Bodied is a series in which we ask people to get real about their relationships with their bodies. As the body-positivity movement challenges unrealistic beauty standards while insisting we love what we got, we want to push the notion that self-acceptance is a process. Here, we’ll examine how people have grown to love and accept their bodies ― or not ― and the steps they took to get there.
Jeannie Mai never questioned her restrictive eating habits, controlled diet or sample-size frame. Her years spent at the intersection of fashion and television had conditioned her to believe that when it came to diet and appearance, she was doing everything right. But when she saw a photo of herself that didn’t reflect her signature spirit and strong personality, she began to re-evaluate.
Mai, who is currently a co-host on “The Real,” started on a journey toward self-acceptance ― and weight gain. To date, Mai has gained about 20 pounds through a healthier, more robust diet and a lot of hours in the gym.
We spoke with Mai about how exercise has changed her life, what it felt like to readjust her relationship with her body and more.
You’ve been open about the fact that you’ve been purposely gaining weight. Can you talk a little bit about how that journey began?
Now that I’m turning 40, I’m more reflective about the things that I say. I can’t stand body shaming, it’s wack and cowardly and beneath our intelligence levels to make fun of someone’s body, the machinery that gets us through life.
I was watching an episode of “The Real” and I heard myself making fun of my butt, which is non-existent. I have a flat butt, chicken legs and no curves. There is something to be said about owning the things you have, but on the other side, you’re becoming your own mockery. I had this out-of-body experience where I was like, “I’m doing what I say I hate other people do to myself.”
I met my trainer, who told me that I could have those curves if I worked for them, but I was just too skinny. A month later, I was looking through my phone at photos and I saw this photo of myself that I looked emaciated in. Everything looked frail. I thought, “Oh, my God, if someone pushed me, I would just break into a million pieces.”
Did you think you had a problem after seeing that photo?
I always thought eating disorders were just people who don’t eat or are bulimic. But I realized after 10 years of being the girl who never touched a carb, never ate past 8 p.m., avoided creamy dressings, all those things ― I was over-controlling. When your mind is over-controlling, you just believe what you want to believe rather than what is healthy and wholesome for you.
How do you think that happened?
In fashion and TV, you get praised for [maintaining a thin figure]. You go to fittings and they’re like, “She fits everything” and it feeds your ego. You think it’s right. You see every magazine is like “how to lose five pounds” and you just feel like you’re getting praised.
I want to talk about the fashion industry a little bit. In spite of the body-positive movement, the industry still has a reputation for prioritizing thinness, as you’ve mentioned. Do you think there is anything specific that is doing a disservice to people with body image issues?
There’s always going to be the subliminal message that being skinnier is sexier because it’s so hard to attain. It’s so hard to attain because it’s not natural for a lot of us to be super skinny.
But on the contrary, I do want to compliment social media and the women who are making a stance in fashion like Ashley Graham. I can’t wait for the day that things like Miss America and Victoria’s Secret jump on board a little bit.
So what did it take for you to get out of the mindset that thinner was better?
The thing I kept coming back to was ― if my spirit was a body shape, what would it look like? It would be sexy, curvy and strong. It would be standing strong against things that are against me ― that wasn’t the girl I saw in the photo. I don’t want it to be hungry or frail. I want it to be able to take on things like my divorce and this crazy industry. So that’s why I decided to do everything the opposite of what I had done before. Saying yes to carbs, eating full, nutritious meals and allowing myself to get bigger in all areas. I’m enjoying the process of getting to know myself. I’m now in workout classes where I am one of the stronger ones. I can lift my own body weight, and that feels great.
The gym has helped you physically, but has it helped you mentally too ― for example, if you ever feel insecure about the weight you’ve gained?
I am insecure about not being able to fit into certain things, but you just have to talk yourself out of it. I do that, and then I get to the gym. I put my anxieties into lifting weights, and I come out every single time feeling so fueled and charged and sexy. If there’s a guy who doesn’t like my body type, that guy isn’t for me. If there is a dress that doesn’t fit me, it’s not for me. I want to find what fits me and my world. The guy, the dress, the job, whatever it is. Working out is a me-time moment that allows me to come back out looking at the world like, “OK, I am going to take that I want, not what I’m waiting to fit into.”
At the end of the day, I’m going to scrutinize my physique. I have to remember that this is the body I have to get me through the things I’m going through. Right now, I’m dealing with a really rough divorce. I don’t think my old, frail self would have been able to put up with some of this stuff. That person who was always more concerned about what the reflection in the mirror was wouldn’t be able to focus on what I need to protect right now. Being stronger physically has helped me realize I can take anything. I might wallow for a minute, but I’m still planted and firm in my own two feet. The psyche of a strong body absolutely channels with your mind that you can do anything.
I think a lot of people focus on the physical benefits of working out, but the mental part of it is just as important.
It’s even greater.
Do you think those benefits you are seeing mentally and physically overshadow any anxieties you might have about gaining weight?
My cycle used to be: See something you don’t like, sit there and pick at it, start hating it about yourself. The longer you sit in the mirror, the more you hate the mirror, you wear something to cover up. What you don’t realize is you have just planted a seed in your head. That seed will grow as you’re watering it with continuous hate. Now, as soon as I see something in my mind that I don’t like, I either change my mentality to accept or own it, or I go to the gym and work on it.
I think a lot of women, myself included, get frustrated when they don’t see results in the gym right away, but it’s more about being active and aware and doing something good for yourself.
Yes, it’s that same seed that you plant. You’re growing and nurturing the plant to be what you want it to be. I have lines on my ass, I still have this pouch in my gut, but that’s where my intuition lives. It needs to have a shape and a purpose ― and this goes back to what my spirit would look like if it were a body shape. I’m bright in life, I want to live my fullest life. That person has a little pooch because she enjoys her life, that has taken over what I used to think.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.