photo: Johanna Ferreira/Vivala
I just turned 30 and probably wear the same dress size I wore when I was 16. I've always had a slim, pear-shaped figure, but I didn't really learn to appreciate it until my early twenties. In high school, all my Latina friends had bodies curvier than J. Lo's. I was constantly told I didn't look "Latina enough" because of it. As a result, I was always looking for ways to make my little bubble butt and hips more noticeable. And when eating more wasn't cutting it (it's hard for me to gain weight), I opted for sexier clothes that would help enhance my curves.

I quickly started swapping all my nerdy and clean-cut Gap outfits for skintight Colombian jeans (the ones with no back pockets), tight crop tops, and bodycon minidresses, all in efforts to look curvier, sexier, and "more Latina." My strict Latino parents were not about it. My dad was especially concerned people would start to perceive me in a stereotypical way.

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I remember my dad calmly lecturing me one day about my "provocative outfits" and the message it could be sending out to men. Mami even weighed in, warning me about how my new dress code could lead to negative Latina stereotypes. It's unfortunate, but those stereotypes about Latinas being "hot" and "sexy" all the time still exist. All you have to do is turn on the television to see the number of Latinas who are still playing "sexy spitfire" characters (think Sofía Vergara's character on Modern Family).

My parents warned me. Did I listen? No. I felt sexier, curvier, and desired by the hot dudes at my school who had never paid attention to my nerdy ass before.

Papi got so fed up, he started waiting for me by the stairs in efforts to inspect my outfit before walking out the door. "Your jeans are way too tight. Go upstairs and change," he'd say. During the summertime, he was especially strict. "You're not leaving this house with that mini falda," I remember him saying over and over. Eventually I started sneaking my "sexy J. Lo video-inspired outfits" into my backpack and would change once I got to school. It was ridiculous. But having a complex about your body is no joke and can lead you to do crazy things. 

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Things started to change for me toward the end of my senior year in high school. The attention I originally wanted from guys was getting particularly worrisome. Dudes were actually calling me things like "spicy," "hot Latina," or "sexy Dominican," just like Papi warned me. The importance of perception finally started to dawn on me and being perceived as this hyper-sexualized Latina had started to get to me. Even my relationships with my teachers had started to change. I felt like they no longer respected me the way they used to, and while they never admitted that it had anything to do with the way I dressed, I couldn't help but sense that it did.

Papi was right: Unfortunately, people do make perceptions of you based on how you look and how you dress. I realized I was incredibly uncomfortable with this "spicy Latina" image I was putting out there with these tight little outfits. 

photo: Johanna Ferreira/Vivala

By the time I began college, I had completely revamped my wardrobe. My Colombian jeans were replaced with loose bootcut or boyfriend jeans, and I started to embrace my much more feminine and elegant style. A-line skirts and dresses that hit passed my knee became my go-to pieces normally styled with heeled booties, vintage cross-over bags, satin scarves, and trench jackets. It's been more than 10 years since my freshman year of college, and though my style has definitely evolved, feminine silhouettes are still a big part of my wardrobe.

I want to stress that there's nothing wrong with wearing tight clothes. I know a ton of amazing Latinas who wear bodycon dresses on the regular and look fierce doing so. And it's not like I've sworn away tight clothes altogether either. I love crop tops! And I occasionally wear pencil skirts or midi-length bodycon dresses when the occasion seems appropriate. But dressing "sexy" made me realize how much more comfortable, confident, and attractive I feel when I show less skin. 

People are always going to have their assumptions, and stereotypes will probably always exist, but I have to admit, I've experienced them less since changing my style. In some ways, it's unfortunate that I've had to change my wardrobe — after all, others are the ones doing the stereotyping; why should I have to change my behavior? — but that just made me realize how harmful stereotypes are, not just to me and my self-esteem, but to other Latinas and women in general.