Refinery29 Somos is dedicated to elevating, educating, and inspiring a new generation of changemakers committed to Latinx visibility. It’s through this platform, created in partnership with Ulta Beauty, that we’ll explore the unique issues that affect us and dive into the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich‚ all while celebrating nuestras culturas. Here, 28-year-old Brianna Marquez, a plus model and weightlifter who overcame years of bullying, low self-esteem, and pressures from her Latinx community to conform and look a certain way, opens up about how she finally learned to accept her body. This story was told to Andrea Cheng and edited for length and clarity.
If you told me I would grow up to be a model, I’d have laughed in your face. I was painfully shy as a child — my parents have no photos of me in middle school because I refused to take them. Looking back, it had a lot to do with my weight.
I was teased for being bigger for pretty much my whole life. I have four brothers, and they were all athletes, all popular, and I was very much the opposite. I started gaining weight in fourth grade. We had these annual health tests in elementary school, and I remember in fifth grade, everyone was sharing their weight from the test. The rest of the kids were so much lighter than me — that’s when it clicked that I was bigger. From then on, I was teased and called names by my peers. My stepdad would do it too, and my brothers followed suit. They’d call me Shamu or Baby Huey, which was a cartoon duck with a large stomach.
I wanted to fade into the background. If people can’t see you, then they can’t make fun of you, right? I would wear big band T-shirts and oversized sweaters, despite living in Indio, CA, which is not a cool place. I remember my grandpa always asking me why I wore these massive hoodies. Wasn’t I hot? Well, yes, but hiding my body was more important to me.
The thing is, in many Latin families — I’m Mexican, Native American, and German — food is the way we come together. It’s the Sunday morning breakfast spread where I would check in with my family members. It’s home. Growing up, my tía would always cook, and my dad would serve us so much food. We couldn’t leave the table until we ate everything on our plate. And we didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so we couldn’t waste anything. We couldn’t afford to be picky.
But then, my tía, whom I love — she’s like my second mom — would tell me no one would marry me if I was overweight. She called me gorda or she’d talk about my panza. They wanted me to eat food and be at the table and participate, but then they’d make these comments about how I looked. It was never her intention to be malicious — she would say these things out of love. In some Latin communities, especially with the older generation, there remains this belief among many that you have to be small or look a certain way in order to live a good life.
By the time I was 21 years old, I decided I wanted to try to lose weight — mainly because I had gotten to a point where I wasn’t doing things because I had been made to feel ashamed of my size. I wasn’t going to events with friends. I wasn’t living. I was afraid of not fitting in places, afraid of what people thought of me. Back then, I would sit out rather than join in.
So, I made two major lifestyle changes: altering what I ate and how much I moved. I’m an emotional eater — if I don’t feel good about myself, I binge junk food, sweets, anything. It’s still something I struggle with — it doesn’t just go away, but I’m trying to have a different relationship with food. I cut out processed sugars and dairy, and I loaded up on fruits, vegetables, and lean meat. It was difficult, but I was determined. Before I started working out, I researched ways to exercise for about eight months. I would watch fitness videos on YouTube, research gym websites (to see if gym-goers looked like me), and drive by gyms and peer inside. The last thing I wanted was to stand out at the gym and feel like I’m being judged — those feelings can discourage someone from ever wanting to go back.
I had never worked out before, but I found a welcoming, supportive group of people at the gym: coaches, trainers, friends. They introduced me to CrossFit and eventually, Olympic-style weightlifting (which requires strength and technique) and powerlifting (all strength and squats, deadlifts, and bench presses), and differs from bodybuilding (which involves regular weights with repetitive movements). When I started lifting, I realized that I was strong, that I could actually do this — and it became my thing.
One month into weightlifting, I had my annual physical at my doctor and was told there was something wrong with my bloodwork. I went to see a liver specialist, who gave me the news: Because of my weight, my liver was under stress and I was in the beginning stages of liver failure, which is how my grandma passed away when I was a freshman in high school. He said I needed gastric bypass surgery immediately, which I didn’t want to do — I was feeling healthy and strong for the first time in my life. When I left, I cried in my car. The possibility of having to undergo surgery wasn’t the driving force behind losing weight, but it was always in the back of my mind. Over the course of the next year, I kept up with the changes I had made to my lifestyle and went back to the doctor, who, to my immense relief, said everything looked normal — I didn’t need surgery.
A couple years later, when I was 24, my friend asked me if I would be in a denim advertising campaign. I agreed, even though I was still really shy. I had no idea what I was doing. I was stiff and weird, and looking back, the whole shoot was cringey. But that was the project that caught the eye of my first agency. They reached out to me on Instagram and asked if I would be interested in modeling. I thought it was a joke at first, but it was real. I met with them and they offered me a contract.
Now, my main focus is learning to practice balance: How to eat healthy, how to not deprive myself of things I want to eat, and how to not overdo it with weightlifting. I’m still working on my relationship with food and working out. I’m healthy, but there’s still such a narrow perception of what being “healthy” or what “fitness” looks like, which is the biggest obstacle I continue to face. The meanest people to me on social media are fitness influencers and trainers. I’ve modeled for national beauty, fashion, and fitness campaigns, and any time I post a photo of a fitness campaign, I get messages that I’m promoting obesity, that I’m not fit, that I couldn’t run down a street if I tried, that there’s no way someone who looks like me could ever lift weights.
I don’t engage with them, but they still make me sad. That being said, I am starting to see a change in the few short years I’ve been modeling. Athletic brands that never had plus lines are extending their sizes and casting plus models. I have so much respect for plus models who have been doing this for five, 10 years. They’ve told me that what I’m doing now is something plus models would never dream of doing in their time.
I did my first major beauty campaign in 2018, and it was such an “oh my god” moment. When I was shooting it, I hadn’t realized its significance — I was so used to being excluded from the beauty world. But when it came out, it hit me directly in the heart. It gave me chills. To see that I was one of a handful of plus models being cast in beauty campaigns, I realized that I was a part of this change. If I had seen plus models in beauty or fashion campaigns or magazines growing up, I may not have had as much shame around my body or felt that I needed to be someone else or that I had to be a certain size. I would have realized that I was beautiful.
That being said, I’ve definitely been tokenized for being both plus and a woman of color. I consider myself a light-skinned Latina, and I want to see greater visibility for those who are darker than me, who are different from what we’ve always seen in the media. Everyone should feel seen. We’re still in the very beginning stages of complete inclusivity. We just need to keep pushing.
I don’t ever want anyone thinking they cannot do something they want to do. I’ve had girls message me to say they can’t go to the pool — they’re self-conscious about wearing a bathing suit around their friends. I’ve had older women tell me they’ve never accepted their bodies. We cannot keep bringing up women to think they can’t do things. This is something I stand by so strongly, I think because I spent so much of my life believing I couldn’t do what others could.
My family is very traditional Mexican: For some of us, you grow up, go to a school close to home, get married, and have kids. When I told my dad I was moving to LA, we didn’t talk for six months. He refused to accept that I was moving away — it just wasn’t “what women did.” But now, he tells me I’m his hero because I went out and did something, whether that was getting stronger or modeling. He’s never seen anything like it. I’m happy and I’m thriving. The next generation needs to realize that you shouldn’t hold yourself back because you don’t think you can do something or you’ve convinced yourself you’re not worthy. Live your life.
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