One lesson The Real World has taught us across 33 seasons on MTV? Clothing is typically optional. Whether the show followed Ruthie hopping into her Hawaiian house’s pool stark naked in Season 8 or Aneesa strolling around her Chicago loft without a stitch of clothing in Season 11, the series’ dress code has remained — year after year — pretty lax.
Still, when 27-year-old artist and model Yasmin stripped down to nothing on the latest episode of the show’s Atlanta installment, it meant a little bit something different. After finding herself fed up with her roommates’ fixation on physical flaws, Yasmin sidled up to a camera in the confessional, slowly peeled off her shirt, pants and underwear and cast light on the fat deposits that had collected around her hips, the hair on her arms that her mother used to wax off and the jiggle in her arms that swung when her wingspan was fully extended.
And it was a beautiful thing.
Yasmin, who’s spent nearly a lifetime advocating for social justice, has no doubt become the series’ most recognizable pioneer for women working through body image issues. And in Episode 8, she went as far as to share her experiences at a body-positive panel, where she explained that — while she’s always felt inclined to fight for justice — an abusive relationship also cracked her armor in ways that sometimes seem resistant to fixing. Quickly, she found herself totally exposed, but liberation, she slowly realized, was a place she was happy to find herself.
Still, for all the places she’s willing to go, Yasmin told MTV News she’ll never accept any positioning atop a pedestal. For her relentless canvassing for Middle Eastern women, queer women and those who don’t look like magazine cover features, there are days when she — just like any other person — needs to be alone, lick her wounds and simply sit with her insecurities. But that’s OK, because learning to handle the occasional step backward, she said, is the only way you can ever take two forward.
Check out Yasmin’s chat with MTV News below, visit http://www.halfofus.com/situation/body-image-issues/ for additional resources to address body image issues and keep tuning in to The Real World on Facebook Watch!
You mentioned on the show that your upbringing came with rigid expectations from your parents, but what were you like as a kid?
I was really outgoing, really vocal. I was always getting into trouble in class for being super social and saying whatever I wanted. I thought I was a f***ing Spice Girl and I was wearing wigs and cheetah print and snakeskin and I wanted to express myself in any way possible.
Do you remember when the idea of justice became apparent to you?
Yeah! I remember being in elementary school with primarily white kids, and I would see how some kids would make fun of other ones, and me too. So I would get really, really mad and confused, like: Why is the food I’m eating wrong? Having hair on my arms is different from you, but why is that bad? And I remember after September 11th, I was in fifth or sixth grade, this boy who was not even Muslim — he was Indian — people started saying that his parents were terrorists. And I didn’t relate to my dad being Muslim at the time, but I freaked out and was yelling at them. Now that I look back at it I’m like: Wait, how did I even understand that these kids making fun of this kid was a very wrong thing? But I was always standing up to the bullies.
So when did that sense of justice translate to your body and what your body means in a social context?
My mom would make me wax my arms, my mustache, my eyebrows. It would hurt so bad, so then she started bleaching them. I was like, nine, and I was like: I don’t want to do this anymore. And she was like: You’re not going to find a husband. This is so ugly.
Oh, also, I remember one time, in third grade, I was wearing the same exact shirt — it was like a white tank top that said “Angel” on it — as my classmate I had to go home and change because I was fatter than the other girl. [School administrators] were like: Your clothes are too tight on you and it looks too sexual. And I was just a child, just a fat little girl. And ever since then, these moments just became ingrained in me.
Would you say that’s when you became the fearlessly secure person we see on The Real World?
I don’t think I’m fearlessly secure. But starting at those points, yeah, I started to learn not to live my life for other people. People should not be making choices for other people. It’s more about that than having security or confidence. If we’re talking about confidence, only now am I truly becoming confident, even though I’ve been like naked for my whole life. But I also don’t think nudity translates to confidence, it translates more to courage.
So I was planning to ask this a little later, but considering your mention, what inspired you to get totally naked in the confessional on Episode 8? That was such a seminal reality TV moment.
