How many times have you clicked on an article that promised to teach you how to lose weight quickly, or bought a diet pill that was supposed to magically shrink your waistline, or slathered on a product that guaranteed to give you flawless skin? How many times have you gazed in the mirror and seen everything that’s “wrong” with you, instead of anything that’s right? Who even came up with these standards of right and wrong, anyway?
The truth is, if we loved and accepted ourselves exactly the way we are – with large pores, pimples, oily scalps, cellulite, stretch marks, funny bulges, uneven teeth – the fashion and beauty industrial complex wouldn’t exist. Plastic surgery would only be used in severe medical cases, instead of cosmetically.
Enormous companies and entire industries thrive on your insecurities. It’s built into the system. It’s in the advertisements that assault you a hundred times a day, it’s in the airbrushed photos of impossibly thin women gazing at you from fashion magazines, it’s in the messages that permeate your environment from the moment you’re born.
If self-love and self-care were taught to all children at a young age, if mental health programs were always free and available, if the media carved out space for positive messaging about bodies, health, and weight, and if the fashion industry actually accepted and created clothes for all body types (without “othering” them into humiliating categories), the world would be a better place.
However, the reality is the opposite. And social media has become a fetid swamp, where masses of people, often cloaked in anonymity, freely shout their opinions on how others should look, dress, and behave. It takes courage to wade into that swamp, and proudly declare, ‘this is me’, and to face down shatteringly harsh opinions from the peanut gallery.
As the Middle East’s first curve model, Ameni Esseibi has experienced her share of criticism. As a vocal proponent of body positivity, she has intentionally started a dialogue on bullying with thought-provoking campaigns, and has often spoken about the importance of self-acceptance.
However, after a recent post went viral, in which she was pictured next to slim, blonde, body-positivity influencer Danae Mercer, hateful comments reached a fever pitch. All of the hate was directed at Esseibi. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Esseibi tells us she has refused to back down from the haters. Instead, she has a message for them, but it’s one that all of society can benefit from — if they choose to accept it.
What initially launched your career to become a curve model?
I think it would definitely be my childhood. I am a Dubai kid; I grew up in Dubai. I attended a French school, and I think growing up in a French school exacerbated a lot of my insecurities. I grew up with the Europeans, who were slim and pretty girls. When you grow up being a physically different person – the tanned one with curly hair, black eyes, black hair – you always feel different.
I got called names, but the thing is that I got called names by my friends who actually loved me, but they didn’t even know the weight of the words they were saying.
What kind of messages did you receive about your body or your looks from your family and your friend groups, and what kind of messaging did you internalize about yourself?
Coming from a North African family, the hate messages that I got the most was actually from my family – whether it was the uncles or grandparents or parents. The message was that I have a really pretty face, that I am very photogenic, and that it’s so sad to ruin my face with my body. I am a big girl, and to them my face and body don’t match. They’d always tell me to lose some weight, which would make my face look even prettier.
That probably gave you a lot of insecurity.
100%. If the people who are the closest to you, like your family, don’t accept your body, then it makes it even harder for you to accept it.
Did that feedback from your social circle give you a crisis about your weight like, ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘I need to look better’? Or did you think, “this is me, accept me as who I am”?
No, it took me a long time to have the mindset of ‘this is me’. I tried all kinds of diets, and it was so unhealthy because I’d lose 10 kilos and then I’d gain 20, I’d lose 9 and then gain 6… I was playing with my body with all the weight losing and gaining. I tried all sorts of diets. I tried seeing different nutritionists. I was very focused like, ‘I have to lose weight because this is what society wants me to look like’. It’s crazy that I had that mindset, because if you see pictures of me back then, I was actually thin. I was not even curvy. I was tall and big-boned. I am just naturally large.
There’s a pretty common children’s saying that says “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, but that’s such a wrong philosophy. Words can be even more damaging, because they can leave lasting psychological and spiritual scars.
Exactly, I always feel like if you physically get beat up or you’re in a fight or you get an injury, the injury fades away. Words can change you. They can affect your whole entire life. People don’t weigh their words because they don’t realize the impact that just one word could have on people. They underestimate the power of words.
When you meet a model, do you call her a ‘minus model’ or just a ‘model’?
You’re coming out in the region as a prominent curve model with a body-positive message. What are you seeing in your comments section? What are you seeing in your DMs? How are people responding to you?
