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Women’s health activist speaks on body image

Social justice can’t be achieved until we move beyond our own body hatred. That was the message from Cuban-American writer/activist Miriam Zoila Pérez, who spoke to a group of Tidewater Community College students at the Norfolk Campus as part of a Women’s Center presentation for Women’s History Month.

Pérez writes about issues relating to gender, race and health for various national publications and anthologies.

Pérez was a sophomore in high school when her father took her to a doctor concerned about her weight. She was perplexed, particularly when the doctor put her on the drug Meridia, which did not work well for her and has since been withdrawn from the market due to its adverse side effects.

Miriam Zoila Perez

“I was 14,” Pérez said. “I had no health problems. I remember being dismayed by my father’s intervention.”

Pérez’s battle with weight and self image continued into her college years, and it is only within the last few years that she has been able to look in the mirror and accept herself for who she is. “We all experience body hatred,” she said, noting the problem doesn’t always stem from excess weight. Sometimes it’s skin color, height, hair that’s either too straight or too curly – the list goes on.

“In reality it’s all a losing battle,” said Pérez, the recipient of the Barbara Seaman Award for Activism in Women’s Health in 2010. “My ‘health’ problem at 14 wasn’t a health problem at all. It was a societal issue, a familial issue.”

Women's History Month 2012 attendance for Miriam Zoila Perez

Businesses thrive due to “norm creation,” Pérez said, meaning they tell us what is socially acceptable rather than us telling them. Americans spend $40 billion in weight loss products and services annually, she noted, and often the medical profession is willing to buy in. Procedures for breast augmentation and bariatric surgery are being performed on girls in their teens, she said. The solution? We need more exposure to real bodies that come in all shapes and sizes. We can’t fall prey to what media tell us looks good. Ultimately,  “We need to love ourselves. That’s a radical act and it’s hard to accomplish,” Pérez said. “But we can’t hate our own bodies.”