When I took my first step into the fashion scene 15 years ago, I never imagined I would turn so many heads and change so many minds not just in my country, Venezuela, but worldwide.

All the things you’ve heard about my country are true – Venezuelan women are vain, and they’ll do whatever it takes to achieve perfection.

As an oversize model, I don’t believe in that concept at all.

“She is promoting obesity and un-healthy habits,” they used to say about me.

I would try to understand the attacks and hatred toward me and my work. At the same time, thousands of people were thrilled that finally someone was brave enough to publicly say: “I have curves and I’m proud of it!”

While everyone was seeing a parade of emaciated models on TV and magazine covers, I was promoting a message of having a strong self esteem no matter what you looked liked.

Four years ago, after months of deep thinking and at the urging of the owner himself, I decided to become a contestant of the first Miss Plus Universe pageant. I was the first Latina in history to ever do so, and I won both the popular vote (from 150,000 people worldwide), and the votes from the pageant jury itself.

I have to confess it was difficult for me to become a part of it because I’ve never been interested in beauty pageants.

The way I see it, no one has the right to tell me whether I’m beautiful or not. I grew up in a culture where beauty pageants were considered the norm, not the exception, and the message drowned into your head from infancy was that beauty equals power.

That is a strong message that has a tremendous impact and negative consequences on Latinas, yet Venezuelan women believe it. We are considered to be the most beautiful women in the world, and yet the most troubled when it comes to both self acceptance and self esteem.

The numbers tell the story: We are one of the top five countries in the world for plastic surgeries and the second top country, after Argentina, for eating disorders. These are statistics I’m not proud of at all.

In 2007, I became the first Latina to be on both the cover of and featured in, “Vogue Curvy.” What surprised me was hearing both colleagues and journalists happy to finally see someone promote a more realistic and honest vision of beauty. Someone determined to show that beauty is not just about a thin waist and flat stomach.

But along with the praises, I also encountered a backlash.

There is a strong misconception when it comes to modeling and how models are “suppose to” look. I was assailed for being a plus-sized model because, critics kept saying, it supposedly “encourages” obesity and unhealthy eating habits.

Here’s the truth: Plus-sized models are portraying the size of the average, every day woman. I’m not glamorizing unattainable thinness and beauty few women can achieve.

Every time I’m interviewed, and asked to give advice to aspiring plus-size models, the first thing I say is, “Read up, investigate, and really study what kind of a market you’re getting into.”

Life led me to consider what I could do in order to change the misconceptions out there about sizes, health and body image for Latinos. That’s how Belleza XL (the first and only magazine for plus-size people in Spanish) was born. This is a magazine where anorexia, bulimia, body image, and more are the subjects we touch on by actual specialists on the topics from all over Latin America.

This battle I started 15 years ago is far from over. And, yet, along the way I’ve managed to receive one of the greatest gifts.

I’ve received the gift of hearing from people happier with their bodies, their relationships. People who are afraid to embrace their culture with pride. I’ve heard stories of people not being bullied anymore because of their weight and looks.

And that, to me, is and will always be priceless.

I AM a Curvy Latina, and proud of it!

Jennifer Barreto-Leyva is a freelance journalist in Venezuela.

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