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Episode 50: "Lo que puede un cuerpo" (“What the Body Can Do”)

By Duolingo on Thu 26 March 2020

For 30 years, Ana Larriel struggled with her weight and her body image. Until she decided her body wasn't what needed to change. The cultural perspective she had grown up with was what needed changing.

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Martina: In 2013, Ana Larriel flew from her home in Paraguay to visit her boyfriend in Ireland. She was 26 years old and it was the first time she had ventured out on such an important trip, so she wanted to look her best. But at the store, she struggled to find anything in her size.

Ana: Yo ya no buscaba ropa linda, simplemente buscaba ropa de mi talla. Desde hacía muchos años, yo batallaba con mi cuerpo de tamaño no convencional.

Martina: She took her trip in the middle of a hot summer in Europe. After touring Dublin and Prague with her boyfriend, Ana decided to do some solo travel and went to Barcelona. Her first day there she was terribly uncomfortable.

Ana: Yo estaba en una ciudad hermosa, pero estaba usando unos jeans incómodos, y sentía que me estaba muriendo del calor. La gente en el metro llevaba ropa cómoda y fresca. Yo llegué al hostal y en ese momento fue cuando dije: "Basta".

Martina: Ana had had enough. Impulsively, she decided to act on a desire she had had for as long as she could remember. She borrowed a pair of scissors from the hostel receptionist and went back to her room.

Ana: Entonces yo tomé el jean talla XXL y lo corté por debajo de los bolsillos. Lo transformé en un short mucho más corto que las bermudas hasta las rodillas que nosotras, las gordas, socialmente podemos usar.

Martina: Freed from her long jeans, Ana felt the urge to go out and explore. But she was worried… Would people out there judge a woman her size for wearing such short shorts in public?

Ana: Me puse un traje de baño, mi short nuevo y me fui a la playa. En la calle, yo me sentía muy nerviosa y expuesta. Pero ya era hora de sentirme libre.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome back to a new season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

A quick note on the Argentinean accent: Often the LLs and Ys are pronounced with a "SH" sound, as in "aSHer" or "caSHe" instead of "ayer" or "calle". Also, similar to some other Spanish-speaking countries, the “S” is often aspirated. That means you're gonna hear an "H" sound like in "hello", rather than the typical "S" sound. So for example, "estaba" will sound more like "ehtaba" and "misma" will sound like "mihma".

Martina: When Ana thinks back on her first positive childhood memory, she thinks of her grandmother Eleuteria and her incredible cooking.

Ana: Mi abuela Eleuteria vivía con mi mamá, mi hermana y conmigo. Ella cocinaba muy bien y esa era su manera de transmitirnos su amor. Ella hacía dulces deliciosos que yo tenía totalmente prohibidos, pero a veces los comía y me sentía muy feliz.

Martina: The sweets weren't the only things that were forbidden for Ana. Ana went on a diet for the first time when she was just seven years old. Her pediatrician and her mother told her that if she lost some weight, she would be even happier than when she ate her grandma's sweets.

Ana: ¿Y quién no quiere ser feliz?

Martina: So mealtimes for Ana were always tense and rarely pleasurable.

Ana: Mi hermana Laura siempre fue muy flaca. En los almuerzos, mi madre siempre decía lo mismo: "¡Laura, comé! ¡Ana, dejá de comer!"

Martina: Laura was very skinny, so their mother allowed her to eat anything. But Ana was forbidden from having bread, fried food, candy, and soda. She could only eat things like fruit and yogurt, and was told to drink lots of water. Her lunches often consisted of two hot dogs and some lettuce.

Ana: Mi mamá era muy flaca y siempre decía que cenar era de "gordas". Entonces, ella eliminó la cena de nuestra rutina, pero yo en la noche tenía hambre. Por eso, cuando todos se iban a dormir, yo bajaba a la cocina y comía pan con mayonesa.

Martina: When Ana turned 11, her mother took her to an adult dietician who prescribed Ana weight loss pills, or pastillas. In 1990s Paraguay, the standard of feminine beauty was to be tall, light-skinned, European-looking, and thin. So the use of pills for weight loss was very common—even among kids.

Ana: Mi mamá me daba la pastilla todas las mañanas antes de ir a la escuela. Yo me sentía muy extraña cuando estaba en la clase. A veces, sentía como si alguien me jalaba el cabello muy fuerte hacia atrás, pero yo me daba vuelta y no veía a nadie detrás de mí.

Martina: This strange feeling was a side effect of the drugs. But they were working—Ana was getting skinnier. She also ate less because the pills made her dizzy and gave her an upset stomach.

Ana: Un día, mi mamá y yo fuimos a ver a una pediatra. La doctora le preguntó si me estaba dando pastillas para perder peso. Ella dijo que sí, pero que estaban hechas con hierbas naturales.