I got really pissed off because every day Tovah would say she was fat when she had like the most perfect body in the house, she had abs. So her saying she was feeling fat was making Meagan and Arely feel like they’re fat, because obviously they’re larger than Tovah. So at one point I knew I was gaining weight in the house — and I was already the biggest girl in the house — so if you’re saying you’re fat, what are you saying about me? It was triggering, because my friends from home don’t talk about ourselves at all like that. I hadn’t been around people like [my Real World roommates] in a really long time. I got fed up — I felt like sh**, and I usually don’t feel like sh** about myself. So I had a point in mind I wanted to make.
Do you feel like you made that point, and is that the impression you hope they got?
Yeah, I do. Meagan messaged me when the preview came out, and she was like: Oh, my gosh. When I talk about being insecure about my body I never want to make you feel that way — you have a normal body with curves. And I was like: Meagan, I know. It’s OK, I get it.
Speaking of Meagan, we’ve seen you guide her through a lot of her own insecurities with her body. Do you think she knows yet what’s at the root of those anxieties?
No, I really tried to get to the root of it, but I’m not sure that she can understand the complexities of trauma to think about how deep-seated it is. Like, I tried to ask her very probing questions about her childhood, but we both couldn’t figure it out.
Yeah, it kind of seems like It’s two steps forward, one step back. How can people — women, more specifically — cope with that type of emotional fluctuating?
I mean, it’s normal, because you feel different every day, you know? If you drank alcohol, or if you ate some food that your body didn’t like, or if you aren’t physically active, or even if it’s raining outside, there are so many factors that feed into our mood and our stability that I’ve learned to take it one day at a time. I don’t have this extreme expectation of me to be my proudest self all the time, because I don’t feel that way.
And for women, our weight and our body size, to be honest, can be a huge hurdle. It’s shoved down our throats on a daily basis. It’s on media all day long — commercials, billboard, porn. Seriously! If you want to be real about it, it started with porn.
My partner’s a photographer, and he photographs the most beautiful, skinny models ever, and sometimes I’m like: Oh, my God, what the f***? I’m ugly and fat. But other days, I’m like: I’m a badass bitch, and he could want to f*** that girl, but also, look at me, I’m amazing. If you always put that high expectation on yourself you’ll only disappoint yourself.
You mentioned that it wasn’t you, yourself, but other people who put the label of “activist” or “body-positive pioneer” on you, and that that came with huge expectation. Does that get tiring to live up to?
It’s just interesting that me being myself becomes this category. I’m just living every day doing what I want, not wearing a bra, or wearing shorts that are too short. And sometimes I feel pressure put on me, especially since the show came out. And I’m sincerely grateful that me being myself can help other people, but also, I am not to be put on a pedestal. Nobody is. We should not be comparing ourselves to anyone. Nobody in this world is better than anyone else.
I loved a few episodes back when you said this season wouldn’t be about racial tension or sexual tension, but it would boil down to a separation between bigger people and smaller people. When you walked in the house for the first time and saw a bunch of other people who weren’t stick-thin, was that exciting to you?
Yeah, it’s TV, usually they’re gonna cast some hot-ass people and drunk girls and whatever the f***. So when I saw [my roommates], I was like: Look, it’s a bunch of normal people! We’re not cast to be some weird extremely hot group of people! That really made me feel a lot better.
Did you decide to do the show specifically to bring your activism to light and to the public?
When making the decision to be on the show, I knew I was going in with the intention to make a change and bring attention to things that are important — the only reason that I was on the show was to bring representation to Middle Eastern people and queer Middle Eastern people. That’s why I was there. There’s not a lot of representation of Middle Eastern people in media at all, and if there is, it’s usually a stereotypical Muslim person. But there are complexities to every identity. I wouldn’t have gone if I just thought it was to have fun. I had already developed an identity and a following before the show, so it’s not necessarily something that I needed, I thought it was more something I should be doing to reach people like myself.
