Most of you probably saw this photo of the current case of Mo’Nique’s F.A.T Chance making its way around the gossip blogosphere in July.

From the second I saw that photo pop up on sites like Perez Hilton and TMZ, I steeled myself for horrible comments. If you’re at all sensitive about weight issues, those comments will hit you like a slap to the face. I won’t give them the honor of quoting any of them, but I read some horrible generalizations about size and black women, a variety of incredibly cruel fat jokes, and many remarks about how the program is “promoting obesity.” I beg to differ. Anyone who has watched Mo’Nique’s F.A.T Chance knows that the point of the show is to uplift the self-esteem of women who aren’t typically celebrated as beautiful in society. It has nothing to do with exploting the participants or celebrating an unhealthy lifestyle. And if you don’t believe me, I asked somebody.

The bella directly below Mo’Nique in the pink body paint is 23 year old Arena Turner, a former sixth-grade since teacher who taught at a middle school in North Miami and hails from the outskirts of Liberty City. I was lucky enough to interview her for my job, because she was hosting a local screening event for the show’s first episode. And just like Mo’Nique did when I met her, Arena immediately struck me as a really cool chick.

A little backstory — I went to the Miami casting call for F.A.T Chance last year, and met Mo’Nique. She’s truly a presence — at the end as tired as she was, she hugged me and made me feel special and beautiful and important. It was a magical moment.

This season, Mo took the contestants to Paris, and Arena said it was the experience of a lifetime. The contestants bonded and toured the city of lights, and had some magical first experiences — Arena drank her first glass of champagne ever! As part of the competition, the ladies got body painted for an artistic photo shoot. Arena admits that she was initally concerned about appearing nude. “I’m a school teacher so I was worried about the message I was sending. I don’t want [my students] to think it’s OK to pull off your clothes for money. But at the same time I wanted them to get the message that hey, you need to love yourself. Love yourself enough to come out of your shell and say look at me, I am beautiful. I’m beautiful with all of my clothes on, or with nothing on at all. That’s what the competition is all about,” she explained. “The whole competition is about stepping outside of your comfort zone, and being comfortable with you. Just loving yourself enough to say OK, listen. I’m a big girl and I can let it all hang out because I’m beautiful. I’m a work of art!”

I asked Arena what she had to say to the haters, and she got very real with me. “I feel like, if everyone loves themselves enough on the inside, then everything on the outside becomes beautiful. And just because people are messed up on the inside and don’t love themselves, they go ahead and pull and pick and point fingers. I mean, come on!”

I asked her how the comments made her feel, and she let me know that they didn’t slow her down at all. “My skin is thick. When I read the comments, it didn’t pierce my skin at all. I was like, wow, people actually thought enough to leave 500, 600 comments on this! Wow! They’re really looking at this, and they see it’s ok to be yourself, it’s ok to be beautiful. Then I read some comments where people are saying we’re promoting obesity. We never said go eat two hamburgers and be fat! We never said that! What we said is, love who you are, love what you are, and be proud of yourself. Nobody ever said go and be the size of Arena, or go ‘head and eat yourself to Mo’Nique’s size. We never said be obese. Me myself, I work out every morning. Mo’Nique encouraged us to work out at the hotel, she exercises.”

The photo was intentionally out-there. Intentionally in your face. And it makes me wonder — what do people want, anyway? You hear regular complaints that the fashion industry promotes eating disorders, models are too skinny, we’re banning models who are under a certain weight. Okay. Then the designers say, let’s go the opposite way and make a powerful statement. When Jean-Paul Gaultier and John Galliano used plus size model Velvet in their runway shows in Paris, people were spewing pure hateraid, talking about this is just gross, nobody wants to see that, blah blah blah. It’s like, you can’t please people. Arena agreed with me on that point.

“There are people who have committed suicide because of what society thinks about them. But you know, it doesn’t matter what society thinks about you if you truly love yourself,” Arena retorted. And in the end, she brushed it all off. “People are gonna talk, they’re gonna talk. Small-minded people talk about people.” There’s no disputing that.

Whether you saw the photo as empowering and magnificent or horrific and disgusting, you have to admit that it took a hell of a lot of guts to pose for a picture like that, and I’m not talking about their weight. Speaking as a woman who doesn’t currently own a pair of shorts and has used every kind of excuse to not wear a swimsuit in front of strangers, I have to applaud the courage of these women to take it all off.

Please don’t get it twisted — Mo’Nique isn’t by any means a guru or spokesperson for me as a black woman. I can’t always ride with her opinions. For example, her recent quote about the n word made me roll my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head. But I remember the words Mo’Nique said to the crowd at the end of the F.A.T Chance audition and as someone who knows where she’s coming from, Iwas sincerely touched: “I honestly wish that I could bottle up what I’m feeling right now to give to y’all for the days that aren’t too bright — for the days that your thighs rub too hard together. Because I am y’all. I know how you feel,” she said to the room of full figured women. Many tears were shed that day, but it was a magnificent experience.

On a personal note, I myself am a big girl and I’ve been fighting my weight for years. In my experience, I think people who are thin or who have never had a weight problem, sometimes don’t know what to say to overweight people. Tough love is an often-used tactic and for me, it’s never worked. Making fun of me or mocking me, will push me away and make me hate you and disregard whatever message you were trying to send. What has helped is a slow and realistic building-up of my self esteem. My workout goals were always ineffective because I held goals that weren’t encouraging that positive self-image. I’ve finally realized that I don’t need to lose weight so I can be seen as beautiful. Because I’m beautiful now. I need to exercise regularly so I can be fit and healthy and live a long and happy life. And I’m doing that. Just hearing the words – you’re beautiful, you look great — means a lot when you’re not used to hearing (or believing) it.

When I’m having a low self-esteem day, I check out Thick Misses, a blog that celebrates black celebrities with curves. I find lots of fashion inspiration that I can use NOW, not as thinspiration. For example, I ache for this stunning black and white floral dress from Mo’Nique’s Ebony photo spread. And while we’re on the topic of plus size women and fashion, a word to the clothing designers around the world. Lots of females have a passion for fashion, but I’d venture to say women who are plus-size are extra obsessed with finding the perfect outfit. Full-figured fashion has come a long way, but we’ve got a lot further to go. For many designers, plus size clothes are still a relatively untapped market.

I’ve been realizing that a lot recently, because I have a family wedding to attend in Lake Tahoe next week. This ain’t just a wedding, it’s also going to be a big ol’ family reunion for my husband, and we’ll be seeing relatives who were haven’t seen since our wedding five years ago. Needless to say, we’re excited for our little trip, and I want to find the perfect dress. I’m a vibrant kinda gal, so I’m visualizing a bright, flowy, flattering, classy Grecian type of style. These days I’m obsessed with bright yellow, but fuschia or golden orange might also be interesting. I’m not averse to patterns, but they’d need to be flattering. And I’ve been looking and looking for the perfect dress that’s beautiful AND affordable, and I can’t find ANYTHING for less than $250.00. I waited too long to shop online, so tomorrow I’m gonna have to hit Loehmann’s, Ross, Macy’s, JC Penny, wherever I can — on a quest to find this mystical dress. Any advice you bellas might have is very much appreciated.

To end this on a happy Friday musical note, here’s Mo’Nique, proving that plus size can be sexy and desirable in Anthony Hamilton’s Sista Big Bones. Whatever size you are, you need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and believe in your beauty.

Happy Friday and nothing but love, y’all!

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