photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

Everyone experiences physical insecurities at one point or another, but I was only 9 years-old when I first experienced mine, and boy did they hit hard. My family and I had just moved to Bellerose, a neighborhood located right along the border of Queens and Nassau County. It was a lot different from any other area I've ever lived in New York. For starters, there were hardly any Latinos. The quiet, suburban town was predominantly Jewish and Indian. In fact, I was the only Latina — aside from my younger sister — at my elementary school. Growing up in an area where no one looked like me stirred up a number of identity issues I couldn't understand at the time.

Most of the kids in my class had never met a Dominican before. One of the first questions I was asked on my first day of school was, "Is Dominican like Mexican?" For many of them, “Latino” meant you were Mexican or Puerto Rican. My physical features were constantly a topic of conversation. I had long, black curly hair, big honey-hazel eyes, thick bushy brows, long lashes, and tan skin, so to many of the kids in my class I looked Indian — not Latina. To my Indian classmates, my features were still too "exotic.” Maybe it was the curly hair or the light eyes, but regardless I didn't fit in with anyone.

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Things got worse in the seventh grade when my parents decided to move my family to Flushing, Queens. I was initially excited about going to school where there was a mix of Latin kids like myself, but fitting in at this school was just as much of a struggle. I was considered ugly because my brows were too thick, my eyes were too light for my brown complexion, and I was too thin to be Latina. In fact, the kids at this school — including fellow Dominicans — said I looked "too Indian," especially on the days I chose to wear my hair straight. It felt like no matter where I went, I couldn't catch a break when it came to comments made about my appearance.
My complex continued for years until I finally decided to make some changes. In junior high I started tweezing my own eyebrows until they were pencil thin. In high school I dyed my long, black hair a honey-caramel color and wore tighter clothes to create the illusion of a curvy body, all in efforts to look "more Latina" — and it worked. The Latino kids at my school started to notice and no one was asking where I was from anymore. Peers began to simply assume I was Latina upon meeting me and I no longer had to defend my looks or discuss my nationality to anyone.

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My new look was short-lived when my bleached honey hair began to thin out. My mom had suggested I'd dye my hair back black and focus on restoring its health. "You looked so beautiful with your natural dark hair and your thick eyebrows," I remember her saying. "Those features are what make your look so unique. You don't look like anybody else." She then started showing me pictures of beautiful Latina models and actresses — Camila Alves and Emanuela De Paula — who have similar features. They had brown skin, long dark hair, big brows, and slim bodies — and they were all gorgeous. Identifying with these women made it easier for me to love and embrace my appearance.
photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

A few days after that conversation with my mom, I dyed my hair back to black and haven't gone lighter since. I took the entire summer following my high school graduation to grow out my brows, and began shopping for flowy feminine clothes that complimented my thin figure and expressed my true personal style. It's amazing how liberating it all felt.

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Once I started believing I was beautiful, so did everyone else. I started getting compliments specifically for the features I once hated about myself, including my dark hair, my bushy arches, and the way my light eyes popped against my darker skin. Becoming more confident with my looks helped me to focus on other things that should matter like my career goals and my hobbies. I'm a few months away from turning 30, and feel more confident than ever. If I could write a letter to my 9-year-old self I'd tell her what my mom told me, "Johanna, those features you hate are exactly what make you beautiful.”