The whole culture of trying to get women to love themselves still tends to isolate and alienate women in some way (fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, colorism, etc.). The body image project is a series that highlights what real, everyday women (and some men) have done to develop a positive perception of their physical appearance thus far — how they’ve gotten to a healthy place, what they’ve done to get there, struggles and setbacks they still experience, and what they’re doing to get to a place where they feel the best about themselves and stay there.
Adwaa is a social worker and editor/writer for MissMuslim who can talk endlessly about her adorable niece and nephew, mental health issues in society, and her love for tacos. Her students seem to believe social work is a side job she does “for fun” and that she actually uses her tremendous skills and talents to save the world on the weekends. Adwaa believes in pushing oneself beyond limits and comfort zones. She recently opened herself up to adventurous activities such as rock climbing (which she now loves!), writing for a blog about both personal and professional topics, and now, opening up about past struggles with self-love and self-image.
What issues have you had with your own body image that you’ve learned to love and appreciate about yourself?
Over the years, there have always been things about the way I look that bothered me, but despite those things, I’ve always had a strong sense of self-reliance that would guide me through some difficult situations I found myself in at the hands of other peoples’ uncaring comments and unfair treatment of me.
When I was younger, I was deemed “ugly” by many who follow the light skin, light hair, blue eyes standard of beauty. My early teenage years were plagued by an inability to manage my frizzy hair, a bump in my nose which made it look too big for my small face, dark circles around my eyes, and an overbite in my front teeth. All adding up to me not standing a chance in hell of being considered ‘pretty’ in a school made up of almost all white girls with soft, walk out of the shower, air dry, and look perfect hair, skin, and smiles. During junior high, I was made fun of daily and I’m pretty sure I spent the majority of seventh grade crying myself to sleep at night because of how mean the kids were.
When I finally overcame that hurdle in high school, I grew much more comfortable in my own skin and as a person because of the greater diversity of people around me. The standards changed because people came in all shapes and sizes, weights and heights, and a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. It was a much healthier environment for me to be in and provided me the space to really focus on developing into the person I wanted to become rather than resenting people for treating me poorly based on my looks. I had such a strong sense of self by the end of high school because my accomplishments and my friendships were based on who I was as a person and the work I put into those things, which really gave me a more stable sense of confidence and self-assuredness than I believe you can get from anything else.
I spent the majority of seventh grade crying myself to sleep at night…
And now, I laugh at those who called me dark and ugly. The tanning industry is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, which means people pay money to have the skin color I was ridiculed for when I was younger. And #sorrynotsorry, I happen to love my caramel skin! I’ve also since tamed my hair, most recently with hijab, but before that, things were going well in that department. And even though braces helped correct my overbite, I was always full-teeth cheesing in pictures my whole life — until recently, when it became trendy to not smile in pictures. Alhamdulillah, though, I’ve always been a self-aware, self-assured, self-reliant kind of girl who doesn’t stop being herself to appease others. I won’t make myself uncomfortable to make you comfortable with me. I’m still going to love me and be me, regardless of whether or not others approve.
What has been your experience with learning to be comfortable in your skin and love yourself?
I truly believe that those years of my life that I was teased and taunted about my looks actually liberated me from caring about beauty standards. From then on, I always knew that people who liked me, liked me for who I am and not what I looked like. During those difficult times in junior high, the one thing I always wished and hoped for was that the good I had within would be the beauty people recognized me for and that’s what happened for me from then on. I actually didn’t even start using makeup until the end of college and it was because people at work thought I was a teenager, so I wanted to at least look my age. And now, I use it to hide my tired eyes because working in mental health doesn’t do anything good for my dark circles. Do I love every single thing about my body? No. The bump in my nose is still there. But I am at a place where I don’t resent myself for it. I embrace all the wonderful things about myself, internal and external, and focus my energy on the things I can do with the phenomenal gifts Allah (swt) gave me. I much prefer compliments in reference to my heart and character, anyway. Though, I don’t decline the other kind when they’re given because it’s helpful for the seventh grade Adwaa deep down to hear those things from time to time.
What comments have you heard over time about your weight, height, or other physical aspects of your appearance that have made it difficult to develop that self-love and acceptance?
