Love Life Stories Wellness

Overcoming body-shaming isn’t just for teens

When I was younger, I was so tall and thin that most people thought I didn’t eat. It’s not an exaggeration – they really did.

People would relentlessly ask my mom why I was so thin and whether she ever fed me. I would cringe and retreat into my bony, skeletal frame and try to laugh off their remarks. I endured nicknames like “beanpole” and “too-tall” from my friends and family. In class photos, I was always stuck in the back with the boys – even then I was taller than them.

Clothes never fit me right – I always had to pin my skirts on the sides, even if I had bought the smallest size. Shirts hung off my body like sheets on discarded furniture – limp, listless, and not doing much but diminishing the girl within.

But I grew up in an era where we never really focused on our body image. In the late 80’s and 90’s, women were still somewhat immune to the obsessive body-image standards that we see today. So even though I was rail-thin, I didn’t feel bad about myself.

Fast forward to college when my body started to fill out a bit – specifically my hips and thighs. This was in 2000, an era in which Jennifer Lopez had made it “cool” to be curvy. Women everywhere wanted to look like her, and with my Middle Eastern and Latina genes running through me, I was already primed for that body type.

I still dressed as I always did, therefore no one really noticed my body changing except for me.  I was also too busy being the campus superstar to truly care about my body. I had a fast metabolism, was physically active, and even though my diet consisted of mostly takeout, I never gained a pound.

I thought it would be that way forever.

However, it wasn’t until the explosion of social media and the body-shaming culture that I have started to truly care about my body. Why?

Because in the last two years, I have gained about 35 pounds.

Yes, you read right. Thirty-five pounds.

I used to think about that number and mentally kick myself for letting it reach this point. How? Why? Did my body just decide to make up for all the years when my weight was stable? It seems so unfair that when I was younger and actually had time to be active, I never gained a pound.

Now, because I finally maintained a desk job, my metabolism decided to slow down.

My body betrayed me – or so I thought.

Social media has it’s positive impacts, and for me, that came in the form of articles about our bodies and how to keep them healthy. Weight gain is not always bad. For instance, muscle weighs more than fat, so even if I gained some weight, my body is much healthier being weighed down by muscle. Of course, my clothes no longer fit me, so I know that fat played some part.

But these articles also gave me some ideas on body positivity that I would have never thought of. One exercise that helped me was replacing one negative thought with a positive one when looking at my body. My wide hips and thick thighs were not an obstacle to fitting into my favorite jeans; they were instruments of strength that helped me stand on my feet after being knocked down by life’s hardships.

The extra weight around my waist was the indication of a fortunate lifestyle – I had enough to eat and was luckier than most.

Another exercise that helped me gain confidence was seeing my body through the eyes of others. I hired a photographer, went shopping, and participated in a photoshoot.

Just for fun.

When I saw myself in those photos, I beamed. I looked carefree, confident, and content. I took it even further after that; I participated in a fashion show. I modeled three designer’s clothes and strut myself up and down that runway to first-pumping music in front of hundreds of people. I was asked to speak at events in my community, and I did. As my confidence soared, my weight gain and changing body retreated into the furthest recesses of my mind.

For one to be happy, you don’t need to be a size zero. I used to keep my old clothes around as motivation, thinking that if I saw them I’d be inclined to work on my body by any means necessary. I dieted, I worked out avidly, I forced myself to give up the foods I loved.

But none of that made me happy.

So I donated all my old clothes, got rid of fad diets, and stopped forcing myself to go to the gym. Instead, I adopted a healthier lifestyle, one with lots of good, healthy food that I cook myself, plenty of water, and activities that stimulate both my body and mind.

The result?

I feel happier. I don’t stress about any extra weight gain. I don’t have a scale in my house. I workout, eat what I want, and even indulge in sweets when the mood strikes. I buy clothes that make me feel good. I wear a size 10 now, two sizes bigger than the size six I was used to.

I look back at my photos from that time and I look good, but I look even better now. Why? Because now, my happiness also comes from within. I know what my body is capable of, but more importantly, I know what I am capable of.

Life is too short to worry about the pounds; instead, I intend to make sure that I am living beyond that image.

I am making sure that I just live.

By Jinan Deena

Jinan Deena is a Palestinian American who has used writing as a tool to express herself. Growing up with two cultures, it was always hard to balance being Arab and American, as well as Muslim. Through her writing, she was allowed to create a safe space for expression and dialogue. Over the years, she has written for local newspapers, online magazines, and currently hosts her own blog.