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Redefining Beauty for Myself
I accepted my body by viewing it through the lens of activism
Daleelah Saleh
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In elementary school, my brother and I were too young to be left home alone, so my mother took us with her to her weekly Weight Watchers meetings. I spent my Sundays sitting cross-legged in a carpeted room with large windows and posters on the wall encouraging weight loss and healthier eating.

Despite not understanding most of what was going on, I absorbed my mom’s routine of weighing herself, and group discussions around meal plans and calorie counts. I came to the conclusion that the less you weighed, the better.

By 4th grade, I had come to dread the annual FitnessGram that is mandatory for all New York City students. It requires us to weigh ourselves and complete different exercises in front of our peers. What is supposed to be a simple measure of our health and fitness felt like a public humiliation
to me.

I didn’t feel comfortable weighing myself in front of my friends. Most of them were thinner than me, and I couldn’t run or do as many sit-ups and push-ups as they could.

At the end of the year, we received the results of our FitnessGram. My report indicated in glaring red that I was overweight for my age and my Body Mass Index, a weight-to-height ratio used to gauge obesity and underweight, was too high. I started feeling ashamed of my body.

Losing Weight for All the Wrong Reasons

The words “anorexia” and “bulimia” were introduced to me in 6th grade during one of my weekly health classes. The lesson was supposed to be preventive: an introduction to excessive dieting, and what the symptoms and warning signs look like, in the hopes that we would avoid developing them.

Instead, it planted “eating disorders” as a thought for my brain to fixate on. I liked the idea that I could be thin and look pretty like the girls I saw in magazines and movies, if I just chose to stop eating so much.

I didn’t act on these thoughts until the beginning of 7th grade, after switching schools and losing touch with my old friends. My parents had recently divorced, so I was already feeling depressed and anxious. This social isolation amplified my negative thoughts and feelings and took a toll on my self-esteem, which was low.

Wanting to Feel in Control

I was overcome with feelings of powerlessness, sadness, and insecurity. I started to question my worth. I came to the conclusion that I felt so alone because I wasn’t good enough, and therefore not deserving of close friends.

I knew that being prettier couldn’t fix all my problems, but I thought that it at least might make people like me more. I thought back to my 6th grade health class and decided I should start dieting. It gave me a sense of control.

I gradually ate less and less, testing the limits of how many meals I could skip without anyone noticing. While my peers spent their free time playing video games and hanging out with friends, I experimented with different dieting strategies.

For example, after discovering that green tea may slightly speed up your metabolism, I started drinking it, even though I don’t like it. I compiled a collection of different workouts, and exercised in my room after everyone fell asleep, so as not to arouse suspicion.

Several times a day, I pulled out the small silver and black scale my mom kept under her bed to check my progress. If I gained weight, I pushed myself to do more sit-ups or eat even less. Any weight loss, even an ounce or two, felt like a victory. So did the praise I received from family and friends.

I was losing weight for all the wrong reasons, but people told me how pretty I was and how good my body looked. I used that as motivation to eat less and less.

Dancing on the Edge of a Disorder

When I worried that I was dancing on the edge of an eating disorder, I would look up “anorexia” to prove to myself that I was OK. I read stories and watched videos about thin white girls who had lost so much weight that they were skeletal. “That isn’t me,” I told myself.

I was under the impression that since I hadn’t starved myself to the point where I would need hospitalization, I wasn’t sick like the girls I read about. And none of them shared my skin color or ethnicity. This helped me convince myself that “anorexic” wasn’t a label that applied to me. [See below.]

My mom eventually noticed my weight loss. She began making sure that I took breakfast and lunch to school, which I then gave away or threw out. Deceiving my mom made me feel guilty, but I assured myself that it was for a greater purpose.

When I was hungry, I envisioned the number on my mom’s scale increasing, or seeing more fat on my stomach and thighs when I looked at myself in the mirror. Those thoughts were enough to ruin my appetite by making me feel repulsed by food.

image by YC-Art Dept

After a few months, my mom gave me an ultimatum: Either I change my eating habits on my own, or she was taking me to a nutritionist. I didn’t want to gain back the weight I lost, but I was anxious about being forced to go on a meal plan under someone’s watchful eye. I agreed to start eating more on my own.

