Food and Culture: LGBTQ+ Clients of Latinx Backgrounds

June 29, 2022

Cultural and family values impact the relationships we have with food and with our bodies. Specifically, within Latinx cultures, food brings people together and is often seen as a love language.

Food is a way of showing people you care about them and welcoming them into your home. On the other hand, food can be weaponized and utilized to control physical appearance. The messages received from family, friends, community, media, and society shape how a young person views their body type and the relationship they have with their bodies.

Depending on the Latinx sub-culture, there are varying messages about what physical appearance should look like and what the “ideal” body type is. Due to the collectivistic nature of Latinx culture, the needs/desires of family members are more valued than the individual desires; thus, the opinions family members have about a person (including the way they look) have a significant impact on the person’s self-esteem.

Often times, multiple members of a Latinx family will police appearance by making comments towards a member’s physical appearance in order to communicate the importance of being in a smaller body.

Much of the above information references traditional, feminine, cisgender, first generation individuals, and the dynamics involving those identities. But what happens if we look at the intersection of Latinx cultural values and queer culture as it relates to food and bodies?

Historically, Latinx culture has prescribed to traditional gender roles which can sometimes directly conflict with identify, values, beliefs, and preferences. This is particularly challenging for individuals whose gender expression does not match the “expected” appearance based on gender norms.

Accordingly, much of our work at Galen Hope had included the juxtaposition of considering cultural norms, while also providing LGBTQ+ affirmative therapy to our queer identifying clients. In our process, we have found some key considerations to be useful in working with LGBTQ+ clients and their families.

4 considerations for LGBTQ+ individuals navigating Latinx cultural value systems related to food and body

1. Body image dissatisfaction can affect anyone, regardless of gender, sex, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation. LGBTQ+ clients of Latinx background are at increased risk of experiencing significant shame, discrimination, and prejudice from family members and conservative communities. This can increase their risk of developing mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

When working with LGBTQ+ clients that are from a Latinx background it is crucial to consider the role that being a double minority in this country plays in the increased risk factors associated with the mental health of these individuals.

2. As mentioned, food is a love language in the Latinx community. However, mealtimes and family gatherings could be very challenging for members of the LGBTQ+ community if they come from a family who’s has very traditional values and beliefs or that has a low understanding of issues affecting their loved ones.

Family members can utilize mealtimes or gatherings to approach the individual negatively about their appearance, body, and different aspects of identity that might not align with traditional values within their families.

3. LGBTQ+ clients might come from a family/community in which they have experienced trauma and minority stress. They might have a challenging time connecting with therapists and other peers due to negative experiences. They might have internalized a negative sense of self based on messages received from their community which has impacted their ability to connect with themselves.

4. LGBTQ+ clients are at higher risk of developing body image dissatisfaction and eating disorder. They might utilize behaviors such as restriction, bingeing, purging as a form of coping with intense emotions and struggles with their voices being heard. In addition, some clients might experience the need to change their appearance to fit in with society as they fear feeling rejected.

Irrefutably, our work with Latinx LGBTQ+ clients and their families focuses on providing a compassionate and culturally sensitive approach that creates a safe space and corrective experiences for them.

As mentioned, the collectivistic nature of the Latinx culture emphasizes the importance of including family in treatment. Family sessions and parent coaching are crucial in the process of supporting the client. It is ideal if parents receive psychoeducation on their own biases/beliefs around toxic diet culture as well as traditional gender role messages that have been transmitted.

It is our role as professionals to ensure that we provide a space that feels safe, collaborative, sensitive, and respectful.

One of the most important things that can go a long way in establishing a safe space is creating a community that is welcoming and accepting of everyone’s identities and values.

Alicia Alvarez (she/her), MEd, MA, RMHCI is a primary therapist at Galen Hope in Coral Gables, Florida. Alicia completed her Master of Arts in mental health counseling at Boston College in Massachusetts, and her Master of Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Prior to working at Galen Hope, Alicia held positions at Youth Villages in Woburn MA as a regional supervisor, a triage specialist, a clinical supervisors, and a bilingual family interventionist. Alicia is fluent in Spanish and speaks conversational French. In her spare time she enjoys going to the beach with her dachshund, Beto.

Daphne Pozo (she/her), DMFT, LMFT received her doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Nova Southeastern University. She has worked as a clinician in private practice, and in various treatment, and program settings with a focus on working with teens and families with a variety of mental health diagnoses, and is currently a primary therapist at Galen Hope in Coral Gables, Florida. Daphne is a member of AAMFT, bilingual in Spanish and English, and enjoys watching Netflix, traveling, and spending time with her fiancé and her dog.

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