I know what I will say could either confirm or destabilize something in your mind, but you need to listen.
For some time now, you and I have bought into a malevolent social construction, called body fetishism. We normalized a cruel way of objectifying other people’s bodies and now live peacefully with society’s exaltation of ‘certain’ physical appearances. Before you dismiss attempts to critically evaluate beauty standards and take a step back from body shaming puns, please think of all the subtle and obvious consequences of our ‘beauty’ discourse. Horrible, horrible consequences.
Aside from the guilt, indignation, low self-confidence, and restrained or wasted potentialities, there are real consequences that we see all around us. These range from sour comments (often from family members) about (usually) a girl’s alarming “weight” and its queer relation to her prospects of finding a mate, to school, to college, or to the bullying of the ‘elephant in the room.’
Living as a “fat” person in a sick society influenced by shallow worldviews is hard, to say the least. However, many fat people continue to push through the muddle and thrive. I was curious to see one bold person who took it to Instagram a year ago to speak honestly and without sugar-coating her thoughts, about her positive relationship with body and food.
So, here is my interview with that person: Mariam Nezar, the food brain and co-founder of Bellies En Route, one of The Guardian’s top ten ethical tourism tours.
Why do you call yourself @fatcheekz_ on Instagram?
“I think the ‘fat’ part is pretty obvious. I’m a fat person. I always use the word ‘fat’ comfortably because it’s just an adjective, not a bad word. ‘Cheeks’ has a double meaning. Round cheeks and… you know what I mean.”
When have you started identifying your body as a problematic issue?
“My weight was and is an issue that I have struggled with for a long time. When I started putting on weight as a 6-year-old chubby kid, I didn’t understand what was going on, but everyone was extremely concerned – as if young girls are not supposed to gain weight! My whole life revolved around being fat. My mother tried to be as supportive as she could be… There was always this “but,” though. ‘You are fine, but you should lose weight before a certain age.’ My parents would motivate me in many different ways to lose weight, like, ‘lose 20 kgs and we’ll get you a new car’ or a cautionary warning, ‘no man will EVER look at you if you stay fat.’
The more they tried to motivate me, the more I thought, ‘Screw it, I don’t wanna do this anymore. No money, no car, no man. I’m gonna find a guy who doesn’t give a damn about the way I look.’ But it was a hard, long process. Fad diet after fad diet, gym subscription after another. Dieting, I was miserable. Going to the gym, I was miserable. I didn’t want to live like this anymore, and my friends were all skinnier than I was. So, in my mind, I was trying to be this confident person, but then I’d look at my friends or some random thin model on TV and hate myself. It did take a toll on me, in general. Even now, I still get hate thoughts. But therapy helped.”
Do you have idols?
“Yeah, some people helped me realize that I could be healthy without hating myself. My idols are those people who don’t give a shit, like me. I owe a lot of the way I think because of Tess Holiday, for example. I filled my FB and IG feed with women like Beth Ditto, the lead singer of a band called Gossip. When I watched one of her music videos, I was like, “Hey, she’s bigger than me! And she’s thriving!”
What led you to start openly talking about body positivity and body shaming?
“Well, two main reasons. One, a realization that I needed to be more self-centered. I started this Instagram account as a way to push myself to be more open about others and myself. I wanted to talk about the struggle and the need to be healthy. I have no issues with being fat look-wise, but I understand that it can get unhealthy (physically and physiologically) besides being a psychological drain.
And, two, I wanted women to understand that you can be a woman and all sorts of things, and that doesn’t make you any less feminine. So, for example, I’m a person who swears a lot, but, I don’t think that should have anything to do with my femininity, nor does my weight. I want women to call themselves fat without feeling ashamed.
I also want women to take themselves seriously. I need them to see that you don’t need help to start a business if you’re a woman. Proof? I run an all-female business, and no one takes us any less seriously.”
What idea or stereotype-slash-social norm is your biggest enemy?
“Oh, it’s difficult to choose just one. Alright, I hate two stereotypes that I swear if they were a person, I’d take a swing at!
First one, men are emotionless. How would you explain why most famous artists are males? You need to be highly sensitive to create brilliant artwork. So, men aren’t emotionless; they’re just raised in toxic ways to hide their emotions, and that has terrible implications. They also go through the same shit we go through.