How Society Influences My Self-Worth

In 8th grade, I ate more, but my relationship with food was still unhealthy. Convincing myself to eat when I was hungry was hard; it was easier to just skip a meal. I had to work on retraining my brain to listen to my body instead of my insecurities. I forced myself to stop obsessively checking my weight on the scale, and tried to fixate less on my perceived flaws when looking at myself in the mirror.

Then, during the summer before sophomore year, I spent six weeks in the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, a program designed to empower young women as leaders and activists. One of our workshops, called Power, Identity, and Privilege, helped me understand the factors and institutions that shape the way we identify ourselves and the ways our identities are perceived by others.

We discussed how imperialism and white supremacy play a large role in shaping our definitions of beauty. When white people colonized other lands, they forced the native people to internalize a sense of inferiority and whitewashed their ideas about beauty.

I saw examples of this when I visited my family’s native Egypt, which had been colonized by Britain for hundreds of years. All the beauty ads and commercials seemed to feature thin white people, or light-skinned Arab people. Rarely, if ever, did I see any representation of dark-skinned people with bodies like mine.

We also learned about the ways in which capitalism influences our beauty standards. The beauty industry is one of the largest businesses in our society, with companies selling the promise of fixing what we are made to believe are flaws.

One of the biggest perceived flaws is not being skinny. Advertising and the media then make us feel insecure and push us to purchase products like appetite-reducing beverages and pills, and subscribe to programs like Weight Watchers, as my mom did.

The discussions we had in Sadie Nash prompted me to reflect on factors in my own life that influenced my body image. I began to seek out resources and social media accounts that promote body positivity, to counter all the negative messages I’d internalized.

During that time, the quote, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act,” was circulating online. It conveyed the same concept as one of feminist writer Audre Lorde’s most famous quotes: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” These messages became my mantras.

Body Acceptance as Revolutionary

Accepting my body as it was and loving myself was easier when I looked at it as revolutionary, through the lens of activism. A lot of teenagers go through a “rebellion” phase, and this was mine. I chose to redirect my self-hatred into hatred towards the institutions that perpetuated self-doubt, and used it to fuel my recovery.

Inspired by our discussions in Sadie Nash, I started a practice of standing in front of my mirror and saying “I love you” to each part of my body. Each “I love you” was a f-ck you to every company that wouldn’t be profiting from my insecurity, and brought me closer to healing from my previous self-destructive behaviors.

Over the course of sophomore year, as I developed a healthier relationship with food and my body, I began to regain the weight I had lost. When my clothes started getting tighter, and eventually most of them didn’t fit me anymore, I dreaded going shopping.

I hated finding pretty clothes, only to try them on and have them hug my body in all the “wrong” places. This made me feel the opposite of pretty.

This continues to be hard for me. Sometimes, I still have thoughts of how easy it would be to slip into old habits of getting thinner.

But then I remind myself how much I’ve grown. I’m healthier, both physically and mentally, than I was back in middle school. I realize now that I wasted a lot of energy trying to fit into society’s standards of what beauty looks like.

The reality is that no matter what my body looks like, there will always be “flaws.” So I find value and beauty in other aspects of myself. I take pride in my academic accomplishments, my devotion to social justice, and my loyalty to my friends and family.



What You Should Know About Eating Disorders

Even though I wasn’t diagnosed and I was trying to convince myself that I didn’t have an eating disorder, I had many of the symptoms. Some of these are: a preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting; distorted body image; denying feeling hungry; and consistently making excuses to avoid mealtimes or situations involving food.

People with anorexia generally restrict the number of calories and the types of food they eat. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge by vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eating.

You cannot tell if a person is struggling with an eating disorder by looking at them. If you are concerned that you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org or call (800) 931-2237 for help. The helpline is available Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association.

(NYC-2020-03-03)