Meet the Middle East's 'first curvy model'
Ameni Esseibi talks about being a fighter, taking on detractors, and where she draws the line between health and body positivity
In a world filled with stereotypes and boundaries, it takes a lot of courage to not only question the norm, but break it. Taking such a step may create a revolution - or it may backfire entirely. Yet, it's when individuals take that leap of faith, prepared to face wave upon wave of pushback and judgement, that change is born. That is Ameni Esseibi's story.
Unlike many of her peers, it wasn't Ameni's 'childhood dream' to become a model, although she greatly enjoyed keeping tabs on the latest in the world of fashion. One summer in her home country of Tunisia, however, it hit her that there were no 'curvy models' in the Middle East - she decided to "create" that.
"When you think of a model, you think of tall, slim and pretty girls," says the 20-year-old. "Growing up, I'd hear many kids say they wanted to 'look like a model'. And I wondered: what is that? What's a 'model body'? I realised it was the best stereotype I could hope to break: that 'model' word. I could break it and recreate it."
And she did. The young fashion enthusiast stirred up quite the buzz when she became the Middle East's first curvy model, having signed up with MA Models agency in Dubai last year. Despite being the first in her family to pursue such a career, they were never a source of resistance. "When I told my dad that I was taking a gap year from university, his only concern was whether it would be worth it. They're very supportive of what I do," says Ameni, who's studying fashion at the American University in the Emirates.
That kind of family support is crucial, she believes. "You need a support system, whether it's your family or friends - but when it comes from your parents, it's much stronger. How do you expect the world to love what you do, if your own family doesn't support it? I know mine has my back, no matter what - whether I fail or succeed - so that's really important to me."
It's not easy to break a stereotype, especially when you're looking to be the first plus-size Arab model in the Middle East. "You need to be fearless and unafraid of failure or rejection. You develop these traits with time," she says. "Convincing the agency that curvy models would eventually work out in the Middle East was a challenge. [That segment] was an empty, deserted market," says Ameni, who adds that her foray into the field opened the door for other plus size models, with about 25 of them joining the agency after her.
That's not to say she didn't have moments when she questioned herself about whether the long road to success would be worth it. "I'd have to have had a harsh day to think like that," she says, candidly. "But most of the time, I'm just grateful for the position and title that I have." If anything, she adds, it's her audience that keeps her going. "I always think about it in the sense that I help people accept themselves. They need my support, so they're my motivation."
Like any celebrity, however, Ameni gets trolled online too. "You can't satisfy everyone. You can't have everyone on your team. You'll always have people who are against what you're doing," she observes. "A lot of people tell me that I'm supporting obesity. They tell me that I encourage overweight people to have health issues." But when health comes into play, the outspoken youngster seems to know where to draw the line. "If I meet someone who has diabetes or is extremely obese and they tell me they're 'body confident', I'd tell them, 'No, habibi, you need to lose weight for your own health - and then talk about body confidence.'" For Ameni, body positivity stops at the line where health is affected. "The second poor health comes in, there's nothing more to body positivity."
The criticism doesn't end there though. Some of her detractors have even told her she isn't "curvy enough" for what she does. Ameni's learnt to take it all on the chin, however. "This is something I learnt in the industry: people talk no matter what you do, whether good or bad. I believe that for a person to take the time to even say such things clearly means I'm affecting them in a certain way."
She takes the brickbats positively because she believes her career isn't just helping her, but others too. "I consider what I do a part of charity, because although I'm not financially helping people, I'm doing so mentally. Every day, I go to sleep knowing that I made a few people feel better, because I take the time to respond to them - when I know other celebrities wouldn't even bother. When they stop me in the mall, I'll have conversations with them - it's not just about taking a picture and leaving. I have to be emotionally connected with them and, for that, I have to make conversation."
Even though Ameni set a new standard for the Middle East's modelling industry, plus-sized models aren't as foreign a concept in other parts of the world. Ashley Graham, a world-famous American plus-sized model became the first such model to make the cover of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Ameni tells of how she got the chance to meet her hero at a store opening earlier this year. "She was giving me a lot of advice and is a role model for a lot of girls, including me. Ashley and I have different body types and this is why I love her - she embraces all curvy body types and stays true to what she's doing."
In a very real way, modelling has changed Ameni's perspective to life too. "It's made me realise what I'm capable of and that I can change so many mindsets. The fact that I'm Arab, I'm Muslim, I'm Tunisian, I'm from the Middle East and that I represent Arab women in general - it gives me a lot of strength."
A routine she always does to give herself that strength is to give herself a pep talk in front of the mirror every morning. "The best compliments are the ones that come from you, because for you to have the courage to compliment yourself, it shows strength. I tried it with a lot celebrity friends; I asked them to tell me five things they love about themselves. A lot of them weren't able to. It sounds ridiculous, but it's actually hard to do."
From being told to stay in university and get a regular job to signing her first modelling contract, Ameni has come a long way. The model, who's gaining popularity by the day, says it's just the beginning for her - and is hoping to become internationally recognised one day. "My big dream is to be signed with IMG (International Management Group), one of the toughest modelling agencies in the world, and have a strong audience that I can help on a daily basis."
Ameni's name means 'hope'. Clearly, her parents chose the right name for their girl who is determined to lead the way to a better tomorrow.