I’ve never been thin. I’ve been toned (hardly) — athletic, even — but never thin. As a young girl, sticky and messy and as unkempt as a festering scab, I would glamorize a particular body type: stick thin, collarbones like a shield pointing out of a sweater that made for a perfect accessory when paired with an on-point outfit. Thin bodies have always been a passport into spaces I wasn’t readily allowed into.
At 17, my sister developed anorexia, gradually losing weight and touting her ultra thinness like a scout’s honorary badge. At the time, I was just 10 and plump like a human-sized gulab jamun, and cared little about bodies or beauty, deciding that I had neither. Slowly, though, the way she’d navigate her own physicality — usually with casual disdain, withholding from all kinds of food groups — began to seep into me, a porous, chubby little thing. Psychologically, I began to build myself in her image, angry that when at family functions, all the other young girls, and even the aunties, would revel at her skinniness. I was upset that I was the opposite of her completely, I’d never been thin and I wondered if I ever would be, thinking it was a sign of success.
Later, at 18, right after an unwanted pregnancy, I put on weight in all the bits women are not adorned. My belly swollen like half a watermelon, soft and mushy, thighs like soft cocoons, my boyfriend who soon left me, would regularly point out thin, attractive young woman, and say, “Don’t you love how statuesque they are?” I’d watch and then, eventually, I’d agree.
Thinness offers people privileges nobody speaks of because then we’d have to admit we’ve all bought into it. That somehow we’ve all accepted that perfection exists in a thin frame, in a skinny body. How many times have I decided on an outfit at a shop, only to try it on in the change rooms and have my heart sink because it wouldn’t fit past my hips? For the longest time, I assumed I could never be beautiful or desirable because I couldn’t wear the type of clothing that I desperately wanted. I couldn’t wear shorts because my thighs were too thick, I couldn’t wear dresses that showed my arms, because they were too fat. How many times have I talked myself out of wearing an outfit because my body didn’t look “right” in it, rather than talking myself into wearing the outfit because it is my body, and I am allowed to wear what I want?
Thinness offers people privileges nobody speaks of because then we’d
have to admit we’ve all bought into it.
Every summer I still have to negotiate with my body’s limitations. Every year, I want to wear as little as possible — booty shorts, strappy short dresses, heck even a cute linen jumpsuit — but every year I stop myself, none of those aforementioned things flatter me. Just a few days ago I walked into Beacon’s Closet, feeling fly with a pile of clothes in hand. In the dressing room, with the lighting almost made to shame you, I was reckoned with my cellulite and thick thighs, the glaring light assaulting everything about me. Soon, I walked out wanting to purchase none of the items that I had been eager to buy. None of them fit, I felt weary with my body’s limitations.
Even as a child, I understood that a skinny white woman can be put onto a platform to be idolized because they exist in a sphere of supposed global attainment: whiteness and thinness, enforcing an inescapable litmus test onto the rest of us. But, it’s not limited to just whiteness — women who are thin are simply offered and granted different advantages.
I have my fair share of beauty-related privileges. In recent years, I have done modeling jobs here and there, having been street-cast for a Gap commercial at 19. At the time, shell-shocked that I could be considered beautiful by someone — anyone — I decided that I would model for my young self, if given the chance. To rewrite the past of my ugliness, and to remind other brown, Muslim, queer women, ones who are hairy and thereby “imperfect” like me, hair at the back of our lower backs or sidled on our arms, that we could be beautiful, too.
Recently, I was on a shoot as a “real model” (or “nodel,” as in “not a model”) for a brand I genuinely liked. When I walked into the room I noticed that almost half of the other models (in total, we were six) were straight-size models, all almost over six feet. On top of this, there was only one other woman of color: a dark-skinned black model, of whom I am a big fan. I was ushered quickly into the hair and makeup section, and when I sat down, I was faced with my plethora of differences. The hair stylist looked at me through the mirror, barely hiding her impending smirk: “You’ve never modeled before, have you?” She said. Being a naturally self-deprecating person, I wanted to agree — it’d be easy to laugh it off and say, I know, right? How was I allowed into this room?
Except she was wrong. Despite the odds, I had modeled before. I sat, defiant, knowing I deserved to be there, in her chair, having my hair styled just as everyone else was.
Soon after, as though on a human conveyer belt, I was moved to the fashion stylist who asked me to take off my clothes. I was wearing fat-assed Muji cotton underwear that ballooned my backside like a bloom, so I cumbersomely took off my clothes to stand naked, fighting with myself to not feel ashamed, and was maneuvered into a burgundy red all leather outfit that looked tighter than my two calves stuck together. Halfway into the outfit, I knew it would rip.
