In 2018, you’d think we’ve reached a time in which everyone can feel comfortable and beautiful in their own skin, no matter their size or shape (as they should!). Sadly, body shaming is a very real thing that is still happening more than we know. It’s hurtful and mean, and many victims stay silent. But not Jennifer Barreto-Leyva. As the world’s first Latina plus model and size activist, she knows how to speak up for herself and for others. Her mission is to show the fashion business that she is not only comfortable in her own skin, but she’s also just as good as any other model. An advocate for Latina plus size women around the globe, Jennifer tells us how she tackles haters and how she plans to change the beauty and fashion industry.
You are the first Latina plus model and activist worldwide. What made you speak up and how does it feel to be the voice for so many women?
Well, I didn’t have any positive role models growing up. The Latino culture can be super toxic with some subjects, and beauty and body image are two of them.
I was too fat, too tall, too “exotic” and a lot of other “too”s. From an early age (and still today) I’ve been called ugly, a monster and so many terrible things, even by adults, which makes it worse. I knew this was wrong and I also knew I wasn´t the only one looking and feeling like this. I always had a huge love for fashion and every time I opened a magazine or saw a movie, no Latina plus size women were there. I was so sad and upset. Big time! After I took an opportunity that life presented me, I decided to start what I’m doing since no one cared and dared to do the same before, and 25 years later, here we are.
Many women struggle with their weight insteaad of embracing the body that they have. Did you struggle with confidence issues, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I always loved my body, on my lighter or heavier weight. But I have to confess, I had a few weak moments in my life where those comments came in, or the famous “body check look” was present when I arrived to a place. It makes you feel like you are worthless or that there is something wrong with you. The feeling is just horrible. I was asked in an interview about school bullying, what motivated me to not be broken after being bullied all my life. I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, and my answer was: knowing that making someone else feel horrible wasn’t right… I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I made someone feel horrible about his/her look just because.
My best advice, and I got this conclusion after many years of work with my magazine team (with psychologists and psychiatrists), those terrible comments, looks and jokes are nothing but the reflection of the person who gave them. It’s not about you, and it will never be about you. That person is hurt, they are broken inside, they don’t love themselves – it’s not you.
What is your advice for other plus size women that are having a hard time regaining their confidence?
Society has a very twisted and sick concept of beauty. Even in the plus size industry, if you are not an hour glass shape, you are pretty much invisible and not pretty enough. It’s terrible! We need to understand that a) we are the only one’s responsible for our self-esteem, and b) the beauty industry is the second worldwide with the biggest profits, they are making a business out of your insecurities. So they will find a way to make sure you will always need them. We found out through a study that every day, human beings receive 21 hours of commercials and messages in the media saying that we are not good enough, we are imperfect etc. We need to stop this. Our kids are growing up with the idea that they are wrong and this is not OK.
Surround yourself with people with healthy self-esteem – that can be a strong support system. Forget about the idea that you need to look a certain way to be beautiful, you already are beautiful, just the way you are. You are your own beauty icon, your own body goal. Enough of comparing yourself to others! You are you and that is your power.
How do you deal with critics and the sad reality that is body shaming?
It is VERY (and I mean very) exhausting. Social media pretty much has shown me a side of humanity that I’m not exactly loving. I have followers (and random haters) that don’t love themselves enough and they project their pain onto me. This is not OK.
I had to work on myself a lot, to not let the hate win this battle. It’s not my pain or my duty to deal with it. I’ve learned that the only way to survive this is loving yourself so much that others follow this journey with you. Body shaming is present every single day of my life, in my particular case that includes my face since I don´t have a common beauty. I have to block people on social media on a daily basis. These people have no peace when there is always a body shaming comment around. My peace comes first. I work very hard to be surrounded with love and positivity. If someone has nothing nice to say about me or my body, that person has zero space on anything related to me.
What is your ultimate goal in an effort to change the fashion industry?
Diversity and inclusion, but real ones. We have made some improvements and I can’t deny that, but using a common face plus size model size 12 is playing a safe polite game. Fashion is for all, beauty is for all, so if you really are about diversity and inclusion, people like me should and must be a part of the game.
What do you love most about your body?
My eyes and my shoulders. We are always taught to learn it is our breasts or hips but what about the rest?
What is your favorite go-to fashion item?
Right now it’s my metallic shoulders accessory. I’m a bit obsessed with it.
How do you define beauty?
I know this will sound very politically correct, but beauty, for me, is how you act in life. You can have the perfect face and body but if you are a horrible person with your actions, for me you are horrible overall.
Check out Jennifer’s awesome Instagram account @jenniferbarretoleyva to see her inspiring posts about changing the way fashion works, once and for all!
Photos by Daniel Baute