ASUNCION, Paraguay – The music wafts backstage as a dozen plus-sized women get ready to take the catwalk.
They put on their earrings and hug each other for good luck as an assistant scurries about the room making sure everyone’s evening gowns cover their six-inch heels.
“This is like a dream come true,” says Cynthia Zena, one of the pageant contestants who’s about to hit the stage in front of dozens of roaring fans. “I was always interested in modeling, but I’ve always been chubby, so that dream always seemed very distant.”
That changed for Zena when she discovered the Miss Gordita beauty pageant, one of the few contests in Latin America that celebrates plus-sized women.
Pageant organizers say the contest helps bigger women feel good about their bodies, while working with them to develop healthy living habits. The event was founded by Mike Beras, a Brazilian events producer who recently wrote a book about romantic relationships in Paraguay.
"While writing the book, I noticed that when men here have relationships with large women, they tend to hide them," Beras said. "There's a lot of discrimination in this country."
Zena, who represents Ciudad del Este, was one of 14 women from across Paraguay to participate in this year’s contest, the fifth edition of Miss Gordita. It's a moment for her to celebrate her curves and be proud of her body.
“I had to put up with a lot of bullying when I was a teenager and sometimes I still lack confidence,” Zena told me. “But this contest has taught me that you need to accept yourself as you are, from the tip of your head to the bottom of your feet.”
Miss Gordita is not televised, so people find out about it through articles from local papers, which are shared on Facebook.
Beras says it has taken a while to convince local media outlets to cover the event.
“When you look at the media here, you’ll see that fat people mostly appear in shows about weight-loss,” Beras told me. “Miss Gordita wants to support the inclusion of overweight women in all spheres of society.”
While the contest tries to challenge traditional beauty standards, it also works with participants to change the way the women feel about themselves.
Contestants for Miss Gordita are put through a three-month training program that includes classes on personal image, modeling, and group therapy sessions with a professional psychologist. All the professional counseling and therapy is provided pro-bono.
“We are taught here that obesity can be a symptom of other problems that we may have in our lives,” said Raquel Jimenez, Miss Gordita 2015. “So before thinking about losing weight, we try to detect those wounds that are hurting us and leading us to use food as an outlet.”
Bianca Valdez, a 2016 contestant, said that the contest helped her to change how she feels about her own body. She says, the beauty pageant forced her to expose her body proudly, instead of hiding it behind baggy clothes.
“I used to dress like an old woman with big blouses and pants,” she told me, as a hairdresser curled her hair prior to the show. “Now I dress sexy, and use makeup. See how great I look?”
Miss Gordita is not just another form of therapy though. The contestants compete for prizes that include scholarships, dresses and paid vacations. They must also parade in front of cheering fans and answer typical beauty pageant questions, like “Who is the woman that inspires you the most.” [Mom, of course]
Cynthia Zena, modeling a black evening gown, was asked by judges what obesity means to her. “It’s a disease, but it's also a reality,” she said. “We can fight it with healthy diets and exercise, but to do that we must first learn to love ourselves.”
Despite her strong performance, Zena didn’t go home with the Miss Gordita crown. The honor went to Romina Verna, a 23-year-old business student and aspiring plus-sized model with sparkling green eyes.
But Zena didn’t seem too unhappy with the outcome. “This is just the beginning of something new,” Zena told me. “I think we all turned out to be winners here.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.