Ashley Bounoura Reflections on Body Image, Confidence, and Hijab
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Ashley Bounoura Reflections on Body Image, Confidence, and Hijab

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem

I had a completely different post planned for today, but I decided to try some spontaneity after receiving a comment on one of my hijab story posts from a sister who struggles with confidence in hijab. It got me reflecting on my own journey with my body image and confidence, and how that story played out with my hijab story; this topic seemed to round out my physical wellness theme for January so perfectly, so I’m going to roll with it!

I’ve had a slightly odd relationship with my body throughout the years.

I was always a chubby kid, but as P.E. became non-mandatory in high school, I began to gain weight. By age 18, I was seriously overweight, though I had a naturally confident personality so I didn’t think too much of it. Yes, I wished I would be like the pretty, skinny girls, but I accepted my body as my reality and rocked it.

As I transitioned into university life at age 18, I began going to my on-campus gym, which was free to students. It started off simply as a desire to get a bit more healthy, but as I began to see results, I suddenly realized that I could be like those “sexy” girls, and quickly developed into an obsession.

I lost 100 pounds within the span of a year, but far from feeling like the best version of myself, I felt worse in my body than I had before.

I was sustaining some really unhealthy habits. I would spend up to two hours every single day in the gym doing cardio and weight training, and I ate only handfuls of food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – by far not enough to support my level of activity.

I was slowly burning my body out, without even realizing it – I even used to have fainting spells. I never even connected that to my intense exercise and restricted diet, because I was doing what it took to look like what I “should” look like.

And I totally did look like I “should.” Looking back on photos from that time, I was hot stuff, as they say.

But back then I didn’t feel like it. I was obsessed with my problem areas, all I wanted was to lose that extra pound or two. I felt less confident about my body than I ever had before.

2014 was when I first came into contact with Islam.

That summer after returning from the U.K., I had gotten seriously sick, and with that I was knocked flat on my back for a good three or so months. No exercise, by doctor’s orders. And even if I wanted to I could barely get off the couch. Naturally during that time I lost a lot of the muscle and endurance I had worked so hard to build up. That fall I started my last year of my B.A. at university, and ended up completely falling out of the habit of going to the gym every day.

My journey to Islam was progressing during this time, and by December of that year I had become a full-time hijab-wearer. You can read more about my hijab journey in the two posts I shared at the beginning of this month (here and here) but today I want to focus on how this journey with my body image intersected with the journey that I was embarking on in taking up the hijab.

If you read those last two posts, you’ll remember that I went through a solid two years of feeling like a sack of potatoes, while trying to figure out what the best hijab style was for me that would make me feel both appropriately modest as well as beautiful and confident. I think a lot of that had to do with the weight I had gained in being sick and then getting busy at university; because I had lost that ideal look that I had been conditioned to think was necessary to being pretty, I was feeling awful in my body to begin with. The lifestyle change and another massive shift away from a mainstream appearance that beginning to wear hijab created only compounded the issues I had before.

Fast forward to today; I’ve gained a few more pounds. I’ve also come a long way towards appreciating that this is closer to my natural body shape than the visible-bones-size-small that I had been so covetous of before. There are still things that I want to change, but I am OK with working to get healthier, not necessarily skinnier. I’m OK with it if I can’t do a full hour of cardio that feels like I’m going to die afterward, and instead I do 30 minutes of yoga that leaves me feeling good and energized.

And I think that is why I felt the need to share this with you today: to tell you that this kind of thing takes time, and it’s OK if you’re not OK with your body right now. There is so much pressure in our societies, no matter what the culture, for women to look and be and dress a certain way, and it is perfectly normal that it will take time to change that mindset that you have had for your entire life. It is a journey, but just like any other journey, you have to be actively trying to change as well.

To be where I am today with my confidence in both my body and my hijab, I can pinpoint the two huge mindset shifts that I had to make.

First, to begin to feel confident in my body I had to learn to approach it from a place of love. My body is a gift that Allah swt gave me, and therefore I should be striving to keep it in as good shape as possible. Then I choose my foods, my exercise, my sleeping hours, and the rest based on this principle, I feel a whole lot better about the whole journey than when I am making decisions based off of hating this or that about myself.

This is still something I have to remind myself of every day, and I think this change, which underlies every other mindset shift that I’ve had to make about my appearance, is a much more difficult change to make than the second mindset shift that I had to make in regards to hijab.

Second, to start to feel confident in myself as a covered, Muslim woman, I had to, of course, make the shift away from wanting to show my best in public, to wanting to show my best at home (quite the opposite of what we are taught in Western society at least). With that shift, however, I really learned whose opinion of my looks actually matters to me.

The people who are allowed to see me uncovered, my family, are the ones who love me despite how much I weigh or what brand of shoes I’m wearing. And the people who aren’t allowed to see me uncovered, the random public, are the ones who are only going to be judging me based on external appearances, and who really have no business doing so.

When I think about it, what is really more important to me – what my husband thinks is beautiful (i.e. me, as I am), or what the massive fashion and beauty industry wants me to spend money on so that I will finally be “perfect”?

Just framing it that way gives me a huge boost in self-confidence.

That has been my journey over the past few years, and I think I can say now that with finding the right hijab style for me and making some changes in the way I think about appearances, I am feeling like I am back to my old, confident self. Of course, some days are better than others, but the lessons are in the journey, right?

Do any of you, especially the sisters reading here, have any reflections or tips on confidence, and especially confidence where it has to do with body-image and hijab? Let’s start a discussion inshaa Allah!

Guest post from // and written by Ashley Bounoura

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. A great post. Hijab in fact give you more confidence. You feel more pretty and complete with hijab. I love the entire post and your questions.

    1. Thank you so much Bushra!

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