This Body Positivity Activist Is Looking at a Future Modeling Career Thanks to Instagram via @teenvogue
May 05, 2016 at 12:30 am
Different television shows and movies are a big part of childhood for a lot of people. What cartoons you watched on Saturday morning, or what movies you and your friends crowded around the TV for on a Friday night are fun memories. Media had a big influence on Mayara Efe when she was younger, but her memories aren’t fun.
Growing up as a plus-size, gay black girl in Brazil, Mayara never saw people like herself on television or in magazines. She didn’t see black women in print, and didn’t see LGBTQ characters on television.
“I was born black, in a poor neighborhood and I’ve always been fat, always the ‘chubby one’ in comparison to the other kids,” Mayara tells Teen Vogue. “I feel that the beauty standard established in society is very unfair, and it is even more hypocritical in Brazil, which has the second largest black population in the world. Brazil is a mixed-race country, with different kinds of shaped bodies and even so, when you turn on the TV, open a magazine, see a billboard or a fashion campaign, all you see are tall, thin, white people.”
Because she didn’t see anyone like herself, Mayara felt she wasn’t quite right. She felt like she should try harder to become what society was telling her was good and pretty: white and thin with straight hair. Mayara went on a years-long quest to look like those women she saw in media. She tried to lose weight by drinking bitter teas, by restricting what she ate and even taking weight-loss drugs.
On top of that, Mayara also straightened her hair to look more like the women on the screen. She basically tried every way she knew how of changing herself. With the images of thin white womenconstantly on screen, the portrayal of LGBT characters pretty much non-existant, and the insults from her family and classmates, Mayara says it was hard to love herself. She became depressed and even attempted suicide.
Maybe you know how Mayara was feeling. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 7.4% of girls between 12 and 17 years old are depressed. Minorities and people living below the poverty line in America are also more likely to experience depression. In every single age group, the percentage of girls and women who experience depression is higher than the percentage of men. With the rise of social media, the pressure to fit in is still strong, and trying to fit in with the beauty ideals constantly being pushed at you can make you feel even worse.
“I felt like an impostor. No matter how much I tried, I was not even close to what people presented to me as ideal beauty. I was a very outgoing girl, but over the years and after trying so hard to fit into that mold, I ended up losing all my confidence,” Mayara explained. “I felt I was ugly, inadequate, and incapable to do anything because of the size of my body, my skin tone, and my hair’s texture.”
“I lost my voice, the joy and zest that I had for life,” Mayara continues. “I became increasingly anxious and depressed, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought about dying.”
If you, like Mayara and so many other girls, feel this way, there is a way out. For Mayara, that way out came when she discovered feminism. At nearly 20 years old, Mayara started learning about self-love through feminism. She realized that her self-worth was not based in what boys thought of her, or about the things other people made fun of her for. Her self-worth, Mayara found, is based in loving her body and her self for how she is. Feminism taught Mayara, she says, that beauty doesn’t fit in one box, that women don’t need to depend on male approval to be beautiful, and that she doesn’t need to withstand abusive relationships.
“Just these simple questions took an enormous weight off my shoulder and set me free,” she says. “I evolved so much that I no longer fit inside the person that I was, I was becoming this person that I am today.”
Something else that helped Mayara become who she is today are photos. Once she started gaining confidence, Mayara posted pictures to Instagram that her grandmother snapped. Her pictures took off, and now Mayara is a body-positive activist and a plus-size model. She’s sharing her photos now as part of Instagram’s #MyStory series, a campaign that honors the diversity, power, and beauty of all types of women by giving them a platform to share their stories in their own words – or images. Also part of the #MyStory initiative is teen feminist powerhouse Rowan Blanchard.
As part of the movement, Mayara is getting her message out that girls can stand strong on their own. It’s women’s responsibility to make sure girls know that they don’t need to succumb to society’s beauty standards, and that what they see on TV isn’t the only thing that’s out there. It’s women’s responsibility, she says, to make sure what’s on TV becomes more representative of the truth.
“This is a job that I don’t see as theirs, but as ours: women who have been through it and conscious media that try to break this beauty standard. It is our job to reach out to these girls and make them understand that their bodies belong to them and they are beautiful no matter what,” Mayara says. “I truly believe in this new generation, women across different social backgrounds are increasingly breaking all of these standards that were imposed upon them, and they are coming out and speaking up.”
“Up until my early twenties, I tried changing my hair in all possible ways to make it look like what I thought society considers ‘right.’ After all, how could I embrace my curly hair if nobody has it?” Mayara says. “That is why I truly believe that being represented is important. If you find someone with your skin tone or sexual orientation, with your body as a main character on a TV program or film (and not just an extra to pretend that there is diversity in the cast), you will feel motivated to embrace who and what you are.”
Mayara is making sure to do her part in representing black, curvy, LGBTQ- identified women in the media. After all, it was seeing a black woman on TV that planted the seeds for Mayara to eventually realize she could do anything. It was Whoopi Goldberg and Mayara was 9 years old. She says she ran all over her house, alerting everyone that there was a black woman on television who wasn’t a maid.
“At that exact moment, I knew I could be whatever I wanted to be. I think that’s the importance of spreading the message of self-respect and representation,” she says. “I remember the mixed feeling of happiness and surprise when I saw Tess Holliday become the first plus-size woman in history to sign a contract with an important agency. Now I know I can.”
“And I want to tell every girl that feels ugly, excluded and not represented is that there’s nothing wrong with them. Society is all wrong, not you. You are great,” Mayara continues. “So, stop caring and get up to conquer your place, and your place is to be happy.”
This post originally appeared on TeenVogue.com