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International Voices

Breaking the Mold Abroad

The day I landed in Rome to study abroad for the summer, I called up my mother to have a conversation we’ve had many times before in my life.

“Mama!” I exclaimed, “I’m here! But nobody looks like me!!”

“Maha, it’s okay,” she went on. “It’s okay to be different!” She’d been reassuring me of this for my entire life and could comfort me like clockwork.

“No mom! It’s not that this time. Nobody else is fat!”. And it was true, most women in my study away program resembled the tall, thin, stereotypically beautiful girls you’d see on the covers of travel brochures. In Italy, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

As the first generation daughter of Tunisian immigrants, I was used to sticking out on campus back home, or in South Philly, where a majority of my neighbors were white Catholics who weren’t always the most welcoming to my family, especially in post 9/11 America. I’m a woman of color studying Political Science that aspires to go to law school–I’ve always known I’m not going to have the luxury of being surrounded by others who look like me, or be represented in the professional circles I was interested in.

Posing on a vespa in the trendy neighborhood of Trastevere, in Rome.

By my first week in the Eternal City, I’d gotten used to the comments and the staring. After all, Italians are a curious bunch. Plus, I did treat the streets of Rome like my personal runway, making a smooth strut from Via Candia, where I lived, to Temple’s Rome Campus. I loved every minute of the sunny thirty minute trek every day. La vita è bella, I was determined to have the summer of my life, and I wasn’t going to let what people thought about my size stop me–not now, not ever.

In Italy, my sheltered bubble popped. I didn’t have a safety net to fall back on. I had to catch myself. On a trip to the Amalfi coast, I experienced a rude awakening. A few friends and I booked a trip through a student travel group for the weekend. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves in Positano, one of the most beautiful beach towns in the world. Wearing a black high waisted two piece bathing suit set I had gotten online, I laid in the sun and tried to soak up as much vitamin D as I could. My friend Sarah read a book nearby, and the rest of our group was happily napping.

All of a sudden, I heard a group of American girls behind us say, “She’s disgusting. I would never want to be that fat in my life. I would literally kill myself.” My first thought was that I wish I hadn’t heard the comment, and that the crashing waves of the ocean would’ve just tuned out the noise. I told my friend Sarah what was going on, and she couldn’t believe it happened. “How could you be sure?”, she wondered. She begged me to put it out of my mind and just enjoy myself — who cared what anyone had to say! After showering me with loving comments, we went back to our business of lounging in the sun. Inside, I was still distressed and confused about what just happened, and Sarah made me feel safe, but she just couldn’t get it — and it wasn’t her fault. She was 5’10, blonde, and while she’s one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever known — she didn’t have to worry about being teased about how she looked. I felt targeted and trapped, a fish out of water. Just some time earlier, I was enjoying one of the most breathtaking destinations I’d ever seen, and had not a care in the world. I never expected anything like this to happen while I fulfilled my childhood dreams of studying abroad. Body shaming wasn’t in any of the dozens of articles I read as I prepared myself to journey to Europe for the summer.

On another weekend beach trip in Italy, this time to Oasi di Ponente Beach in Anzio, I experienced something that made my time at Positano seem like nothing in comparison. A group of Italian men threw pieces of food at my friends and I while we sunbathed. That’s the day in Italy my Philly side came out — I was done playing nice and being respectful. The safety of my friends and I was being challenged. We gave the harassers a piece of our minds, and despite the language barrier, we got our point across.

Harassing people for being overweight has been a longstanding sport worldwide, especially on social media. In fact, women of all body types are subject to harsh criticism. But just like social media was once a public forum for body shamers to conglomerate, it has also given rise to the plus size modelling industry and various body positive movements. I use instagram religiously myself. Personally, instagram has given me a platform to be creative, open, and express myself. My followers are supportive, and seeing women of all sizes be able to draw inspiration from each other is heartwarming.

A perfect photo opportunity in Trastevere, a cool neighborhood I frequented.

I’m thankful that during my time abroad I was able to keep up with the Nadias, Barbies, Palomas, and Dianas of the world–these are the women who empowered me, whether it be through their social medias, or their professional modelling campaigns. I’m so thankful body positivity and plus size models have been taking America by storm. In Europe, however, there is still an incredible lack of representation.

I believe that every body matters, and we should all embrace our size and diversity. We should work towards a world where people see themselves and others as beautiful, just as they are.

Further, teaching women to embrace the skin they’re in just scratches the surface. These are issues the world needs to address, and they go much further than beauty, looks, and even health. It’s about every woman’s right to feel safe, and to be treated with respect. Whether it be on a beach in Italy, walking to class, or on her career path. Disproportionately, a woman’s image is targeted and critiqued. We’re conditioned to care more about our image than our brains–and we shouldn’t dare be caught dead caring about both.

In the end, I managed to have the best summer of my life despite the challenges I faced, and I have just about a million posts to prove it. I spent my days surrounded by my loving friends and trying just about every food Rome had to offer — I happily took photos of my food and ate in bliss (even if people gawked). I had a wonderful summer semester, made memories I will forever cherish, had experiences that made me stronger, and collected my 4.0 GPA. I came back to Philly the best Maha I’ve ever been. I hope to carry this energy with me as I go through my life being the representation I longed to have growing up.