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Hannah was a diehard athlete until a series of injuries in high school ended her collegiate sports prospects. At just over 6 feet tall, she felt modeling was a natural fit for her height. But this path demanded a choice. Upon learning that she would either have to diet down or gain weight to become “marketable,” Hannah chose weight gain, and in so doing, forged a successful career as a plus-size model.
But by 2019, Hannah had lost her confidence, developed serious health issues, and grown tired of building her life around someone else’s aesthetic ideals. Wanting to take control of her life, she returned to the gym where she reinvigorated her athleticism and took joy in watching her body change. A year later and 60 pounds lighter, Hannah became a nationally qualified bikini competitor with a unique look. She’s ready to prove that she doesn’t—and you don’t—have to conform to anyone else’s standards to look and feel beautiful.
Here is Hannah’s story. – H.E.
I’ve been tall ever since I can remember. I was 6 feet tall in sixth grade, and today I’m 6-foot-2, and being so tall, sports were the natural avenue for me to go into. I played basketball and volleyball all through high school, but along the way, I acquired a lot of injuries. This prevented me from playing in college, meaning I had to stop playing and lost my chance at scholarships. I felt like my life was over.
I fell into depression and began emotionally eating, going from a super-active lifestyle to really just focusing on education and not really looking at my eating habits or exercising regularly. In college, I put on the freshman 15 just like everyone else, but without sports, I was lost.
Further complicating things, around this time, I started modeling. I quickly learned that in modeling, you’re either “straight size” or “plus size.” There’s really no in between. As a straight-size model, you need to be anywhere from zero to a size four. That wasn’t an option. On the other hand, most of the plus-size models who book a lot of jobs are a size 14. I was right in between, around size 10-12.
I didn’t even realize that at a size 10-12, I was considered plus size, so that initially was a shock to me. So they really put it all on the table, telling me I was either going to have to be super unhealthy to get down to a straight size, or I could gain weight to go into that 14-16 category.
Obviously, gaining the weight was going to be easier to maintain, so that’s what I chose.
So, on top of not playing sports and being overwhelmed with college, I was getting into an industry that demanded I put on more weight to become more marketable.
I Did Not Know Who I Was
At first, I thought it was great. After all, I got to eat what the standard-size girls couldn’t!
But over time, I slowly started losing confidence. I was not naturally that size, and I didn’t grow up with so-called “curvy confidence,” where I was in love with my plus-size body and super accepting of it. It was the complete opposite, for me: I did not know who I was. I went through an identity crisis where I tried to really portray that body-positive image and really love the skin I was in, but deep down, I was always feeling self-conscious.
But modeling in general also takes a toll on your confidence. No matter what size you are, you’re trying to meet an industry ideal and “perfect” beauty standard to be able to book more paying jobs. I felt like I was always the token plus-size girl on set. I wanted to be there because I had the best look, or because I aligned really well with the brand standards, or even just because they believed in me. But it felt more like they needed to fill their plus-size quota, so it was honestly a traumatizing experience.
On top of that, I didn’t even feel confident in the size that I was trying to be. It was just completely overwhelming.
After a few years of modeling, I went to the doctor. I was having crazy mood swings, and I felt like there were likely some underlying issues contributing to them. As it turned out, I actually contracted polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is very common among women who have weight disorders and experience severe fluctuation in their hormones.
Learning that was really scary. It was the turning point for me. I realized I was trying to meet this plus-size standard, but I physically felt ill. Trying to keep my body at that weight was likely contributing to making me sick.
I already had PCOS, and on top of that I learned I was also pre-diabetic. I went from being super healthy, super active, just living an average life at an average size of 10-12 to being considered obese by medical standards and having all these health issues.
It was just terrible. I just didn’t feel good.
I Was Tired of Catering to Somebody Else’s Beauty Ideal
As a model, I was groomed to be in love with my curves and to be feminine. But I was still catering to someone else’s standard of beauty, and I was tired of it. I really wanted to push myself more.
I wanted to get back to my athletic nature and get back into some type of sport. I was still working full time as a model at that point and going to school, so it was tough, but I tried to get to the gym 4-5 times a week.
I loved being in the gym again and I found that lifting was right up my alley. It felt completely different from the team sports I grew up with, but still allowed me to dive back into my athletic side.
There were a few girls at my gym who were into bikini and figure competitions. They were telling me every time I went in that I had the right look for bikini. My first inclination was to say, “Oh my god no, I don’t want to look like a man,” which I now know is a huge and untrue stereotype.
I was worried that people were going to respond negatively to me being so tall and being muscular on top of that. But as I began watching the other girls prepare to compete and learning more about the bodybuilding industry, my mind started to change about the sport.
I had the chance to attend to my first show in Wisconsin, and I realized it’s basically just like pageantry and modeling, but for fitness. I loved the atmosphere, I loved the mindset, and I loved the competitive nature of all of the athletes. I knewthis was exactly what I wanted to do! I came back the next day and hired a coach to switch up my training and become a bikini bodybuilder.