Martina: The pediatrician told Ana's mother that it wasn't possible for the pills to be natural if they were making Ana lose so much weight. The doctor explained that they were probably amphetamines, a powerful drug that was very dangerous for a girl Ana's age who was still growing.

Ana: La doctora le explicó que las anfetaminas son peligrosas porque aceleran la frecuencia cardíaca, la respiración y la presión. El uso prolongado de anfetaminas puede causar alucinaciones y paranoia intensa.

Martina: Ana's mother had no idea they were so dangerous. She thought her daughter's obesity was a serious illness that had to be treated with prescription drugs. So that day Ana stopped taking them, but she continued to maintain a strict diet through her teenage years.

Ana: Mi mamá incluso le puso un candado al refrigerador.

Martina: Un candado is a padlock, and its presence made Ana feel really insecure. It was a feeling that grew as she entered her teens. For example, June 24th in Paraguay is a holiday called Fiesta de San Juan. At school, they have traditional games and dances. It's a time when all teenagers buy new clothes to show off to their friends.

Ana: Yo odiaba ese momento del año porque buscaba algo que ponerme, pero luego pensaba: "¿Para qué me voy a poner algo lindo si nadie me va a mirar?".

Martina: Ana's teenage years were a real struggle. She watched as the other girls and boys started to become interested in each other… but that never happened for her. She began to buy into what she had heard all her life—that no one would love her if she stayed overweight.

Ana: "Nadie quiere a las gordas". Mi mamá y mis compañeras lo decían, y las revistas también. En la escuela secundaria, a mí nunca me dijeron que era linda.

Martina: Then, at age 17, Ana, her sister and her mother moved from Paraguay to Argentina, leaving her grandma Eleuteria behind. These were the hardest years for Ana. She survived thanks to small acts of rebellion, like the day she decided to get her first tattoo.

Ana: Yo empecé a tatuarme a los dieciocho años como una manera de apropiarme de mi cuerpo. Yo leí que los tatuajes son las marcas de la vida que tú mismo eliges. Me hice un tatuaje de un bambú porque es una planta rígida, pero también flexible, y eso me representa.

Martina: Two years later, Ana was diagnosed with a disease called nervous gastritis. She was referred to a nutritionist and a psychologist.

Ana: Esta es una enfermedad que provoca síntomas como la acidez y una sensación de estómago lleno. Esta enfermedad es causada por problemas emocionales como el estrés y la ansiedad. Yo siempre me sentía culpable con respecto a la comida. Normalmente, yo me cuidaba, pero, en otras ocasiones, comía en exceso.

Martina: The nutritionist recommended she go to ALCO, which stands for Anónimos Luchadores Contra la Obesidad, or Anonymous Fighters Against Obesity. It's a foundation inspired by the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

Ana: Esa fue la primera vez que conocí a tantas personas gordas que hablaban de ellas mismas. En las reuniones, nos sentábamos en círculo y decíamos cómo habíamos estado y qué habíamos comido. Escuchar a esas personas me hacía sentir acompañada. A todos nos pasaban las mismas cosas, ya no estaba sola.

Martina: In Anónimos Luchadores Contra la Obesidad, Ana finally had people around her who were also fighting to lose weight. In addition to the group meetings, Ana's treatment consisted of counting calories, chewing each bite 20 times, having a hot drink with meals to calm her hunger, and getting on the scale every week. Again, Ana lost weight. And this time, a lot of it.

Ana: Yo perdí 34 kilos en seis meses. Fue un gran sacrificio. Sin embargo, yo sentía que todos mis problemas seguían ahí: tenía la autoestima muy baja, la relación con mi madre era muy mala y creía que nadie me iba a querer.

Martina: In total, Ana lost 75 pounds—going from size XXL to M—but all of her emotional problems persisted. So she went to therapy, and started to see how her relationship with her body was tied up in her complicated relationship with her mother.

Ana: La relación con mi madre siempre fue muy compleja y eso tuvo efectos negativos en mí. Gracias al psicoanálisis, me di cuenta de que, en realidad, mi madre era la que estaba obsesionada con mi peso, no yo. Ese momento fue tan importante para mí que decidí estudiar psicología.

Martina: Ana's weight loss was short lived. In the span of five difficult years that included her grandmother's death, she regained the 75 pounds she had dropped.

Ana: Un día, unas amigas me invitaron a una fiesta. Yo no quería ir, pero ellas insistieron. Me puse un jean gigante y una camiseta negra.

Martina: As soon as she arrived at the party, Ana spotted a stylish guy in the corner smoking a tobacco pipe. He had long hair down to his shoulders and was wearing a short-sleeve shirt. He was a hipster who worked at a big tech company.

Ana: Yo quería hablar con él, pero pensé que él seguramente iba a preferir hablar con mis amigas hermosas.

Martina: Still, she figured it was worth a try.

Ana: Con mucha inseguridad, caminé hacia donde él estaba y empezamos a hablar.

