I’m A Plus-Size, Iranian-American Actress, But I Don’t Want That To Be My Headline

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“What is it like to be a non-straight size, non-white female who is making it in Hollywood? How are you changing the industry?”

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I get asked these questions a lot lately, and with every journalist I find my answers shift. “It is empowering, painful, difficult." “I don’t even notice it.” “I am above it.” “I am in it." “I am more than that.” “I am all that.” “What was your question, again?"

If you’re new to my journey, welcome! I’m an actress, comedian, and writer. Currently (unless you’re my dad), you can see me on Netflix as a lead in American Pie: Girls’ Rules. Being in a Netflix movie puts you out there. I’ve been on the promotional trail for the past month, doing virtual interviews with journalists who have clearly researched me, hence that now-notorious opening question.

This essay — my truthful, raw response — is something I have re-written and re-read a dozen times. Each time was painful and carried a different sort of pressure. There is trauma that comes with this topic, along with a personally newfound urge to speak up about it. I don’t have all of the answers, and I never will. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “all we have is this very present moment.” 

I’m going to bring you into mine. 

What I am really being asked is: What is it like to be different? Some days I’m ready to embrace my “otherness” and advocate for everyone who feels like they’re not enough. Those days are important and beautiful. But there are other days when I abhor the focus on my appearance and how it relates to my work, because I know I am so much more than that. And those days deserve to be nurtured, too. They’re both part of this experience, and neither is more important than the other. What I wholeheartedly believe in is finding your truth, your path, your unlimited bliss, and following it. I believe in each of us seeing our worth, beauty, and value as cosmic beings, connected in this human experience. And none of that adheres to what you look like on the outside. 

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I often ignore the negativity enveloped in this entire topic and push on. I let it silently fuel me to work harder. That’s an important survival skill to have, and some days, that’s all I can do. That being said, I’m also learning how important it is to address the disparity in opportunities so that real, genuine change can take place in the form of authentic representation. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t suffering from whiplash between these two experiences. 

SOME DAYS, I’m empowered:

I get a lot of incredibly kind fan messages on Instagram, typically from young, plus-sized, BIPOC that say things like, “It’s so cool for me to see someone who looks like me on TV!” I am so glad that I can be that for them. Growing up I was never able to see “myself” on screen, and at such a young age that creates a sense of Otherness that can be so detrimental to our development, no matter how subconsciously it takes form. Our TV screens have a dangerous monopoly over the way young kids see themselves. That is why I am elated that I can provide representation for people who don’t feel seen. I want to be proof that you don’t need to be white and blonde, or model skinny, or perfectly “thicc,” or whatever body type is currently in, to play dynamic, vulnerable, or sexy characters. I can be the leading lady, in Hollywood and life, and you can too. PERIODT.

It takes significant hard work, talent, a strong belief in yourself, and a radically positive, loving, support system of artists to make this shit happen. I want to be able to share my experience with others and say “Please, be confident in yourself! You are enough and you are worthy, just as you are. You are magnanimous, electric, nuanced, deep, and beautiful JUST AS YOU ARE!”  If I didn’t have people telling me this at the start of my journey, it would have taken me much longer to get here. I owe a lot of this to my unbelievably supportive tribe. I plan to do the same for others, elevating marginalized voices. Relentlessly. 

SOME DAYS, it’s painful:

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I was a plus-size, Iranian-American girl growing up in a very white, conservative town in Orange County. I have distinct memories of having my “otherness” highlighted by others from a very young age. There are days when I don’t know if being funny was a personality trait I was born with, or a skill I developed at a young age because of the toxic, deeply-rooted subconscious idea that was planted in my head from the media: If you’re fat, you have to be funny. I had internalized those messages more than I realized. Recently, I began digging through my memories for all the traumatic stories that cemented my discordance with the “Hollywood standard.” I went back to my childhood and explored when these toxic ideas found a home in my own subconscious; when they planted a seed of “not enough-ness” and grew into an idea that I had to work harder, be better, and never take no for an answer because I was “different.” I began writing down difficult stories of when I experienced white supremacy in the casting process, or when fat-phobia showed up on set or in an acting class, which it always did. I was ready to put these experiences, and the lessons they carried, out into the world, along with my bleeding heart. 

But here’s what I learned: Not only is it triggering for me to put those memories into writing, but it’s not what I want to leave you with. I’d rather leave you with a sense of hope and the truth of those experiences: They do not define me. Not even a little. I accept them for what they taught me, whether it was protection, strength, or self-love, and I release them. I hope anyone reading this never has to experience any sort of painful bias, but, if and when you do, know that you are better for it. Know that your experience can be used to make you more whole, more understanding, and more empathetic for the next person. This acceptance, release, and rebirth is the finest form of progression. It’s how I chose to continue moving and being in this space. 

SOME DAYS, I’m angry:

My trauma does not exist to be capitalized on. Brands call themselves “inclusive” and “body-positive” because it’s trendy, but then they don’t carry diverse sizes in their clothing. It’s not hard to make more sizes. Do better. I sat in on a casting session where the director said, “She’s just not what I pictured for the role” after a plus-sized Black female left the room. She was the best actress, but she was auditioning for the lead. Fuck your “diversity.”

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Now that I’m a lead in a Netflix movie, it’s acceptable to be myself, even admirable? I’m an “advocate?” Because two seconds ago I was working 10 times harder than the size-0 blonde girl next to me, because this industry — hopefully unknowingly — persists in gravitating toward hiring her. Do you understand? My trauma is not trendy, or relative, or here to be bought and sold. It’s a lifetime of experiences that deserve to be nurtured and understood.

SOME DAYS, I heal:

This is my favorite space to live in, and the one I try to reside in most often. My TikTok algorithm might be catered perfectly for me, but either way, that app gives me so much hope. I see so many young people who are radically inclusive, and who want equality for all people. With everything I’ve said in this essay, the most important part for me is finding my truth, and living in it fully. I have learned that no one, and no thing, especially not Hollywood, can give you the answers in this life. There is abundant love and acceptance within us all, as long as we take the time to listen and feel it. Writing this took radical self-care. I sat down for three different meditations, nurturing my inner child. I moved all of my furniture and performed a full-blown, solo, sweaty dance party to Lorde. I belted Vance Joy (so embarrassing, I know…no offense, Vance) off-key until, until my nodules felt like they were bleeding. My generation is afforded with the privilege of understanding (and accepting) triggers, trauma, and healing. And I honor that process; for me, and for the generation of women that come after me.

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I am ready to stand here and say: I am so grateful for how far I’ve come. I’m grateful for every single person that loved, supported, and encouraged me along the way. And there is no “one way” to do this. There is no “one way” to love yourself, or be confident, or be an advocate. What’s important is that you do the work for yourself, in order to be the best, most loving version of you. Because we each deserve the utmost joy.

I am a plus-sized, Middle Eastern actress, and I’m proud of where I am. But just as importantly, I’m an intelligent comedian, a detailed director, a compassionate listener, and an emphatic friend. I am the lovable “leading lady,” in a movie, as well as the funny "best friend,” and everything in between. I am learning every day how to better navigate the ills and the gifts of this life and this industry. And there is plenty of space in this world for all of that to exist.

It's a cliché, but this year was supposed to be our year — full of independence, opportunity, or at least a few weekend afternoons spent with more than 10 friends with fewer than six feet between us. But with COVID-necessary social distancing, a shitty job market, and closed campuses, 2020 hasn't given us much to work with. Past generations have had to deal with a recession, social upheaval, and changing norms: We've had to deal with all of it at once.

So, what now? What do we do with our careers, our relationships, and our lives? How do we move forward when we're still stuck in our high school bedrooms? These stories are for us — filled with the resources, blueprints, and people who are finding ways to turn all this garbage into something like lemonade.

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