"I hated me: I was too damn skinny and I wanted to be thicker," says Joy Bryant

By Gabrielle Olya
Updated July 18, 2016 04:25 PM
Credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty

Growing up, Joy Bryant was ashamed of her thin frame.

“I grew up in the South Bronx, in a predominantly Black and Latino community filled with super fly beauties whose bodies defied gravity,” Bryant, 41, writes in a personal essay for Refinery29. “I hated me: I was too damn skinny and I wanted to be thicker. I wanted t——, ass, flesh. I didn’t want to be no stinkin’ beanpole.”

Not looking like her peers made Bryant feel “inadequate” and “out of place.”

“The world around me only confirmed my proportion distortion,” she says. “Like my best friend’s mother telling me on a regular basis that I looked like a boy. Or that same best friend telling me I was lucky I was cute, or else no guys would ever talk to me because I was so bony. Or people telling me to put some meat on my bones.”

The model and actress was subject to body shaming on a regular basis.

“I wasn’t even in high school yet, but comments on my body, what it should look like, and whom it should please, were the norm,” she says. “I felt like a sidelined player keeping the bench warm as everyone else played the game I so desperately wanted to be in.”

In high school, Bryant enrolled in a predominantly white New England boarding school, and felt body acceptance for the first time.

” ‘Wait, you mean being skinny is cool here?’ ” she recalls thinking. “Since my body was deemed acceptable, I could accept it in a way I couldn’t before. For the first time in my life, I started to like what I saw in the mirror. I was no longer the skinny loser.”

In college, Bryant began modeling “to make money and see the world” – but also as a self-esteem boost.

“I wanted to model because it validated me,” she says. “It meant I was ‘legitimately’ beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful than others. I got just what I always wanted: to be admired for what I looked like.”

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But modeling brought another wave of critique on Bryant’s body.

“After being told for most of my life that I was too skinny, now I wasn’t skinny enough,” she says.

Bryant parlayed her modeling into an acting career, and being thin helped her look good on camera. But the Parenthood star hit another bump in her self-esteem as she began to age.

“My body started to change once I hit my mid-30s, filling out here, there, and everywhere,” says Bryant. “The young Bronx girl in me would have welcomed the change with open arms. The Hollywood me wasn’t so sure. I’d been naturally thin for most of my life, so I didn’t know how to handle the extra flesh gracing my frame at first.”

Even though Bryant tries to tune out societal pressures to look a certain way, she admits that she still struggles with self-esteem.

“When the world sings that song, sometimes it’s hard not to listen, hard not to agree,” she says. “But I’ve danced to that tune for too damn long. It’s time to clean out my ears and flip to another station.”