The positivity does thankfully overshadow the negativity. I love reading my DMs, because most of the messages come from young girls just telling me their stories, telling me what they went through. They tell me about the bullying they’ve experienced, or that they are so insecure about their bodies that they can’t go to the beach. There are lots of mothers in my DMs telling me that after they gave birth, they don’t like their bodies because of the stretch marks and the cellulite. Even a lot of guys DM me saying, ‘people think guys don’t have insecurities, but we do’. We never talk about guys and their insecurities.
I love my DMs because people reach out to me from all different nationalities, different religions, different age groups, telling different stories. Some people will tell me what I am doing is wrong because I am supporting obesity, and also say negative things to me because I am Arab and I am Muslim. I am doing something that is not normal in the Arab or the Muslim culture, and I am doing something which is not largely accepted by society. I am breaking so many different stereotypes.
When you started all of this, were you intending to create a movement, or was this kind of a byproduct of you being the first?
I told myself that if I was going to do it, I am going to do it all the way. I was sick of being called names. I was always hearing curvy girls complain or even slimmer girls complain about their bodies, about the way they look, not accepting the way they look. So I told myself that I have the personality to change this, and I am going to completely do it all the way. My goal was to change the mindset and the industry, and then the rest just happened.
Do you prefer the term ‘curve’ over ‘plus-size’ and if so, why?
I really don’t like the word plus size. I always try not to be called the plus-size model. When someone calls me ‘the first plus-size model of the Middle East’, I always try to correct them. I always say, ‘when you meet a model, do you call her a minus model or just a model?’ You don’t call her a minus model, do you? Then why would you call someone a plus-size model? I am curvy, and the word ‘curvy’ is also so much sexier.
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THIS IS NORMAL: Cellulite is normal, love handles are normal. Stretch marks are normal. Curves are normal. Different bodies attached to different women with different health and wellness goals, all that’s NORMAL. Your body DOES NOT define your HEALTH. SO much of what we consume tells us we are FLAWED. Weird. Broken. Too big here. Too small there. Not soft enough or full enough or toned enough. But humans are varied. Different goals. Different bodies. Different minds. That’s not only NORMAL. It’s incredible. Interesting. And most of all, it’s wonderfully, powerfully human. Snapped with @danaemercer , the amazing body positivity activist and journalist. ——————————————————————— هذا أمر طبيعي: السيلوليت طبيعي ، ومقابض الحب طبيعية. علامات التمدد طبيعية. المنحنيات طبيعية. هيئات مختلفة مرتبطة بنساء مختلفات ذات أهداف صحية وعافية مختلفة ، كل هذا طبيعي. جسمك لا يحدد صحتك. الكثير مما نستهلكه يخبرنا أننا معيبون. عجيب. كسر. كبير جدا هنا. صغير جدا هناك. ليست لينة بما فيه الكفاية أو كاملة بما فيه الكفاية أو منغم بما فيه الكفاية. لكن البشر متنوعون. أهداف مختلفة. الهيئات المختلفة. عقول مختلفة. هذا ليس طبيعيًا فقط. إنه أمر لا يصدق. مثير للإعجاب. والأهم من ذلك كله ، أنه إنسان رائع وقوي. التقط معdanaemercer ، الناشط الإيجابي والجسم المدهش للجسم.
Recently, you and another body-positive influencer, Danae Mercer, posted the same photo on your respective accounts on Instagram. Can you describe what happened after?
Danae is a beautiful blonde girl with blue eyes and a nice body – with abs and everything – and I am a tanned girl with curly hair and black eyes. We did a picture together, and we both posted the picture on our accounts with the same caption. The message of the picture was to prove that cellulite is normal, big boobs are normal, side fat is normal. We were talking about normalizing all types of bodies.
The picture got picked up by very famous Instagram pages with lots of followers, and when we were reading the comments of all the pages that picked it up, 99% of all the hate comments were [directed at] me.
They said, ‘she’s obese’, ‘she’s promoting obesity’, ‘she’s ugly’, ‘she’s horrendous’, ‘stop making obese people famous’, ‘there is nothing beautiful in this picture’, ‘she needs to hit the gym’, ‘she needs to get a blood test’, ‘she probably has diabetes and doesn’t even know about it’, ‘she’s a whale… take her back to the sea’, even comments from guys like, ‘I would never look at her’. Really horrible comments.
