What is beauty? Latina athletes discuss struggles and expectations

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, ESPN recently gathered five Latina athletes at a New York City beauty salon to discuss standards of beauty within the world of sports.

The athletes who convened with ESPN’s all-female team to share their stories consisted of Olympic boxer Marlen Esparza, UFC bantamweight Joselyne Edwards, Rio 2016 tennis gold medalist Monica Puig, Paralympic sitting volleyball gold medalist Nicky Nieves, and NCAA champion gymnast Luisa Blanco. They shared their experience in an effort to redefine expectations, and in doing so demonstrated the beauty and strength that define each one.

“I loved having genuine conversations and exchanging experiences,” Puig said. “Each one of us has something wonderful inside of us, and it was incredible to share it.”

In creating a space for these conversations — those involving the connection between Latina athletes, the definition of beauty and the impact on their respective careers — ESPN relied exclusively on women at each storytelling stage, including planning, production, photography, makeup, moderating (this story’s author), editing, and everything in between.



Paralympic sitting volleyball gold medalist Nicky Nieves discusses finding her place culturally as an Afro-Latina athlete.

What is beauty?

This was the first question, the one that sparked the idea behind the project as well as discussion among the panel. Clearly, the answer isn’t a simple one. Rather, it involves various elements and is unique to each participant.

“I define beauty, that of a Latina, as the fighter that each one of us is,” said Edwards, who is from Panama. “What we do each and every day that drives us to accomplish our goals.”

Edwards, who is from Panama, also touched on the importance of individuality in finding beauty and remembered how she discovered her own identity by bucking convention on hairstyles.

“I went out and got a short haircut, and I didn’t even want to look in the mirror because I would say ‘How am I going to look?'” she said. “And when I opened my eyes, I said ‘Wow, how cool.’ I chose the beauty of being Black, with the hair and culture that goes with it. And as time passed, I’d see different styles and think, ‘This is cool, it’s beautiful. I can do what I want with my hair.’ You learn to live within your own culture and be who you are.”

Per Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word, beauty is “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” However, the topic stretches beyond that description when presented to our panel, which touched on the stereotypes that have shaped the concept of feminine beauty in particular.

As if they didn’t have enough on their plates with the determination, sacrifice and dedication required to succeed, there are other factors hovering over top-level female athletes that are rarely discussed. Chief among them are the expectations of beauty regarding body type, weight, hairstyles and outfits. That’s on top of challenges involved in succeeding as a Latina athlete in the U.S., which can carry aspects of roots, appearance and language.

“We’re Latinas, we look different, but as athletes we are one. We have to push each other and love each other so that we can keep growing and succeeding,” said Nieves, who as an Afro-Latina described the dual challenge of finding her place within two cultures.

Puig said when she was teenager, a sponsor requested that she lose weight and clear her face of acne. Blanco was told that her body “wasn’t made for gymnastics” because of her wider hips.

“What I learned from this experience is that, though I’m in a sport where I feel I’m alone, the reality is there are other women who are also going through it,” Blanco said. “It gave me assurance meeting other Latinas who are going through the same struggle and have similar stories.”

As for motherhood, the panel discussed how — despite progress and increased support from teams, leagues and federations — there is still much work ahead to create ideal conditions for female athletes who choose to have children.

“I lost a fight nine months after I gave birth, and people still blamed the fact that I was a mom and not the big gash that my opponent left on my head,” Esparza said.

The panel came together having not met before but walked away with a common bond, knowing they are not alone. By opening up, they have carried the torch within their respective sports as the faces of the new generation of women athletes.

“It was such an educational conversation. I was listening the whole time because these women were unique, Latinas from different nationalities, backgrounds and sports,” said Esparza, a bronze medalist at Tokyo 2012, after the discussion. “For me it was very inspirational, because as an athlete sometimes it can be difficult to stay motivated when you feel that you’re the only one who has struggles or doubts in your mind.”