And second, women are weak. That women always need someone to take care of them. How can that opinion match the fact that about 40% of Egyptian homes in Egypt are supported by single (divorced/widowed) women? How could women be weak when we give birth to babies, to actual human beings for heaven’s sake, and walk around in a couple of days as nothing happened? I think the sooner we break down this idea, the better.”
How can unhealthy mental habits, such as body-shaming and a low self-image, be overcome and also supplemented by physical habits?
“In my opinion, one way is to stop listening to people and seek professional help. I just decided not to listen to body shamers. I made the conscious decision to NOT CARE. I cut out a lot of people from my life. I found that I have a playlist with a tempo that calms me. Writing also helps. I made these decisions after I’d gone to a therapist, who told me I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and that I needed to learn to be more mindful. He referred me to a mindfulness coach. But that’s not the typical path people take. In most cases, people like to take the victim mentality, but they really shouldn’t. When it comes to body shaming, well, at the end of the day, people are gonna make fun of you if you’re too skinny or not the ‘right kind’ of fat or thin. People talk, regardless. And that’s what social media has done. Before it, you weren’t online all the time; all the negativity was there but you couldn’t see it.
I’m always like: ‘Listen, you don’t get a say in my life because you know nothing about my health. Yes, I have a high BMI, but I don’t have high hypertension or high blood glucose, let alone diabetes. I can run up the stairs and do a lot of things. I’m fine, even though I do have hypothyroidism. On the other hand, some people are stick-thin but have so many health problems.’
To reach this level of tolerance, you need to put work into changing your mindset. You also need to understand that a negative body image is like a mental virus; a monologue in your head that you should try to disregard. If working out helps you fight it, then do that. But above all, observe yourself. To me, I like having coffee and walking when I’m anxious.”
You mentioned in a recent post that you went through a rut with yourself, didn’t feel happy with how you looked. How do you pick yourself up again and what could others who experience similar guilt-like feelings about their appearance, weight, or eating habits do?
“I just ride the wave. I let myself feel like shit. Period. I’m sorry, no one can feel good about themselves all the time. There are certain features of my body that I will never like, but I accept them. I don’t like those who over-romanticize their body image acceptance. Like, please, let’s be realistic: you don’t love every inch of yourself. It’s impossible. So, when I feel down, I binge eat, I cry a bit, I complain, and then I get it out of my system, then put out the best outfit, wear my favorite lipstick, and grab a cup of coffee.”
Do you have a personal mantra that you’d like to share?
“Sleep with a clear conscience. I feel good when I go to bed every night, knowing that: A, I’m content with my choices. B, God is content with my choices. And C, My parents are proud of me. You can’t please everyone, apart from God, yourself, and your parents. Anything else is just subjective.”
Do you see any positive or negative change in young girls’ perceptions of their bodies?
“I see a small change, but it’s getting bigger. It’s finally catching up in Egypt. I see more women taking control of their lives; dealing with the bullshit. I see it with the way a lot of women interact with me on social media and those whom I’ve helped to find a path. Over time, if more people decide to be themselves like I have, the ripple will get bigger and bigger.”
How can social media activism on your part and followers’ change social perceptions regarding beauty standards?
“Let’s get one thing clear first: I’m not trying to be a social media influencer. I’m trying to be a normal person. I’m not trying to advocate a certain lifestyle. If anything, I dislike the whole idea of influencers. I never call myself an activist – I’m just a woman who’s pretty much done with social norms.
On a side note, I don’t have a problem with social media activism per se, but with how many people USE social media nowadays. I follow many plus-sized women. They also try to sell products and stuff that are not realistic. What are they after, a bigger paycheck, or a better lifestyle? I think social media is a very slippery slope. So, you either just use it right, or you’re gonna get sucked into it.
So, if someone wants to be a social media activist, go ahead, but show me honest content. That’s what I’d like to see: fewer ads, less overpriced products, no photoshopped photos, and negative product reviews for once.”
“If I’m not taking up your space nor are you paying my food or medication bills, then what is it to you if I’m fat?”
In all, the key to Mariam Nezar’s composure and acceptance of her body regardless of social norms can be summed up in this single smart retort to nosy acquaintances. Body positivity does seem to be as simple as being comfortable in one’s skin rather than fetishizing changeable appearances.
If you reached this far, please watch this video as a treat!
What about you?
Have you ever been shamed because of your bodyweight? Tell me about it in the comments below.