From Constant Criticism to Positive Judgement
That was two years ago. I did my first show in June of 2020 and experienced my first season of competing, despite all of the craziness going on in the world. I became nationally qualified and then competed at a national show this past December.
The differences between the world I was in and the world I’m in now are clear all the time. In modeling, you could get criticism from the makeup artist to the person doing your hair to someone styling you. You can get criticized from anybody on set, not to mention your agents and even the clients. The criticism could be anything: the shoes you were wearing, your outfit, maybe your teeth weren’t white enough, or you had a bruise or a blemish. It feels like they are nitpicking everything.
In contrast, I’ve noticed the judge’s feedback in the bikini category when I compete has always been really positive. They always lead with positive comments about my look and physique. That’s really great to hear.
Then, when they get into the critical pieces, they explain what I “need to work on.” The difference is really the way that they deliver it: They’re not trying to cut me down, they want to help me develop into a better version of myself.
I’m Built for This Sport
I really like the aesthetics of bodybuilding, and I like how my body is reacting to the way that I’m training it. I’ve lost all the extra weight, and I’m gaining muscle and strength and training to become more functional. Ever since I flipped that switch and changed my mindset, I can’t get muscular enough!
I definitely want to win an overall at my next competition. I placed third in call-outs at nationals this past December, so there’s room for improvement. That’s the goal I’m working on this year.
Ultimately, I would love to turn pro. I think that I have a really unique look and a unique background. I want to be the first 6-foot-2 competitor to win bikini at the Olympia—and one who’s multiracial and can connect with so many women all over the world.
I may be tall, but I’m built for this sport. I know from being a model that I have great proportions in relation to my height and I am very symmetrical. It’s really exciting, and watching my physique transform is awesome.
To have been a model is an amazing opportunity and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I’m very happy that I found my passion in bodybuilding. It’s shown me that nothing is impossible with hard work and dedication. I’m really excited for the future and continuing to improve myself.
Hannah’s Top 5 Fitness Tips
1. Set Your Own Standard
As someone who was 6 feet tall in sixth grade, I learned early on that people were either going to be mean about it or accept me for who I am. I’ve learned to love being tall, because at the end of the day what matters is how I feel about it and how confidently I carry myself. I’ve always tried to have an air of confidence, and that has gradually turned from faking it to actually making it.
There are so many versions of beautiful and so many forces pulling us to either side of the spectrum. I realize I’m competing in a sport dominated by shorter girls, but I have that inner confidence and I’m happy with my height.
The bottom line is just love yourself no matter what. Be bigger, be smaller, be whatever size you’re going to be as long as you’re happy and healthy. In the end, health is what matters most.
2. Don’t Let Criticism Get You Down
I would never steer anybody away from the modeling industry. I love it and I think that there are a lot of people who do well in it and are very successful in their careers. But for both of these industries, modeling and bodybuilding, you need to have thick skin. You have to be OK with that criticism; you have to be OK with tons and tons of rejection.
My advice is be prepared to spend a lot of time working on yourself with anything that you want to be good at. You have to have a positive mindset and go into a career or a sport prepared to give it your all. Building a career or competing in a sport is something that really takes years to perfect—and that’s a good thing!
3. Learn from Challenges
If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be to keep pressing on and to focus on learning from every experience.
There will be challenges and there will be obstacles, but look at each one as a learning opportunity. Always keep your head up and stay positive. You might not understand why something is happening to you, but there’s always going to be something to learn from it. You can’t change the past, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but what you can control is what you do today.
4. Ask the Right Health Questions
After 10 years of gaining weight and trying to fit the plus-size ideal of beauty, I wanted a better understanding of health and fitness. I also wanted to learn how to take care of my body for myself.
I started by asking questions. What’s going to make me happy? What meals do I want to eat? How are they affecting my mood, my skin, and how I function? There’s just so much that you can learn, and I’m still learning a lot about myself and the fitness industry in general.
What I’m able to do with this approach is just amazing. My immune system is better, I’m able to bounce back after injury. Training for bodybuilding competitions transformed my body and I feel so much younger. But I had to ask the right questions.
5. Be in It for You
Anybody else can give up on you, but you can’t ever give up on yourself. That thought is what keeps me going. When I’m doing upward of two hours of cardio a day and in prep for a contest and have zero gas left in the tank, I know I’m doing it for me.
Just know that you’re stronger than what anybody else is saying about you and you can prove them wrong because only you know exactly what you’re capable of. We are all capable of more. We’re all capable of extraordinary things, and that’s what’s so beautiful about humankind. We’re all unique and we’re all individual, but we all can do amazing things once we believe in ourselves and we put forth that effort.
You can follow Hannah’s progress on Instagram @thehannahasanah
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