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Sometimes body acceptances advocates @danaemercer and I take photos together, and often they’re shared on other accounts. Always, without fail, hatred rolls in. And always, without fail, it’s directed overwhelmingly to me. Not Danae. This is privilege. These trolls don’t know that, at the time of the photo, I saw a personal trainer ( @audreyfourcade12 ) three times a week. They don’t know that, throughout my life, I got bullied and had to deal with disgusting comments about the way I look. They don’t know that I struggled with body confidence and self love for years. They don’t know anything. They don’t know that @danaemercer have starved herself to a point where her body was shutting down and her hair was falling out and everything felt cold, always cold. They don’t care. @danaemercer ‘s body is approved but not mine. And this, this is privilege. Privilege unfurls in so many ways. And it’s complex and it’s uncomfortable. But it’s important. Because while it does’t say that other struggles aren’t valid, Or that every person is allowed to have their own overlapping layers of battles and challenges, It does say that sometimes, For some of us, Certain things are taken out of that equation. To the point we may not have even thought about it. To the point we may not have even realized just how privileged, in some ways, that we are. Like this. Here. Like these photos. I share these kind of photos knowing the sort of hate i will get. The sheer vitriol. The fury. I share it knowing I will be called brave. And this. This is privilege. #feminist #selflove #selfacceptance
What was your response to that internally? How did you feel?
At the end of the day, I am human. I have a heart with feelings, so obviously if you get a lot of hate at once, it’s overwhelming. You don’t know how to deal with it. Yes, I got attacked, but Danae did not get one single comment. She’s [traditionally] pretty. She literally got like two or three comments where they said they did not find her pretty, but that was it. There was no hate comment because her body is approved by society, her physique is approved by society, but mine is not approved. That’s why they were throwing all the hate on me.
What does it feel like to have people who don’t know you have an opinion about you?
I think that’s just social media. Everyone has an opinion about everyone without really knowing them. I always try to stay as authentic as possible on my social media. I have no filter. I always prove to everyone that I have nothing to hide, and when they ask something, I show it because I always want to show that I am like them. I am not different. But, I don’t think they care about getting to know me personally as Ameni. All they care about is what I do for them which is helping them love themselves, helping them overcome their insecurities, helping them get over the fears they have.
If more people understand that a curvy body can be a healthy body, things will change.
How do you respond to people when they say, ‘you know that this is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle’ or ‘this is promoting obesity’?
I have a really excellent doctor here. She helps me a lot on social media. She sometimes answers hateful comments, saying, ‘I am her doctor, she’s completely normal even if she is a couple of extra kilos on her. She’s normal. She’s not at risk of getting diabetes or obesity or anything else’.
Honestly, if my doctor tells me that I have to lose 20 kilos because I’m at risk of illness, I will go and lose weight without question. But, the problem is the fact that people do not even accept the idea of a curvy body being healthy. It’s automatically labelled unhealthy, and as long as this label doesn’t go away from society, that insecurity will always be there.
Eating disorders can happen to anyone, they can happen to a thin person and they can happen to a curvy person too. It’s not like because I am a big girl I am at a higher risk of having an eating disorder than a skinny girl. Not at all. We are all at risk.
Do you think that this is a moment where you can change people’s minds, or is it a losing battle because their minds are already made up?
I don’t think it’s a losing battle, because people are speaking up about it more and more, and the media is talking about it more and more… Not as much as they should and not in all the right ways, but it is definitely picking up. I think in five years, the situation will be better. If more people understand that a curvy body can be a healthy body, things will change.
There is strength in numbers. What would you say to the haters, and the people who left atrocious comments about you and not about Danae? What would you say to them directly, if you could?
I would definitely say thank you for making me realize my value, and thank you for showing me how much I could actually love myself.
So, their negativity kind of had the opposite impact on you? It made you love yourself more?
Exactly. I was always raised to believe that in every negative there is a positive. The most important message will always be to love yourself. Loving yourself is an extremely long journey; it is not something that happens overnight. It takes months and sometimes years.
I am still on that journey. Yes, I love myself way more than when I was younger, but I am not there yet. I am on this journey with my audience. I always say that the best compliment you can hear about yourself is the one that comes from you. A lot of women are not able to compliment themselves.
I do this exercise where sometimes I talk to myself in front of the mirror. I look into my eyes, in my PJs, with no makeup on, with fluffy hair, and I say, ‘you’re beautiful, you’re strong, look at everything you’ve done’. Sometimes, I feel so confident that I am able to compliment myself for hours, and other times I feel so down that I am not able to even look at myself.
It’s hard because people can like you and compliment you, but when you compliment yourself from your heart, it means real happiness. I think that’s one thing that everyone needs to know. It’s like a muscle that you have to train everyday until it’s strong. When you repeat it and repeat and repeat it, you believe it. Once you believe it, that’s when things change.