At first glance you wouldn’t think that professional hula hooper Marawa Ibrahim had any body insecurities – after all, she does twirl around in a leotard in front of an audience for her day job – but this hasn’t always been the case.
She was once told she was “too chubby” to be a performer and was made to feel self-conscious about her body as she reached puberty and “grew huge boobs overnight”. But since graduating circus school in 2004, the 31-year-old has spent her time travelling around the world as a professional hula hooper and has broken eight world records (and counting), including most hoops spun by an individual and fastest 100m in high-heeled skates. Talk about #lifegoals.
Now, she’s written a new book for girls about puberty and body image, to help them feel comfortable in their own skin. The Girl Guide shares 50 lessons that all girls should know when learning to love their changing bodies – covering everything from spots to sweat, periods to thrush.
Marawa draws from her own cringe-tastic experiences (and is backed up by expert Dr Janice K Hillman and fun illustrations by Sinem Erkas) to answer the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Honest, funny and ultimately reassuring, think of her like an older sister you might not have – someone who’s been there, done that and got the embarrassing story printed on her t-shirt.
So Marawa – why did you want to write the book?
When I was younger and started going through puberty, I had no idea what was happening to my body. This was before the internet and all I had was a few books that were dated or irrelevant – a serious medical book about pain or a pink wishy-washy book that brushed over topics. I had so many questions and no answers. Now, anyone can type a question into the internet and have uncertified and false answers that come up. You will either think you’re dying or get wrong advice about things.
I felt like I was the only one. But growing up I realised that everyone had been going through the same experience, we just didn’t talk about it. I spent so much time worrying on my own about things that were completely normal.
As I got older I realised that someone needs to write a book for young girls growing up. Not a boring book about babies, but something that really got in there and covered all things that change. So, I started to make a list: skin, thrush, how the menstrual cycle works, how it feels when you have your first period, stretch marks. I kept writing and writing the list and eventually we ended up with 50 things.
It’s based on your own experience and is very, very honest. Was it important to write it in this style?
I wanted to show that I’ve been there and completely understand what girls are going through. I want to share that experience in a way that doesn’t feel too far removed – like a big sister.
There are some pretty gross stories too, but it’s important to include them so people can relate… We’ve created a safe space and addressed the elephant in the room, to say: yes, periods leak in public and it’s embarrassing but here’s how you deal with it.
What was your body image like growing up?
I went through a very short phase of poor body image when I was about 14. My body changed and people would comment. I grew huge boobs overnight and started wearing triple XXXL jumpers trying to hide every curve and shape on me.
When you suddenly grow boobs and people treat you differently – people you’ve known for years, family friends, people from school – it’s strange, unfamiliar and makes you feel uncomfortable.
But apart from that period of my life, I think I’ve been lucky. I won’t buy into it. If anyone wants to make a comment about my body, they’ll know about it!
How did you overcome those insecurities growing up?
I was really lucky my mum was just normal about the whole thing. “You’re going through puberty, you’re going to put on some weight, you’re gonna lose it or you might not. It won’t matter either way,” she told me.
I don’t know how I would have coped without her, she was my lifeline. Other girls I went to school with felt shame in their bodies and pressure from friends and family – some girls I knew had mums who put them on diets. It makes me so angry. Girls are having enough trying to adapt and adjust to what’s going on with their bodies.
I put on weight and I lost it again, my body has been many different sizes and my bras have been many different sizes over the years but we all deserve [to] and should feel comfortable in our bodies.
If you had once piece of advice for girls going through puberty today what would it be?
Don’t trust the internet. A lot of the images you see of people online are airbrushed or filtered – they are not real life. Also, there is a a lot of false information and bad medical advice out there. So make sure you can trust the source; try a recommended source like the NHS.
There are a lot of embarrassing stories in the book, which readers will love. What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you while performing?
I once fell over on stage while I was wearing a cape. As I stood up I pierced my heel in the cape, and it got caught around my neck and I fell down again. That was embarrassing.
I always get worried that I’m going to fart, but I haven’t. I always hold it just in case.
Tell us the story of your first period…
I wasn’t at home. It was awful. I felt like I was wetting my pants, but I wasn’t wetting my pants. I knew what was happening and I was horrified. I went in the toilet and I just stayed there because I didn’t have any sanitary products and I didn’t want to tell anyone. But you have to tell someone. There was so much blood. I just put loads of toilet paper in my knickers and waddled out to my mum and was like: “Help!”
I remember her telling me to put two pads on when I went to sleep, in case I rolled over and leaked. So I went to bed in this kind of giant nappy and I couldn’t sleep. I wish it was a positive story but it was awful and I hated it. But, it got easier.
How do you deal with your period while performing?
I have a combination of things: generally I use tampons, most of the girls I work with use mooncups, but I also use period-absorbing knickers called Thinx. They’re perfect for me: high-waisted and fit under anything.
If you could tell your 14-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
Don’t worry, it gets easier. You find all these body changes hard and feel out of control of your body right now – [maybe] your boobs grew huge overnight and your period is irregular (it just starts sometimes for no reason) – but you will get used to your changing body and learn how to deal with it. It gets easier.
The Girl Guide, written by Marawa Ibrahim in consultation with Doctor Janice K Hillman and illustrated by Sinem Erkas, is out now. Buy your copy here.