It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Jessica Marie Garcia has always had a prominent relationship with food as she grew up in a Cuban household with a single mother where she learned early that "food was love." But as the Florida native grew up to struggle with her weight and even face a health scare that forced her into a major lifestyle change, the actress's approach to food has come with challenges.
"My family showed love by making food and making sure you ate everything on your plate. And if you didn't want seconds, what was wrong with the food?" the On My Block actress recalls. "I'm an only child and food was one of my best friends."
The endless home-cooked meals made for amazing memories early, as Garcia notes that no occasion was without good food. Still, she began to learn that eating wasn't just a means of time with family or connection with her Cuban and Mexican backgrounds but instead was something associated with both health and appearance.
"My mom never said anything negative about my body, but my grandmother would. And I know that it was more from a health standpoint, but it was still like, 'You're getting too big, you need to take care of that now.' So that was where I started getting a little bit insecure about myself," Garcia explains. "Then it was kids making fun of me at school. I was always one of the biggest ones in class."
Garcia faced further reminders of body and beauty standards after school when she would get home and watch TV. She also became aware of a major lack in representation as a young plus-size Latina woman.
"I wasn't seeing myself represented on-screen. I wasn't seeing the love interest or the main character being someone who was a real plus-size," she says. "So I think I was probably about 8 or 9 when I realized that I didn't look like everyone else."
While she was growing up, the lack of representation made Garcia to feel that she needed to change herself in order to fit in as she attempted a number of diets that failed her. "I wouldn't eat all day. And then at night I would eat whatever," she said. "My metabolism was just halted."
Ultimately, it was the yo-yo dieting that threatened her chance of following her dreams of becoming an actress when she found out that her health was suffering.
"I had a bout with prediabetes," Garcia says. "That was really tough. When I found out I had just gotten Liv and Maddie [a Disney channel show that Garcia starred in until its end in 2017] and I was like, 'Oh my God, like all my dreams are coming true. I can't let this get the best of me.'"
Garcia was on the verge of being a type 2 diabetic, as her father was. Despite the family history, she felt that the condition was one she had given to herself. "The fact that I had an ability to change it, I knew that I had to," she explains.
It was then that the actress had to face her relationship with food in a way that she hadn't before by addressing the unhealthy habits she had acquired from her upbringing. "There's just certain things that become habitual," she notes of her eating. It took becoming prediabetic to allow her to see how it was truly affecting her.
"It was really just testing my willpower and realizing that I had an unhealthy relationship with food and I needed to reevaluate that in myself but also not make food the enemy," she says. "I'm not trying to win a beauty contest, I'm not trying to be the thinnest person in the room. That's never been me. I just want to be healthy."
What health looked like for her, however, was what she had to figure out.
"There's a misconception for people that are plus-size that they eat all the time and it's just an unfair stereotype," she says, sharing that there was "so much to learn" about taking care of herself and eating in a way that best suited her. A vital part of that has been coming to the understanding that her weight isn't an indication of her health.
"My weight still from that day has fluctuated back and forth. I can even see it in the seasons of On My Block. So it's something that doesn't go away," she says. "But I don't let it rule my life. If I have to wear a larger size in jeans, then I will. It's not something that I let control my entire identity or who I am."
Instead, Garcia found that embarking on her health journey allowed her to figure out who she really is. "My motivation was my future," she says. Most importantly, she's had the opportunity of evolving the trope of plus-size girls on TV through her portrayal of Jasmine on the Netflix series, which is in its final season.
"I'm a love interest. And that's so rare for anyone who is plus-size, especially for a show that doesn't comment on my size at all," she says. "They always love to give our bigger girls food in movies and such. And I'm over it. Any project that I do going forward, it will not be a thing."
But it's not only her audience that Garcia is attempting to inspire as she rids herself of the shame that so many people are made to feel over their bodies.
"I constantly have to remind myself that these negative thoughts that I have about my body are not something that I told myself. It's something that society has put on me and has put on other people," she says. "There's nothing wrong with me."