Body Positivity

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What I Learned The Day 300 People Told Me I Was Fat And Ugly

Writer Negin Farsad shares the two essential lessons she learned that day.

Everyone has that quintessentially awful high school moment. It's that instance where all of the good that high school provides -- academic preparation for college, young adult socialization, Funyuns -- is sucked into oblivion and replaced by something terribly embarrassing.

For me, it was this: I was a drama geek and as such it was my duty to BE IN PLAYS. Our class took this very seriously. We all thought we were little Dame Judi Denches.

Each semester, the drama department performed at assembly in front of all the students throughout the school. A horrible brew of teenaged angst, hormonal depravity, SweeTarts and shame.

The show I appeared in was the last of the day, and the moment came where the main dude character has to choose between two female leads: me, an Iranian-American Muslim gal wearing a shapeless black dress; her, a classic blonde in a slinky red dress. The guy stood in the middle of the stage, comically fumbling through a soliloquy about who to choose -- and makes the case for choosing me.

That's when one kid in the audience yelled out: "Don't choose that fat ugly bitch!"

He yelled this in front of 300 people. The "fat ugly bitch" he was referring to was yours truly.

Dozens of voices joined the chorus. "Yeah, that bitch is fat!" "Yo, she fugly!" The list goes on. I'm paraphrasing here, because I couldn't make out every single one of the many, many, many ways in which I was called a hideous monster.

The main character then shifted his attention to the girl in the red dress -- and the audience began to cheer. "Yeah, choose her! Choose the red dress!" "She's hot! Don't go for the ugly bitch!" Again, I'm paraphrasing because they all chose the blond girl with their own special locution.

Unfortunately for them, the playwright chooses the character cast as the brown girl with black hair and a weakness for orange Creamsicles. Cue the bloodthirsty crowd of screaming teenagers once more.

At 16 years old, I was overcome with feelings of insecurity. I wasn't pretty like the blond girls. I feared I would never amount to anything in the social world simply because I didn't look like them. I wasn't given the right nose, the right skin, the right physique, the right ethnicity. Never mind my creeping anxiety over developing a goiter. To hear 300 people affirm those insecurities was more than my little heart could handle.

Internally, I was a mess. But externally, I did my job. I was an actor and screw those little numb-nuts for trying to distract my laser-like focus on playing my part. The part of a funny girl on stage. The part I was born to play. I was going for Juliette Binoche meets Mike Myers and lemme just say: Oscar. Worthy.

As I made my way backstage for a costume change, my co-stars were speechless. I wanted to tell them, Don't worry, because according to John Hughes movies, I win in the end, and according to Scorsese movies, the audience winds up being strangled by a dude named "Fingers" in the backseat of a Lincoln Continental.

And yet, I started crying.

Our drama teacher, Mrs. Mallett, ran backstage and said, "This assembly will be over soon." Basically, get back out there in front of a bunch of hungry shape-shifting wolves, and do your job.

She made a comedian out of me that day because, well, You wanna heckle me? Bring it! What was even more remarkable about her is that she cast me -- ME -- as the hot girl in a play. She did stuff like that. For her, the hot-girl-that-wins-the-guy was best played by an Iranian-American Muslim gal. That was normal to her. And it is.

Public speaking still tops the charts as the number one fear for most Americans -- precisely because something like this could happen.

Well, it happened to me, and it turned me into a comedian who now subjects myself to an audience's potential venom multiple nights a week. And I know how to live with it.

I learned two essential things that day:

1) Hecklers will never disappear so you have to learn to dust them off your shoulder. It doesn't matter what profession you're in: Hecklers are in comedy clubs and cubicles alike. There are YouTube comments upon mean tweets upon death threats that will never let you forget that you have opposition. Irrational, ugly opposition. But these are sad and possibly deranged people who should never control your self-concept.

2) If you don't like reality, cast it differently. Present it differently. Who cares if beauty is often perceived as a blond woman in a red dress? That's just not how I see it. I'm casting beauty now, and today it looks different. If we do this enough, maybe we can actually change the definition of beauty.

With Internet rage and online shaming at its peak, those 300 teenagers have become anonymous trolls. I'll never be able to escape them. But now, they're just there to remind me how easily I can shut them out. What's the worst that can happen? They mercilessly insult me? Yeah, turns out, that's not so bad.

Adapted from the book How to Make White People Laugh by Negin Farsad.

Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American Muslim comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker based in New York City. Like most comedians, she has a dual Master's Degree in African-American Studies and Public Policy. She was named one of the 50 Funniest Women by The Huffington Post, one of 10 Feminist Comedians to Watch by Paper Magazine, and was selected as a TED Fellow for her work in social justice comedy. She has written for/appeared on Comedy Central, MTV, PBS, IFC, Nickelodeon and others. She is director/producer of the feature films Nerdcore Rising starring "Weird Al" Yankovic and The Muslims Are Coming! starring Jon Stewart, David Cross and Lewis Black (available on Netflix). Her next film 3rd Street Blackout, starring Janeane Garofalo and Ed Weeks, will be released in 2016.

How to Make White People Laugh is available wherever books are sold.

Find Negin Farsad on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and at NeginFarsad.com

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