me. It never mattered where I was or what I wore. I got comments in my gym clothes, my school uniform, in T-shirts, in formal gowns at family weddings, even in my pajamas during slumber parties.
At 11, walking home from school with my little brother, a female crossing guard pointed at the way my chest moved under my T-shirt with each step and said, “Those are going to get you attacked if you keep bouncing them around like that.”
Unsure how to respond, I nodded and hurried down the street attempting to hold myself in place with one arm as I pulled my brother along with the other. We only lived a couple blocks from our elementary school, but from that point on, I started taking a longer route home to avoid her.
I was told by a teacher that my shape was “distracting.” The exact same outfits my thinner friends wore, on me, were deemed “too sexy.” A nun at my Catholic school said I had “a dangerous body.” A gym teacher suggested I wear a second sports bra so that I would “look less obscene” when I ran. One sweltering afternoon at a summer program I attended at Emory University in Atlanta when I was 17, a counselor saw me in the break room reading while wearing a spaghetti strap sundress and sent me to my dorm to change into “something less provocative.”
Over and over again, the message was the same: The shape of my body was inappropriate. Overly sexual. Something to be hidden, covered and controlled.
These aren’t comments based on desire but instead on shame. It's not sexual harassment (though I deal with that, too). This particular kind of criticism is more insidious; it mostly comes from women, who couch their words in the language of concern, though the underlying message is always clear.
There’s something unsettling about shaming comments from people you expect to be on your team — from women that exist in bodies with their own unique characteristics, who have had experiences like mine, who in all likelihood have been talked to the same way and should really know better. Sometimes the comments do come from a good place, however misguided, but more often than not, they’re words of control and racism.
Styles, outfits and body shapes that are praised and celebrated on white bodies are judged differently on people of color.
While body-shaming is certainly not unique to people of color or marginalized backgrounds, we live in a society that devalues bodies that are darker, bigger, curvier or otherwise “different” than the dominant culture. Black, brown and Asian bodies are often objectified and fetishized. Styles, outfits and body shapes that are praised and celebrated on white bodies are judged differently on people of color.
There isn’t a woman on television who hasn’t received complaints, harassment or even threats about her appearance. Men receive comments, too, but body-shaming is something women are overwhelmingly subject to, and the frequency and cruelty only increases the further away we exist from the accepted norm of what people on TV “should” look like.
I know there is never going to be anything that I can do to control or change the opinions or ideas of the people who look at me. At the end of the day, they’re not my concern. I care about the women who look like me — the women who see me on camera and recognize a part of themselves, whether it’s my weight, my curves, my skin color, my hair or my Latina heritage. I care about the women who have also gone through life being told that the body they were born in is some way less deserving of being seen or loved or celebrated. I want them to know there is nothing wrong or inappropriate about our bodies.
To the woman who wrote to me after my segment: I know that kids are watching — and I’m glad they are. I hope many of them are girls like I once was, and that seeing me on TV makes them realize that no matter what anyone says to them, they are good and valued and worthy of anything they dream of.