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.
With editing by Jenan Matari
Huda Tarhuni is a London-based pastry chef, samba drummer, newbie writer, and anti-‘foodie,’ among other things.
What issues have you had with your own body image that you’ve learned to love and appreciate about yourself?
Where do I start?! My height, my weight, my hair, my teeth, my stomach, my butt, my thighs, my feet, my forehead; these are all issues that I’ve had with my body image since FOREVER. Some of them I’ve made my peace with, others I still struggle with in some way. The first thing I’ve learned to love about myself was my hair. Growing up, I was surrounded by Caucasian girls who had long, straight hair, whereas, mine was dark and super curly. I spent most of my adolescence frying my hair by straightening it with irons or a blow-dryer, but it wasn’t until I hit my mid-twenties that I had an epiphany of sorts (weirdly, thanks to Malcolm X). How my hair is naturally – is what suits me best, in that, I have a long face, so long, straight hair made my face look even LONGER, while my natural curls played off my face shape perfectly. What God gave me was perfect as is. I didn’t need to do damage to my hair trying to make it something it wasn’t. So ever since, I almost never straighten my hair, and I love my gorgeous long, dark curls.
My height has always been a weird one. I’m 5’10, which is tall for a woman, and I’m the tallest person in my family (extended family included, minus one cousin). I’ve always been taller than my peers and it’s always made me feel like a ‘big girl,’ even though I’m not overweight, and that’s something that’s still stuck in my head. I always wished I was short and petite and more ‘feminine,’ because, in my head, I equated being small with being more girly for some reason. I never grew up wearing heels. I never wanted to because I was SO self conscious of towering over everyone around me. It wasn’t until I got to college, where my peers were a hell of a lot more diverse than the American school I was in prior, that I started to feel like less of a freak. Now, I still feel like a ‘big girl’ once in a while (shopping for clothes can be a bit of a pain), but overall, I’ve made my peace with my height. Plus, I like being able to reach stuff high up in cupboards without having to fetch a stool.
It’s been a very hard experience learning to love myself and be comfortable in my skin.
My big butt… Oh, what a journey it’s been to be able to appreciate this asset rather than see it as a curse. Because of my derriere, I’ve been made to feel like I was a ‘fat girl’ even though I’ve never been overweight. Again, my peers were almost exclusively all American looking, so I was a freak of nature compared to the kids I grew up with. My best friend in high school, a guy, remarked that ‘when’ I got a boyfriend, ‘Baby Got Back’ would be his anthem for me…haha. I was never the girl that the boys wanted to date. I was far too ‘other’ and my curves were the ultimate symbol of my ‘otherness.’ Even JLo becoming popular couldn’t help me! I didn’t know how to dress in a way in which I felt good about myself because jeans never fit me properly and skirts and dresses always rode up ridiculously high in the back. Again, it wasn’t until I was out of that bubble that I realized I wasn’t a freak, that LOADS of other young women had hips and butts. By the time I hit my mid-twenties and discovered jeggings (seriously, they were such a freaking life saver), I was finally able to look in a mirror in a clothing store without wanting to burst into tears. Now, my butt, my once arch nemesis, is my favorite part of my body. To me, it’s the ultimate physical symbol of my femininity.
What has been your experience with learning to be comfortable in your skin and love yourself?
It’s been a very hard experience learning to love myself and be comfortable in my skin. It continues to be a struggle today. To be honest, it wasn’t until I started going to my counselor that I was able to look at myself and not just be thinking a stream of criticism about everything I saw. I didn’t think I was hideous, but I sure as hell didn’t think I was much to look at. So, yeah, at the beginning of my work with my counselor, she suggested that I do a ‘mirror exercise’ every time I found myself in front of a mirror. I was to sit there and find 4-5 positive things to say about my appearance. The first time I did this, it was SUCH a struggle. I spent quite a while scanning my reflection for something I liked about myself. But I kept at it, kept practicing. And gradually, it got easier, bit by bit. So, when I start to slip back into old habits of self-criticism, I go back to a mirror exercise to snap myself out of that negative mindset.
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?
Again, where to start? Comments about my weight were quite common, even when I was a young child (I was a little chubby, but nothing alarming), but I now realize that my mother’s own battle with weight loss was a huge part of that. There were the ‘cute’ Arabic nicknames like ‘Batata’ (potato, which my dad’s good friend STILL calls me). My sister STILL calls me ‘Chunks.’ In terms of my height, I still get called stuff like ‘Big Girl’ or asked that stupid cliché question of “How’s the weather up there?” The overall feeling of being seen as bigger, taller, curvier, etc., by other people has basically just enforced what I already felt about myself, so I felt like all the negative things I thought about my appearance were basically true as they were just being reinforced by people’s comments.
However, on the flip side, I’ve also learned that compliments from other people do not mean shit unless you actually believe them — unless you actually believe that you’re pretty or sexy, etc. I went through a short period of my life where I chased compliments and admiration from guys, but because I didn’t believe in them, they felt hollow, they never stuck, or the ‘high’ that I felt never lasted very long. Yet, I would still chase them, and then I got stuck in this ridiculous cycle. It wasn’t until I learned to accept my body, until I could look in the mirror and go ‘Damn, I look AWESOME!’ that I finally broke that cycle of needing someone else to validate me.
What would you say to someone who came to you about their own struggles with self-love and acceptance?
I would tell them to talk to someone about their struggles. I’m so glad I finally decided to go to a counselor when I did. I would tell them to never look to other people to make them feel beautiful, or sexy, because that ‘glow’ doesn’t last. I would tell them to learn to talk to themselves as if they were talking to a best friend, someone they love dearly, because often I’m shocked with how utterly horrible we can be to ourselves with self-criticism. I would tell them to try doing a mirror exercise, or even practice listing things they like about their appearance, even if they can only start by listing one thing. And I would tell them to keep trying because if you don’t love and accept yourself for who you are and how you look, no one in the world will give that feeling to you.
Since these issues never disappear completely, what are some things you currently grapple with and what do you do to overcome them?
Hmmm.. These change around a bit, but three things about my body that I’m not that happy about are my thighs, my stomach, and my teeth. My teeth are pretty great (I have pretty much all caps and going through that process was traumatizing), but an ex-boyfriend of mine who I was with for a while (stupidly) always made ‘jokes’ about me looking ‘horsey.’ He used to say that I looked ugly when I smiled, that I looked really bad in photos where I was showing my teeth, etc… So, that one stuck for a while. I have to keep reminding myself that I have a nice smile, that my face lights up when I smile properly, that a tight-lipped attempt looks forced and fake.
My thighs are quite solid and athletic with cellulite and thread veins galore (thanks to being a chef). I was a jock in high school and university, but sadly not anymore, so there’s a little more jiggle than I would like. However, over the past few years I’ve realized how strong my legs are, that they are the reason that I can stand in a kitchen for 16-18 hours a day without keeling over, that Allah actually blessed me by giving me a body that can handle a job that I love. So, that’s what I remind myself.
My stomach is probably the body part that I struggle with the most, my few rolls, the softness there. I have to keep reminding myself that having a couple rolls is natural, that I’m not overweight. Wearing a bikini for the first time last year was hard, but I did it and loved it. I thought I looked great, so I remind myself of that feeling. Furthermore, having to do self-injections now for my M.S., having stomach rolls makes it easier to inject in that area so I’m trying to see that as a plus!
In a short sentence or phrase, create and share your own personal mantra for positive and healthy body image.
I am the way Allah wanted me to be. I am perfect as I am.