How letting go of body standards led to my biggest career milestone

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Mina Gerges is featured in Calvin Klein's latest campaign #ProudInMyCalvins. Photograph by Ryan McGinley/Calvin Klein.

I was 19 when I decided to pursue modelling professionally. It was something that brought me so much joy when I did it at school and with my friends, so I thought, “Why not try?”

I started looking into local modelling agencies and began researching what it took to get signed, and what I found was shocking and disappointing. Every agency had a list of mandatory requirements that outlined exactly what they were looking for: models had to be at least 6 feet tall, their waist measurements had to be less than 32 inches, their T-shirt size must be small or medium, and they must have a “muscular” or “athletic” build. Some agencies even had listed a minimum weight requirement, and they were unapologetic in asserting that if you weren’t tall, thin, and muscular, then you shouldn’t waste your time applying. 

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Although I was discouraged, I decided to reach out to a model scout and ask for more information. I knew I didn’t look like the models on their website, but I also knew that I shouldn’t be excluded from something because of my weight or my body type.

I was optimistic. A lot of guys aren’t 6’ and wear a size small T-shirt - don’t we deserve to see ourselves in ads, too? In a short and ruthless interaction, I was told I wasn’t athletic enough, I didn’t have the “right look” and that there simply wasn’t a market for someone like me in fashion.

I was crushed. How could a small group of people decide who gets to be beautiful and worthy, and exclude everyone else so blatantly? 

As frustrating as this was, it wasn’t at all surprising. 

Growing up, I never saw anyone that looked like me in the movies I watched or modelling the clothes I wanted to wear. What I saw instead were men with statuesque physiques, slender bodies, sculpted muscles, square jaws, and unblemished skin, everywhere.

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I fixated on how these models looked in ads for brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, tearing myself apart and wishing that I’d change to look like them. That was the only definition of beauty so many of us grew up seeing and idolizing, and we knew that we had to look like them to be considered desirable and attractive. We couldn’t be happy in our skin unless we looked like them. 

After my encounter with that scout, I was convinced I had to lose weight and achieve that athletic build she was talking about. I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to if I wanted to model. I developed an eating disorder trying to achieve the chiseled body type that was featured in every campaign; and even then, I wasn’t happy.

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I didn’t love myself more because I lost weight, instead, I resented myself because no matter how much time I spent at the gym or how many meals I skipped, my body never looked like the other models. I couldn’t look at my reflection in the mirror without tearing myself apart, measuring all the ways I wasn’t good enough or attractive enough.

My relationship with my body image became worse when a family member told me “Men don’t get eating disorders” after I revealed what I had been going through. I went from aspiring for a career in front of the camera to deleting my social media accounts and resenting my body.

That model scout was right, after all: I didn’t have the right look.

Over the next four years, I worked tirelessly to mend my relationship with my body. I learned to be kinder to myself and my reflection in the mirror, and learned how to accept my body and my stretch marks because I simply can’t change them. I unfollowed every account on Instagram that perpetuated these harmful, unrealistic body types and learned one thing in the process: the less I compared myself to this unrealistic beauty standard, the more I learned to see beauty in my own body. 

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Armed with this renewed sense of self-acceptance, I began talking about my body image journey on Instagram and using my own platform to create more body positive images with the ultimate goal of creating new, more inclusive definitions of male beauty.

I wanted to share the confidence I had earned after years of self-loathing and made a point to celebrate different body types, because I don’t need a six-pack to love my body. The message resonated with so many people, who just like me, had been harmed by unrealistic body types and were made to feel invisible and unworthy because of it. 

I started modelling again for brands and publications that believed the same thing: that it’s time to bring visibility to more body types, not just the really tall, really muscular ones. And that brings me to the biggest moment of my career, modelling for, #PROUDINMYCALVINS, the latest worldwide Pride campaign by Calvin Klein that launched on May 14.

To model for such an iconic brand and be part of a shift towards more inclusivity gives me so much hope that it is possible to create new versions of beauty, even when the odds are stacked against you. It makes me hopeful that these inclusive campaigns may help teenagers accept their bodies instead of tearing themselves down, and proves that there’s more to us than being a list of height and weight requirements. 

I guess that modelling scout wasn’t right after all. 

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