The first time I was made very aware that I would forever be judged by my outer appearance was when my family moved to Palestine when I was eleven. I was constantly reminded of how beautiful my older sister is because of her fair skin and tall and thin frame. For years, I was referred to as “the other sister” or “the dark sister” or, worst of all, “the ugly sister.” To say it gave me a complex would be an understatement. I felt like I had to accept that I would never be considered beautiful in the eyes of people around me because my skin would never be as light as my sister’s or my mom’s. During that time living in Palestine, my mom’s relatives actually tried to convince her to use skin-lightening cream on me (Fair and Lovely, anyone?). Again, I was eleven! It’s disgusting.
“The ugly sister” complex has been one that has been hard to shake, even decades later. Whenever I’m in a vulnerable place, emotionally, I have moments of feeling as worthless as I did when I was thirteen and it’s always due to something someone else says that triggers a memory of things I was told at that age. One time in sixth grade, when I was still living in Palestine, a girl in my class told me to my face, “You’re ugly. You have dark circles. Your eyes are too close together. Your teeth are too big. And none of the boys will ever like you.” I don’t know if anyone has ever said anything worse to me in my entire life. I still find it hard to fathom that someone could say something so cruel to another person. And I’ve never ever told anyone this was said to me, until now, because I want people to know that despite how deeply those sharp words cut me, I never let it stop me from having confidence in myself as a person.
Currently, it’s not so much that mean comments impact my self-love and acceptance, but they’re hurtful and damaging because they tap into that sore spot that hasn’t fully healed. I work very hard to keep that power in my control, which is why I’m so thankful that from a young age, the need for external validation has always been relatively low. But because of that, I also have a tendency to not believe people when they do tell me nice things about myself. I assume they’re just being polite. One time, my sister’s coworker greeted me with, “Hey, beautiful!” and I legitimately turned and looked behind me to see who she was talking to. But I have a cousin who recently knocked some sense into me (not literally, but she was on the verge of it) when I made a self-deprecating joke about being ugly. Friends like that give me the reality check I need from time to time. I also have a twelve year old sister who looks up to me, so I do my best to speak kindly to myself and treat myself well because I know she’s watching. She tells me how much she admires my confidence and how I’m really smart and responsible, but then I’m also silly and obnoxious without giving a care in the world what others think. And that’s all I need to know to keep doing what I’m doing, for both our sakes.
…it gets better.
What would you say to someone who came to you about their own struggles with self-love and acceptance?
I would tell them that I’ve been there. So, I can say with certainty, it gets better. And the more you know yourself and dedicate your effort and positive energy to always being a work in progress, the stronger your invisible suit of armor becomes in its ability to repel and resist negative comments and criticisms that are only intended to stop you from seeing all that you are and are capable of becoming. You are a masterpiece created by The One who makes no mistakes. It’s time for you to embrace it.
Since these issues never disappear completely, what are some things you currently grapple with and what do you do to overcome them?
In an ironic turn of events, the last decade has seen people judge me based on my appearance because they don’t think more of me than just a pretty face and body. I was pretty-shamed by a lot of people at work who didn’t believe I knew what I was doing or talking about until they found out I had earned a Master’s degree when I was 23. One time someone even said to me, “You have insecurities?” with complete surprise in her voice when I mentioned something about feeling self-conscious sometimes. What bothers me about those situations is that it discredits the work I’ve put into being more than my physical appearance. But I’m learning (work in progress) to let that be their problem and not mine.
Of course, I struggle with not still feeling like that scrawny, “ugly” little girl in sixth and seventh grade when people make comments about me now. One guy, (who falls into that warped beauty mentality I described earlier) actually told me that I’m ‘average-looking,’ but that he’ll still marry me because he can rest easy not having to worry about other guys being interested in me. Maybe that’s actually the meanest thing anyone has ever said to me or I’ll just call it a tie.
I implemented a method used to increase self-image through positive self-talk and wrote out positive affirmations after that happened (You Deserve Better). I remind myself it’s not the worst thing I’ve had to deal with in my life, so I’ll be fine. And I am, alhamdulillah.
In a short sentence or phrase, create and share your own personal mantra for positive and healthy body image.
Be so busy being a phenomenally fabulous human that seeking the validation of others for your existence doesn’t even cross your mind.