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.
Jenan is the Editor in Chief of MissMuslim, a feminist, travel addict, body positive advocate, and human rights defender. She writes her feelings and is always amazed when people listen to them.
What issues have you had with your own body image that you’ve learned to love and appreciate about yourself?
When I was younger, preteen to early teenage years, I was a bit on the bigger side. My mom used to tell me I was just “big boned” because she understood how fragile teenage egos and confidence levels were, so she never ever once told me that I had to lose weight or that I wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t until kids started spreading rumors about me that I realized I had a weight issue and, from that point on, I became obsessed with being skinny. I dropped around 40 pounds right before I started high school and I just kept shedding the weight. I did whatever I had to do to keep it off from going to the gym after double sessions in volleyball to diet pills to just not eating anything substantial for a few days at a time.
Because all of my friends at the time were skinny, blonde, American girls with soft features, I also had an issue with my nose. I hated it. It’s considered a “Roman” nose — with the bump and everything. I was infatuated with one day having a “sloped” nose like all of my friends had naturally. I started to Photoshop my pictures to make my nose smaller, I’d play with my eyebrows a little until my face looked completely different and I was happy with it that way rather than how it actually looked. All through high school, people used to make fun of me and tell me I had a “beak” instead of a nose. I begged my parents for a nose job for about 3 years until they finally sat me down and told me that one day I’d appreciate the differences in my beauty and I’d stop wanting to look like other people. One day when I was in college (junior/senior year), I remember looking in the mirror at myself and realizing that I thought I was pretty. I had all these issues and thoughts in my head about what I was supposed to look like because of things other people were telling me. So, I told myself I was beautiful and finally believed it and that I was the only person I needed to listen to.
What has been your experience with learning to be comfortable in your skin and love yourself?
It definitely has not been an easy one. To this day, I still have my moments where I’m not 100% happy with how I look, but then I remember how much more there is to a person than their looks. I am smart, I am witty, I am successful, I am hard-working, and I care deeply about the people and causes that are important to me (Alhamdullilah), All of that gives me the confidence I need and I realize how silly I’m being to sit there and criticize the stretchmarks on my hips or the cellulite on my thighs. If people measure each other by every imperfection on their bodies, that’s sad on their part, but I can choose not to do the same.
As women – our bodies are constantly going through changes.
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?
When I was in 8th grade I developed a little belly, some kids started a rumor that I was pregnant and I came home crying to my mother and told her I didn’t want to go back to school. I mentioned the comments I’d get about my nose — those sucked. On top of that I had (still have) an eye twitch that people always made fun of even throughout college that just added to my insecurities – I’ll write a separate piece on that. And then I had the old aunties who used to tell me I needed to wear more makeup.
When I got older, I finally had a version of the body I “desired” for myself – but then I developed adult acne (because life is cruel sometimes), which resulted in me having cystic breakouts for about 2-3 years of my young adult life and everyone telling me that I was eating too much chocolate or that I didn’t clean my face well enough. Everything from “Put raw egg whites on your skin, it’ll be gone tomorrow” to “Use corn starch and you’ll be fine” and “Clean your face better, you just have dirty skin.” Meanwhile, I’d wash my face 4 times a day and I used every topical medication you could think of and the amount of antibiotics I tried ended up killing my immune system. It was a hormone problem. And there’s nothing worse than someone telling you it’s your fault when it’s something you can’t control. On the upside, I got really good at doing my own makeup. I avoided the camera for about 2 years and there are hardly any photos of me during this time in my life because I had just lost all of the confidence that I worked so hard to gain. When I was 24, I finally got my acne under control with the right dosage of prescriptions that I still take today.
What would you say to someone who came to you about their own struggles with self-love and acceptance?
I’d tell them that everyone has their own issues, that people who criticize others for the way they look are projecting their own issues onto others, and to only focus on your own thoughts. No one is born thinking, “I’m fat” or “I’m ugly” or “I need to look this way.” These are all social constructs that are learned and forced on us as we grow up. I’d tell them to set their own beauty standards, so long as they’re healthy ones. If you’re fixated on your flaws, dig deeper and reevaluate some things. Take into consideration everything that you have to offer this world and you’ll learn how to embrace those flaws and turn them into strengths rather than letting them hinder your ability to kick ass and be confident.
Since these issues never disappear completely, what are some things you currently grapple with and what do you do to overcome them?
Well, I can tell you that planning a wedding is certainly bringing back all of my weight issues that I struggled with when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, ha. The pressure to fit into my dress, to take photos at the perfect angle so that I look skinny or so it’s the “good side” of my nose is already driving me a little crazy and I’m still 5 months away! When I feel myself killing my own confidence, I take a step back, remember that I am marrying someone who loves me for me – flaws and all – and I relax a little. It relieves some of the pressure I’ve put on myself, to know that the person I am going to spend my life with doesn’t see my flaws the way I do.
Also, as women – our bodies are constantly going through changes. I was never stick-thin, I have always had a little bit of curve to me – and as I get older and my hormones are changing my curves are becoming more prominent and at first I’d freak out if a pair of jeans didn’t fit or when ALL of my bathing suits were suddenly too small and cutting into my body in weird places. But then I’d use it as an excuse to buy new clothes 😉. I have LOTS of cellulite on the back of my thighs and I have stretch marks on my chest, on the sides of my hips as well as on the back of my knees from when I was heavier and because of going from 5’4″ – 5’5″ to 5’8″ in just a year. At one point I was trying to laser off the stretch marks from the back of my knees but they never truly go away. Now I acknowledge that all of these “flaws” are a part of my struggle to be confident in my own skin and I’ve actually reached a point where I no longer hate them – I kind of admire them as odd as that sounds. I remind myself daily that I am a woman, and I have a “womanly” body that even though it’s only been around for 26 years, it’s been through a lot and it will most likely go through a LOT more as I get even older and start thinking of kids so I might as well accept all that makes me “me” now!
In a short sentence or phrase, create and share your own personal mantra for positive and healthy body image.
I may not be perfect to your standards, but I am perfect to my own and that’s all that matters. My body is just that — my body. It shouldn’t look like your body or her body or that body, it should look like my body and that’s exactly how it looks today.