You’ve spoken about embracing your Puerto Rican heritage. How did your upbringing help you appreciate inner beauty?
I’m a caramel baby from Chicago with Spanish-speaking parents. Growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of pop-culture icons who looked like me, so everything I learned about self-acceptance came from my family. My family refused to let anyone else’s opinions define who they were. They taught me that when people say something negative about you, it’s usually a reflection of how they feel about themselves.
You’re writing a book about what you learned from your father, called I Can and I Will: Tools My Daddy Gave Me. Why did you want to share your story?
Both my parents told me I shouldn’t let painful emotions limit my dreams. The positive power of “I can” and “I will” should be instilled in children in school too. I could’ve been the freaking president of the United States at age 21 if these principles had set in sooner.
What did you struggle with most as a teen?
Let’s just say that little Gina was a late bloomer. I got ripped to shreds for features beyond my control. I didn’t get my period until I was 16, and I was flat-chested. I also had a big booty, which kids teased me about. Now that’s a celebrated asset—women are doing 7,000 squats a day to get a booty like mine, one that I was getting ripped to shreds for when I was 11 and feeling like I was not beautiful.
How did that affect you?
I remember that I was always really confused by the images that were bombarding me in my culture and in pop culture. What is beautiful and what isn’t? What is strong and what isn’t? What’s right and wrong? All those things based off of judgment are universal truths. We decide them. And the same way we decide that body shaming is OK, is the same way we can decide that it isn’t. The same way we can decide that there is no limit to beauty, and there is no limit to opportunity based of where you’re born, or what culture you're born into, or what religion you were born in. This is the skin I am in. But it took me so long to be comfortable with the woman that I am.
Is there an insecurity you’re still working to overcome as an adult?
Today I struggle with the same types of false realities. It’s not like I am unbroken. I am broken. But now I own the ability to every day make a choice. I’m on TV, so when I see myself onscreen and notice something unflattering, it’s hard not to go to a very critical place. I have Hashimoto’s disease, which affects my thyroid. I remind myself that it’s OK if I’m a little heavier this month because my hormones are in flux or because my medication has changed.
Do you think Hollywood perpetuates the idea that women should look a certain way?
There are definitely times when the industry suggests you may not be pretty enough, thin enough, or have the right skin tone to play particular roles. I’m not worried about how adults, who should already have a strong sense of self, interpret that. I’m worried about what it says to kids who are still figuring out how to navigate society. One of the reasons I love playing Jane is that she’s uplifting and positive—that’s what makes her a badass. Her story is one I want younger generations to hear.
If you could send a message to girls everywhere, what would it be?
Don’t get caught up in false realities. It doesn’t matter whether 50 or 5,000 people like the picture you posted. Instead, hold yourself accountable for being kind to others. Sharing your blessings helps you make room for more.