Aleesha Hansel is a commercial curve model who has made peace with her body after years of putting herself through hell – and netball has helped her do it.
The 31-year-old spent her early 20s trying every diet under the sun and locked in a cycle of physical punishment – seeing a personal trainer four times a week.
She always wanted to be a model and was even scouted by a big agency – but was told that they only liked her facial features and height, which was incredibly demoralising and fuelled her unhealthy dieting pattern.
But getting into sport has given Aleesha a new appreciation of her body and a new perspective on physical health.
‘From a very young age I was aware of being bigger than my peers, in both height and weight,’ says Aleesha.
‘That, combined with the lack of diversity in the media back then, started a very long cycle of feeling insecure, embarrassed and just not good enough.
‘As a teenager this led to me trying pretty much every fad diet under the sun, not healthy to say the least.
‘I did my best to just ignore my body. As strange as that sounds it was easier to think nothing than try to accept or love it.’
Aleesha is talking about body neutrality. It’s a perspective that’s different to body positivity in that you think neutral thoughts about your own body – a concept that she finds incredibly helpful.
‘We hear so much about body positivity, and that’s great if you can get on board, but I know that I would be lying if I went around saying that I absolutely love the cellulite on my thighs,’ she explains.
‘Instead, I respect my thighs and focus on what they allow me to do, such as playing netball, and that has pushed away that niggling self-hate.
‘I have also worked on honing my personal sense of style, emphasising the areas I do like, or don’t mind so much, meaning I can look in the mirror and actually feel happy with what’s looking back.’
Aleesha plays netball for Minchenden NC, a netball club based in London. She started playing netball in school and was even chosen to be part of the team, despite never having classed herself as a sporty person.
‘Honestly, this was probably more due to the fact I have been this tall since I came out the womb than any athletic prowess,’ explains Aleesha. ‘However when I left school, I stopped playing and didn’t think about it for years.
‘It was only when I found myself in quite a lonely place that I looked up clubs, more as a way to try and make friends than anything else, but it has given me so much more.
‘Not only do I get the endorphin hit after the physical aspect of training and matches, I’m also mentally stimulated as my brain is constantly trying to learn new tactics.’
Aleesha loves the diversity that comes with playing netball. Minchenden NC is a huge club with loads of different teams, and the women who play are all ages, sizes, abilities – body image is the last thing on their minds when they step on court.
‘Before I joined, I don’t think I appreciated just how varied a netball team would be,’ says Aleesha. ‘We have women aged from 16-50 and older, and of all shapes, heights and sizes.
‘Some have had children, some have had illness, and yet we are all able to come together and play.
‘It ultimately just solidified my respect and gratitude for what my body allows me to do, and I love it for that.’
When Aleesha first started in the industry, curve modelling was very much in its infancy – and she didn’t always feel that she could ever fit in anywhere.
‘I had very little work and it was hard to feel anything other than less than great in the face of so much rejection,’
‘I know becoming a model seems counter-intuitive for someone who didn’t really like how they looked, but I think I probably went into it to try and find that acceptance.
‘Or, more specifically, to be given it by other people. But, let me tell you, that is completely the wrong way to work on your self-esteem. It really does need to come from within, despite how clichéd that sounds.’
Aleesha says that her strength comes from her acceptance of herself, no matter how long it has taken her to get there.
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‘A strong woman is someone who has found how to be whole,’ says Aleesha.
‘Be ambitious but chill on your downtime, surround yourself with good people but learn to enjoying your own company, give willingly but hold a bit back for yourself.
‘If you can master that then you are a strong woman, because you are your own woman.’
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.