Every Body Belongs: A Middle Eastern Perspective On Body Positivity

BY Harper's BAZAAR Arabia / Feb 5 2020 / 16:13 PM

There is a palpable allure in the collective fortitude between Dima Ayad, Danae Mercer and Ameni Esseibi. The fashion designer, body-positivity activist and the region’s first plus-sized model have a riveting conversation on where the body-positivity movement is, and crucially, where it needs to go next

Every Body Belongs: A Middle Eastern Perspective On Body Positivity

Harpers BAZAAR Arabia: You all have something to say and you’re saying it really well, standing for your respective angles in the movement. But let’s start at the beginning. Usually when someone comes forward with a strong narrative against the norm, it comes from wanting to turn a negative experience into a positive one. When was the first time you felt like you weren’t good enough?

Ameni Esseibi: Probably when I was 11. Growing up in the French school in Dubai, they weren’t like me – they were mostly European. I was the only one who was tall with afro hair and chubby. I didn’t see myself in anyone and I felt isolated and unaccepted.

Dima Ayad: I just want to rephrase what you said about a movement born out of a negative experience – I think the reason why it started was because I wanted everyone to be part of a conversation. What I want to convey is that whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you’re from, you belong. In the fashion space, I never belonged – many like me didn’t. It wasn’t for the sake of being fashionable, but the necessity of living – finding things to wear just to go out of the house. To live. It became a luxury and not a necessity.

AE: Yes, I had this conversation with friends from university, where they’re telling me that most of the clothes I model are too expensive for them. They’re like “we’re on a budget” – why do bigger sizes have to have a bigger price tag?

DA: Exactly what I’m saying – it’s such a lazy approach to fashion when all you need to do is add one or two more sizes and then 60 per cent of society can wear the clothes. A size zero and 18 should be able to wear the same thing and look different in each one. I was in the gym this morning and I always have this worry that my high-waisted leggings will roll when I’m bending and doing a squat. It’s really not a lovely feeling when you’re working out, worried that your stomach is dangling out. If it doesn’t fit well, I am not well.

AE: And then you want to wear something oversized to cover it…

DA: Which then makes you feel wrong all over again. I think clothes are a temporary armour to shield you for your day. If you feel good in what you’re wearing, you will have a very good day.

Danae Mercer: For me, my sense of belonging was in a warped idea of what my body should look like. When my mum had died and I was going through huge life upheavals, food was how I handled things. I really didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. You’re on a wave – tossed around and adrift. If you can be incredible at something like having control over food, it becomes a safety raft that’s then rewarded.

AE: I think women have always wanted to change themselves whatever they’re going through to feel accepted and gain the approval of others.

DM: I think it’s because we have been taught as women that our value is tied to our aesthetics, that beauty is currency. You don’t see a guy say to another guy…

AE: …Oh man you’re so buff now…

DM: Yeah exactly! It sounds comedic.

DA: No, men do say that to each other. But it doesn’t have the same underlying meaning.

AE: Women are so competitive with each other.

DM: Well, again, it’s not an inherent thing that we’re born with as we pop out of the womb. There’s a whole structure that teaches little girls that your value is getting the attention of a boy.

AE: Trust me, I see this happening. Sometimes my guy friends ask me to bring only my ‘pretty girlfriends’ to parties.

DM: Gosh, is that still happening?

AE: Yes! It’s a Dubai thing.

DA: It’s a global thing.

AE: To be honest though, I’m super-comfortable with myself – I love looking at myself – to the extent that one of my walls at home is a mirror. The best compliments I get come from myself. I mean, sometimes I only watch my own Insta Stories on repeat – really… I do that.

DM: I love the sassiness!

AE: But you know, I’m not above having a bad day, too.

DM: There is this assumption that when you’re talking about self-love or body positivity you wake up everyday happy with yourself, but humans don’t work like that.

DA: Because we’ve been fed so many different messages about how we should look. From the Mad Men era to the skinny supermodel look of the ’90s, trends keep changing and confusing everyone. Then the Kardashians came and they reintroduced the butt. It became cool to have a fuller figure – I’ll give them that.

AE: But still – you always want more or less.

DA: How we’ve been raised and who you’ve surrounded yourself with has a huge effect on your sense of self. I was raised in Lebanon and everyone knows that on your 18th birthday you’re gifted cosmetic surgery of any kind. You are always taught you need to better yourself – as you are never enough – which is why I launched the ‘You… As Is’ T-shirts. If you want to change yourself, that’s a bonus, but know that how you are is enough.

AE: Even though I have gotten to where I am now and I represent my kind of woman, I am still made to feel like the exception to the rule as opposed to the norm. You still don’t find plus-sized models by default in ads.

DA: That’s because body positivity is still a tick-box movement and it’s really getting to me. With all the respect to my fellow designers who do runway looks for larger models, they don’t actually sell that size. The U.S. is more advanced on the conversation but you still have a situation where a lot of people don’t belong. In stores there are sizes available up to 18 but online, it goes up to 22 – it makes you feel like you only belong outside of a store. Even here, some of the malls don’t cater to today’s society. My problem is the hype versus the reality. Don’t just talk about diversity and inclusion, walk the talk!

AE: You know someone who works in one of the big fashion holding companies told me the only reason why they don’t have plus sizes at the stores in the malls here is because of sales – it’s not a guarantee for them.

DA: The response they’re giving you is so flawed because no one is asking for an entire store – we want a rail. That’s all we want.

HB: On the flip-side, Danae, you bare your perceived imperfections. Have you received criticism for the fact that you are naturally small and therefore still within the parameters of what is generally considered the ideal body type?

DM: Look, I am a blonde, white girl who was born in America. There is a load of privilege linked to that combination. I haven’t received that kind of criticism but I know it exists towards women of my shape and size who are talking about bodies. I can understand the frustration because traditionally, body positivity has been linked to giving marginalised bodies, voices. I can never speak to the experience of being plus-sized. I can’t share those battles, but I can talk about feminism, confidence, consent and what it’s like to starve yourself and hate parts of your body. I just wish I had heard this conversation back then. What we’re seeing now is an amazing, supportive community of women who are all in this together.

AE: Yes, me and you had this conversation. We both do the same thing but from different perspectives. We support the same message but we don’t look anything alike. That’s the beauty of it. We are not connected physically but we are mentally and emotionally alike. I think that’s why we clicked instantly.

DA: So there is an additional dialogue to that – we have to include the nuances of the spectrum. A cause cannot be spearheaded by one or two people. Everyone’s place in this conversation is valid. It can’t just be the extremities. There’s strength in numbers in reversing mentalities. Right now, we are in a world of feedback and opinion. It’s hard to get away with bad behaviour. You can talk about being body inclusive but you need to actually implement it. That part needs to come through much faster now. When we stop talking about it, we know we have achieved it.  

From Harper's BAZAAR Arabia February 2020 Issue

Photography by Waleed Shah
Styling by Tabitha Jane Glaysher

Told to: Georgie Bradley, Fashion assistant: rima varghese. with special thanks to hair and make-up by the blowout & go team