Martina: Ana's bravery paid off—it turned out the attraction was mutual. Ana and the cute hipster, Martín, started dating that same night. He was Argentinian, but he was only there visiting—he lived in Europe.

Ana: Yo estaba muy enamorada, pero sobre todo sorprendida. Alguien me quería, ¡y yo no podía creerlo! Me di cuenta de que mi cuerpo no era un problema para Martín.

Martina: Ana was in love, or enamorada, and this unlocked something in her, it combined with her studies in philosophy and psychology to help her shift her perspective on her weight and her body. Perhaps she had been going about it the wrong way this whole time.

Ana: Yo comencé a ver mi cuerpo de manera diferente. Quizás el problema no era mi cuerpo, sino mi perspectiva. Entonces, decidí hacerme otro tatuaje.

Martina: Before going to visit Martín, she decided to get a new tattoo to mark the occasion. It was a phrase from the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: "No one knows what the body can do."

Ana: Esa frase me recordaba mis logros, los que antes me parecían imposibles. Ser querida y poder viajar sola me hacía sentir orgullosa de mí misma.

Martina: So back to Ana, alone in her hotel room in Barcelona—a pair of scissors in one hand, and a pair of newly cut jean shorts in the other. It was time to take the plunge. After putting on her new shorts, Ana went outside, feeling nervous and exposed. But then something extraordinary happened: Nobody seemed to care.

Ana: A nadie le importó mi pequeño gran triunfo. Nadie me miraba. En ese momento, yo me sorprendí y sentí que algo había cambiado en mí para siempre.

Martina: Ana returned to Argentina with a different desire—instead of losing her weight, she wanted to learn to love it. That's when she saw a Facebook ad for a workshop called "Hacer la vista gorda," which means "to turn a blind eye." It's a play on words because it's a group of overweight people—gordos—talking about being fat.

Ana: La idea me interesó inmediatamente. El anuncio decía que era un grupo de reflexión, y que, para participar, había que leer algunos libros.

Martina: They read books with titles like "Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement" and "Fat Liberation Manifesto." This wasn't like the Anonymous Fighters Against Obesity group. It was a space created by body-positive activists that challenge conventional standards of beauty.

Ana: La primera vez que fui a una reunión estaba muy emocionada, pero también tenía miedo. Unas diez personas participaron. Todos lo que hablaban tenían ideas muy claras con respecto al cuerpo y eso me sorprendió mucho. Recuerdo que salí completamente motivada.

Martina: The first "fat activism" workshop in Argentina happened in 2017. The goal was to transform the meaning of the word "fat"—to associate it with pride, and the freedom to exist as you are.

Ana: Un programa como este me habría ayudado muchísimo en el pasado. Yo creo que es muy importante reunirnos y acompañarnos, porque, históricamente, el lugar de las personas gordas es solitario y doloroso.

Martina: The fat activism workshop took these ideas and discussions to various places around Argentina—hospitals, schools, and universities.

Ana: Nosotros también cuestionamos la patologización de la obesidad.

Martina: Fat activists argue that the concept of obesity as an illness is flawed because standards used to diagnose it have long been influenced by prejudice against fat bodies.

Ana: Después de toda una vida con dietas, prohibiciones y culpa, yo entendí que los cuerpos gordos no son necesariamente cuerpos enfermos. Sin embargo, así me lo habían hecho creer desde pequeña.

Martina: After coming to this realization, Ana began to post openly on social media about fat activism, to speak at assemblies, and to lead her own workshops.

Ana: Al principio, para mí, era muy difícil utilizar la palabra "gorda" como bandera política. Esa descripción física nunca había estado asociada al orgullo. Pero cuando cumplí 30 años, gracias a mi largo camino, pude definirme como "activista gorda".

Martina: Fat activism continues to grow in Argentina, and Ana is an important member of this movement. So far, five thousand people have participated in workshops by the group "Hacer la vista gorda."

Ana: Yo recuerdo una vez que fuimos a hablar a una escuela secundaria. Cuando terminamos, unas chicas fueron a darme las gracias. Para ellas, fue muy importante cuestionar lo que nos impone la sociedad. Por ejemplo, qué comer o cómo vestirnos. Ellas me dijeron que nunca más iban a permitir comentarios gordofóbicos en la escuela.

Martina: Ana says what keeps her focused is that this is not just a fight for the right to love her own body as it is. It's for everyone to have that right as well.

Ana: Desafortunadamente, este trabajo me ha causado muchos problemas con mi madre, y hoy ya no hablamos. Ella es parte de una sociedad que es profundamente gordofóbica, es decir, que odia a las personas gordas. Por eso, yo trabajo para que la palabra gordo o gorda no se asocie con una degradación, sino que se asocie con orgullo.

Martina: Ana Larriel is a psychologist, activist and researcher based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This story was produced by Inés Ulanovsky, an audiovisual producer and scriptwriter also based in Buenos Aires.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Inés Ulanovsky
Narrator & Protagonist: Ana Larriel
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo