How did you come to be a plus size fashion blogger?
Honestly, I've struggled with fashion from the youngest age. The teen years were probably the worst! Being a big girl, it was frustrating to go shopping in the standard-sized world of fashion. Also, society is very discriminative and judgmental towards people like me. The world is so consumed with an unrealistic ideology of perfection and beauty, that plus size women like me fall neglected and as victims in front of society's hunger for that size 0. Actually, it was only after I got married that I started researching more about possible brands that catered to bigger women's fashion needs. Whilst browsing, I stumbled on- at the time- an unknown platform to me, which was the blogosphere. Bloggers! I cam across many fashion bloggers and to be more exact, plus size fashion bloggers. I was beyond amazed. The body-positivity, the confidence, the togetherness of these women was inexplainable. It was all so contagious. I felt better about myself and I was more accepting of my body. And that's exactly what lured me into writing about plus size fashion and starting my own blog Nounzilicious, in April 2013. Another important point is that I come from Middle Eastern society, which doesn't acknowledge plus size as worth the attention. On the contrary, they sometimes despise women like me. My blog was to raise more awareness on plus size fashion, to underline the misconceptions that people have about plus size women, to start a community for plus size women and to stir up some controversy in the fashion scene.
How does Middle Eastern culture affect your personal style?
I think my personal style has always been inspired by foreign brands, American or western fits and cuts, by comfort, and by femininity. The only aspect of the Middle Eastern culture that could affect my personal style is to stay somewhat modest and respectful towards my roots and origins. There are some things that I wouldn't wear, and things that I wouldn't even consider posting on my blog. It is an Arab mentality thing... Nevertheless, I come from a very open-minded family and they support my individuality and the fact that I found my calling. My expressing myself through fashion doesn't surpass the vulgar and unreasonable, and at the same time doesn't ally with the boring and dull. There is always room for creativity and style.
How does shopping for plus size clothes in the Middle East compare to other places in the world?
Shopping for plus size clothes in the Middle East is a disaster! If it weren't for the handful of amazing American and European plus size brands that decided to open stores in the region, the shopping experience would be lame. Many women- and I speak of women in general, of all sizes- have started to rely on online shopping because there is more variety. On another note, what saddens me is that there are no fresh new regional, Arab, Middle Eastern fashion designers who ever venture into plus size fashion. If you enter any mall in the Middle East, what do you see? The majority of the shops are foreign brands. When you go to a mall in the US, the shops are mostly all considered 'local'. This concept doesn't occur in our region, which is a really depressing thought. We might be known for our luxury and haute couture designers, but what about the high street? You'll hear the most deafening echo of silence.
What is your experience of being plus size in the Middle East? How do men and women respond to you?
Being a plus size woman in the Middle East- to many- is almost as horrific as committing a gruesome act of violence towards humanity. The shallowness of people has reached a stage where they don't look at individuals as human beings but as charts of calorie count and body mass. "Bravo! You lost weight" versus "Ouf! Why are you neglecting yourself like that?". This tennis match of drama and constant judgments are exactly what used to put me down. "Oh, you have such a lovely face. If only you could loose a couple of kilos." My experience is that I had to deal with a lot of people who would either pity me, look down on me, blame me, make fun of me, look at me and laugh, despise me, reject me... So many scenarios that ended up with me crying and feeling low about myself. Once you are comfortable with yourself- and I truly mean that- once you are 100% at peace with your body and know what your next step is, you have won. You can confront anyone.
Men's response doesn't really matter to me. My husband loves the way I am, and he thinks that curves rock! But generally speaking, men can be indecisive in this matter. I have no survey result that could show what the majority of men think about plus size women. My main aim has always been women togetherness. That alone is a challenge since most Middle Eastern women lead a luxurious lifestyle, with the size 0 mentality firmly planted in their minds. I am afraid we are faced with a leading majority of plastics. That's my opinion: there are too many posers, and only a handful of real talkers. Reaching out to women like me is always positive whether in the region or internationally. The only hiccup here is having these 'other' women accept big, curvy, plus size women. They are like vultures.
What are the benefits to being plus sized in the Middle East?
The benefits of being a plus size woman in the Middle East is that the community is slowly falling into place. Social media is an important catalyst in connecting Arab plus size women. Within society itself, especially when it comes to the haters and shamers, there aren't benefits yet because there is no awareness. They see this movement as a promotion for obesity and unhealthiness, as a delusional lifestyle, as an embarrassment, as a force of laziness and recklessness, as a virus that needs to be quarantined. The only benefits are that right now, we are living our uniqueness and we are embracing our body image, even if most of the support is not regional.
Who have been the most influential plus size women in your life?
There are so many but I would like to mention three in particular. One, Goan plus size fashion blogger Luanne D'Souza of Weesha's World, who I got the chance to meet in Dubai, has been a good friend and someone I would go to with the silly questions I had as a beginner, when I first launched my blog Nounzilicious. Also, I am a big fan of her style and her posts are always charged with positivity and are inspirational. Two, plus size fashion model Denise Bidot, whom I love and am truly fascinated by her rapid escalation in the world of fashion. Her being assigned to open up for the NYFW catwalk was one of the most WOW moments in the plus size community! Three, plus size supermodel, mentor, and inspirational speaker Emme. Her recent project Fashion Without Limits is a program that encourages design students to work in larger sizes than the industry standard of Size 6. Students work using forms or mannequins that come in sizes 16, 18 or 22. These forms create an opportunity for designers to see how clothing fits and drapes on women who are considered normal to larger sizes. Taking plus size fashion from its roots is what leaves me speechless towards her activism. A smart move by an experienced, intellectual and classy woman. In my eyes, she represents what a plus size woman should be. A spokesperson for positive changes in health, fashion, and life.
What has been your most popular blog post thus far?
I joined a francophone plus size community called the French Curves. They have a monthly challenge: an outfit photo challenge every 16th of the month. This has helped me get more followers, so my most popular posts are the ones related to the various themed challenges. My favorite one was the one where I had the photo shoot done in Lebanon.
Is there any question you wish I would have asked but didn't?
Not really. I found your questions very on-point. I think we covered most of the aspects of blogging, and being a plus size woman. One thing I would like to add is that I live in Saudi Arabia where organizing events can be sometimes challenging. Many restrictions can occur, which takes us back to the difficulty we face in promoting this movement. Luckily, in other countries in the MENA, there are less technical issues but more unfair social debates on the notion of plus size.
MERRY-JO LEVERS is a mother, wife, PhD student and nurse extraordinaire. She is a Canadian currently living in Doha, Qatar and travels whenever the opportunity presents itself. Living life as a complicated extroverted introvert, Merry-Jo seeks the best in people, culture, and scholarship. Believing in the fierceness of body positivity, Merry-Jo surrounds herself with strong, independently minded people who enjoy challenging the status quo. Her motto is work hard and play harder.