I thought it was interesting that before you spoke at the body-positive panel in this episode, you called yourself a fraud. Why?
Well, I was coming into this place to talk about self-love and confidence knowing that I’m not the most confident person. There are probably many people who look different than I do and are more confident. I just felt like I had to live up to something, and it was in the house that I began to realize I wasn’t as confident as people tell me I am, and it’s OK to realize and admit that.
We only saw a brief snapshot of your time at the panel — can you tell us more about it and how you were feeling?
I was really, really nervous because it was a body-positive panel and a lot of the women were plus. And me, I’m a plus-sized model, which is f***ed up because what does an average or plus body even mean? Like the average woman in America is a Size 14 and I’m only a Size 10. I didn’t want to offend anyone. But when I got there I realized everyone was so loving and the space was so accepting. It was not what I assumed it would be, it was wonderful energy.
At the panel, your roommates seemed taken aback when you mentioned that an abusive relationship was the catalyst to some of your insecurities. Is sharing those types of intimate, sometimes uncomfortable details the key to finding common ground?
If you take into consideration that we all share similar experiences without the same personal stories, necessarily, that is something that can bring communities together. It creates diversity. If everyone is silent about their abuse or addiction problems or whatever, then we’re gonna feel like we’re the only ones feeling the way we do. And we’re not.
So did that realization, and being around people who are much different than you, help you grow?
It expanded my world, to be honest, the same way I might have expanded their worlds. Being around people like Clint and Meagan or Tovah, they’re not really around people like myself, and I’m not really around people like them. Of course it’s a challenge, because you have less control so you’re automatically defensive. But then you realize that it’s actually such a cool experience that you get to grow and learn and be around these people. It’s not real life to be around the same kind of people all the time. Even if it’s activists that I’m around all day long, that’s still ignorant, because not everyone is a liberal activist.
Have you been consciously entering less comfortable or familiar spaces since filming ended?
Yeah, I used to be scared of going to events if I didn’t know who was there or what it was, really. But now, I’m like: F*** who’s gonna be there, and expect someone to enjoy me being there. In New York, it can be an especially scary thing, because your first impression is a very important one, and reputation is big. People connect your professional life with your personality — there’s no separating the two.
In a lot of ways you mentioned, women are still stuck in the same routine of being told they’re not the right size or don’t have the right look. But on the other hand, there are encouraging projects like Aidy Bryant’s Shrill becoming more popular, which a lot of women connected with. Who in pop culture inspires you with respect to body-positivity?
Number One, everybody already knows, is Lizzo. One-hundred percent, she is so confident, so incredible. She doesn’t give a f***. She puts herself out there as herself. Honestly, she’s one of the sexiest people out there right now. I saw her at the MTV TV and Movie Awards and everyone was going nuts. She has people going crazy. And one of my favorite models is Tara Lynn. She literally just had a kid, is still modeling. She’s always been a plus model, her body fluctuates. And she’s out there doing her thing looking great, no matter what size. She just did Sports Illustrated.
Are you proud of the impression you made on the show? I’m pretty sure you’re the first person on the series to address body-positivity so publicly at a panel.
It feels amazing, and I’m like: Why didn’t it happen before? But I’m glad it was me, because I’m able to be so honest and transparent. If I could bring anything to the show, I’m glad that it was something that could help other people.
Now that filming is over, what are some of your goals? Where will activism take you?
I’m never gonna stop being an activist or whatever you’d like to call it. Every day of my existence is activism. Every day, if I don’t believe in something, I’m gonna fight against it. I would love to be able to make money and survive on that. I never want to have to work in corporate America. To be frank, what I’m looking forward to doing is more panels or — I’m not a writer — but writing about it. However I can start a conversation about things that need to be talked about, that’s what I want to do.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to young people struggling through self-image?
Sooner or later, your truth will reveal itself whether you want it to or not, so the sooner you face your truth and tackle whatever’s there, the sooner you’ll be able to live in freedom. Be courageous enough to be yourself.