In Paraguay it’s normal, acceptable, and common to talk about people’s weight. I’ve sort of come to accept this, except one morning a man I hadn’t seen in months made a point to stop and ask if I’d gained weight. That put me over the edge—no matter how hard I try I can’t completely suppress my US upbringing. It shouldn’t have bothered me, especially seeing as I’ve lost weight since we last spoke, but it did. And there was no escaping as that morning progressed.
Subsequent conversations that day with Paraguayan men included why I didn’t have a boyfriend and then how I am a cold person because I don’t respond well to Paraguayan men’s way of being. Examples: I don’t answer catcalls; I don’t hold suggestive text conversations joking or not; and I don’t dance with random people (even if someone I know asks me to) at parties where everyone is drinking…crazy, I know.
I think it was the timing. That morning occurred days after I returned from a girls leadership camp. To have some dude engage me in a conversation by calling me fat after almost a week of talking about self-esteem and girl power created a juxtaposition of reality that was impossible to ignore. We talk about self-esteem and how it leads to bad decisions; or, more aptly, inability to stand up for yourself or what you want.
Maybe it is culturally acceptable to ask or comment about someone’s weight in Paraguay, but not it the way it was done that morning. It was a classic case of undermining someone to cow them into doing something. I didn’t take the bate, and the conversation ended promptly. There is a reason why I hadn’t talked to that particular guy or his family in months, and regardless of my weight I won’t go back on my decision to keep them out of my life.
Weight is a blurry thing in Paraguay. Everyone talks about it. Babies (both sexes) and little girls are a called “fatty” in Spanish, it’s a pet name. Girls and women (to a lesser extent boys and men also) who are overweight or very skinny will also get called the nick name “fatty.” But, the regularity of talking about weight doesn’t negate the negative connotations. You might argue that the “ideal” woman in Paraguay is a little more curvy that the “ideal” in the States, but the ideal is still skinny. The same goes for men, the “ideal” man is muscular and trim, not jiggly.
There’s a lot of ways to interpret what a Paraguayan mother means when she calls her adult daughter fat: she thinks it’s endearing, she thinks her daughter should lose weight, or she just wants to start a conversation with you (about whatever). But when the Paraguayan male calls any woman fat, there are fewer interpretations: he wants to start a conversation or he is criticizing her.
Why is putting people down, especially women, an acceptable conversation starter? Cultural differences are peachy, but things that help maintain a status quo of inequality ought to be reconsidered no matter where you live.
I served in Peru 12-14 and went through the same thing on the daily. Totally understand where you’re coming from. Some days you can brush it off and some days you just can’t. It’s good to think about the implications of what’s culturally ok (particularly concerning women) but don’t let it eat at you too much. The work you do to empower women is how you’re fighting back. Stay strong, you’re doing great!