Stand-Up Comedian Dina Hashem Explains How Performing Live Allows Her to Embrace Her True Self

A random experience on stage led to a new career—and confidence in her own skin.

When she was growing up, stand-up comedian and writer Dina Hashem was unable to express herself. She was raised in an Arab-American household in New Jersey, and her family embraced the Muslim faith. The message she received from the wider culture around her made it clear that as a Muslim, she was "not an American," Hashem tells Health in the video above. "I had lots of questions, and I didn't agree with what I was being told about my own existence."

Hashem also had questions about the framework of her faith, and she was unsure how to raise them. "I knew that it wouldn't be okay to say, 'Well, I don't know if I believe in this,'" she recalls. One of her biggest issues was that she felt unequal to her brother.

"I can't do the same things my brother can do because he's a man," she explains. "It didn't make sense to me that I was different just because I'm a girl."Her video is part of Dotdash Meredith's See/Her "Multiplicity" series, which follows various women at different stages in life and explores who they feel they must be in order to fit into mainstream culture.

As a result, Hashem learned to code-switch when she was with her family. "I would define code-switching as not being who you feel you are in order to feel like you're someone who will be accepted," she says. "I had to code-switch in my own home most of all." Code-switching allowed her to protect herself. "I knew I couldn't communicate who I really was to my family, so the only choice was silence," she says. "Retreating became a safe place for me, just retreating into my head."

On top of not feeling accepted at home, Hashem felt she was isolated, unable to express her true self in other venues. "I never really talked to my mom about my feelings; I didn't really have anyone to talk to," she explains. Eventually, she felt completely silenced. "I just became a ghost. I was always so quiet because I had so much repression going on at home," she says.

This loneliness affected her at school as well. "Looking at me, you don't necessarily know what ethnicity I am," Hashem says. "I never felt necessarily alienated by anybody because I was Muslim—but I didn't really have a place to connect at school with anyone who knew what I was going through. I felt I was different from everybody."

All of this changed when she discovered her passion for stand-up. "I got into stand-up comedy completely accidentally," she remembers, when she randomly decided to join a stand-up contest. That first experience changed her forever. "That moment of having people respond to the fact that I'm nervous in a positive way was, like, incredible to feel accepted," she says.

With time and practice, Hashem grew into her role as a comedian, which boosted her confidence. "As I got more comfortable and started getting more accolades within stand-up, it felt okay to be more myself," she says. Through her performances, she's learned to embrace her true self, calling her transformation "a natural progression out of being uncomfortable and nervous into a more stable place."

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