As I reached my legs in the leather suctioned across my hips, and seconds later the stylist shouted, “Stop. It’s not gonna fit. We can’t rip it!” I was quickly rushed out like a ragdoll. I felt like a life-size troll — or worse, like a fraud. How silly I’d been to think that I could fit into these clothes.
Then, something happened: Rather than continuing to blame myself, I wondered why they had assumed I’d be a size that I clearly wasn’t. I knew this was my privilege, too, that I was a size that was still considered model worthy, that I’m a palatable body type, even if I may not be thin, but even then — I couldn’t believe the audacity to assume that I must be a certain size. The struggles of being a Medium.
It bothers me that we connote thinness with a certain brand of easy, carefree beauty, one that is reliably attainable without force or coercion. Growing up, I would mimic the television shows I watched, captivated by the joie de vivre and everyday charm of white girls like Phoebe or Rachel, the way they could wield a pizza with such ease, without disclosing their weight concerns or fear of carbs. Lest we forget the Monica fat jokes permeated Friends like a seventh character, perpetuating an idea that Monica’s late-fatness was an embarrassing accident of her youth. One that she knew better to carry into her adulthood.
Perhaps the most insulting body paradigm was Carrie Bradshaw’s, played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the Sex and the City franchise. While it remains a show that taught me a thing or two about sex and love, after recently rewatching it, there are many shocking things I never unpacked as a young teen indulging in the virtues of New York City life.
One of them was how Carrie’s toned abs were acquired through zero exercise, and a diet that included: cosmopolitans, cigarettes, and Magnolia Bakery cupcakes. In the episode “The Real Me” that also detailed Carrie’s modeling ventures, only to have no conversation about how a cis-straight-able bodied — and let’s not forget skinny-white woman documenting the perils of fashion was severely disingenuous. The show’s insistence of Carrie’s normalcy and relatable “everyday woman” vibe, suddenly felt embarrassingly short-sighted.
It was the perfect example of how we’ve constantly been taught, through pop culture, that women simply are thin, without cultivation. That chicness is inherent, not calculated, or primed to perfection. Femme bodies are anthologized, fetishized, and glorified, but they are never embraced with a totality of their existence. Or the realities of their quirks, or clumsiness.
If we want to create more open and inclusive spaces for beauty to
emerge, we also have to ensure that they will be safe for those who
The modeling industry has been lauded for changes in recent years — and, in small ways, it has changed. For instance, IMG signed Hari Nef last year as its first transgender model, while black and brown models like Bhumiko Arora and Lineisy Montero Feliz are on the cover of magazines.
Still, the takeover is glacial. All the known plus-size models are white; colorism still permeates the industry; models are nearly always able-bodied; and transgender and gender-nonconforming models are still far and few between. Models who fall into multiple marginalized identities often face double the scrutiny and discrimination.
If we really want an industry that is inclusive, we have to be more open to redefining the parameters. It seems that the fashion industry has co-opted radical speak, without considering that behind a body, there is a person, with their own baggage and insecurities. If we want to create more open and inclusive spaces for beauty to emerge, we also have to ensure that they will be safe for those who encounter them. One way that might be helpful is to firstly ensure that a model (or a “nodel”) isn’t treated like a construct. This means not perpetuating that whiteness and thinness are the norms by having one token person at a shoot. And it goes deeper than that: you must be mindful of comments about fatness, and never position it as if fatness can only ever be a negative thing.
Why have we settled on thinness as a main attribute of beauty?
Throughout the shoot that day, my feeling of smallness came in waves. I felt ugly and exposed. It was isolating, and it made me feel awful to be in a room — a 5’2” brown thing, and all curves. In those spaces, it’s easy to lose yourself, it’s easy to feel like a prop unused, like a surprise gone sour. I felt irredeemably discarded.
Let’s be clear, I’m not asking to vilify thinness (as I understand that for some it’s their natural bodies, and that should be honored, too) I’m just asking for us, as a society, to talk about thinness as a concept, with transparency. Especially when for so many of us, it’s an imposition. And sometimes a life-threatening one. It’s also OK if you choose to take certain steps to maintain a certain standard, but simultaneously, I think it’s important to challenge why that standard has been established, and then enforced. Why have we settled on thinness as a main attribute of beauty?
Throughout the years there are a few times I remember feeling moved by pop culture. When Missy sings, “I’ve got a cute face / Chubby waist / Thick legs / in shape” in “Lose Control,” it resonated. And sure, thickness is “in,” but let’s not forget it’s a palatable, tailored thickness. It’s counter to the ultra-thin body, sure, yet somehow still niche and considered nevertheless less covetable.
What do I want? My aim is a utopia for all kinds of femme bodies to feel sexy and desirable — without the fear of, when we feel ourselves, of being labeled as “brave.”
Now, watch this:
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