A few months ago, the Egyptian fashion designer Mohanad Kojak released photos from one of his photo shoots claiming that it celebrates diversity. The pictures featured women of different skin colors and ages, a woman in a pink niqab and even a man in heels. And although there’s a picture in there that Kojak captions as a photo of a “full-figured tanned-skin young lady”, in actuality the picture just shows a girl of average height in a dress with a whole lot of ruffles. It is appreciated that Kojak thought of including a full-figured woman, but just because a girl is not six foot tall and is wearing a puffy dress doesn’t make her full-figured or at all a representative of an average everyday woman.
My goal here isn’t to attack or criticize Kojak as a designer but rather to shed light on the lack of representation of real women with average bodies in the fashion industry. The fashion industry is not the only industry out there that is very exclusive of women of certain sizes and body types. The absence of an average body type has been the trend in the Middle East and North African region for a while now in most of the media outlets. Ask yourself this, when was the last time that you saw a female plus size character in a movie or TV in a leading role and who’s not the bud of the joke? (Please note that I’m referring to Arabic speaking movies and TV here.)
While working on this article, I tried to find any research on how women feel about their bodies in the MENA region or any local articles addressing the issue of female body representation in our media, but there was almost none at all. This wasn’t just indicative of how neglected the topic of body positivity is, but it also shows a great amount of ignorance in our communities about how important a woman’s relationship with her body is.
Yet, no matter how important research is, it’s not the only way to find out how Middle Eastern and North African women feel about their bodies. It wouldn’t take you much time in a conversation with a woman within your own social circle or cultural context to find out how unsatisfied she is with her own body. The huge boom in the dieting, weight loss surgery and plastic surgery industry in the past few years is solid proof of how much our women feel pressured to look a certain way. But before we delve further into this article there are two important terms here that we need to define: Body Positivity and Body Shaming.
Body positivity is a movement that calls for people (especially women) to adopt more forgiving and positive attitudes towards their bodies, with the goal of improving overall health and well-being. Body Shaming is sort of the opposite of that, it’s, according to Oxford dictionary, the action or practice of humiliating someone by making mocking or critical comments about their body shape or size.
It’s true that body positivity as a movement originates from the west; however we might be more in need for it in our societies. Due to decades of objectifying women as a cultural norm, we have now reached a place where our women’s relationship with their bodies is so far distraught that it’s becoming alarming. Wherever you look now it seems that the female body is under attack, starting from our own families to religious leaders reaching down to politicians and our community as a whole.
Despite the constant change of beauty standards through the years in our societies for various reasons, a young lady is always expected by her family and social circle to keep up with the latest trend when it comes to her physical appearance. Otherwise a girl would be ducked down several points on the list of bridal eligibility. The less you fit the common standards the more points you lose, hence the less your chances are for catching your “prince charming”. It’s not only within our households that we are body shamed under the claim of “wanting the best for us” but there’s always this public debate about what we as girls and women should show off and what should be hidden.
Body shaming takes on a whole new meaning when you’re shamed for actually having a body. We are subliminally taught that having a female body is shameful and offensive. Religious leaders everywhere dedicate so much time, whether it’s in places of worship, on TV or even on social media to let us know that it’s almost sinful to even acknowledge the fact that we are human made of skin and flesh. They urge us to hide any sign of femininity and teach us that we are to blame for any kind of attack on this femininity. And of course society follows; while society shames us all the time for not having perfect bodies (just observe how we portray plus-size women in our media to find out how we approach women with different body types), it also blames women for harassment and rape. What a woman was covering or rather not covering is always the first question asked whenever any rape pr harassment case is reported.
So basically, according to the majority, we should work harder than a mule to attain a perfect body and a perfect face but then cover it all up to be deemed a good member of society. Even politicians think they have a say in what a woman should and shouldn’t be doing with her body. Topics about a woman’s right to have ownership over her body are always the subject of debate within political circles that are often dominated by (yes, you guessed it!) men.
Needless to say, all this debate and shaming doesn’t only leave a lot of women feeling like they have no control over their bodies, but it can also reach an extent where women despise their own bodies as a result. That leads us to the conclusion that it’s a sure fact that the feelings of most women in the MENA region about their bodies are very complicated, negative and usually unhealthy.
I myself went through a long and hard journey to self acceptance. I was always much larger than the rest of my peers which was the reason I was bullied and shunned by my classmates at school. At home I was always on portion control when it came to food. Needing to go on a serious diet and finding a way to fix my body was something, as a child, I knew was inevitable and had to happen sooner or later. It got much worse during my teenage years. I would get called the most horrible things walking down the street. I even got spat on once. I hated my body. I genuinely believed I looked scary and disgusting. This made me severely depressed, maimed the way I dealt with food and set me off on a series of failed diets that lasted for years. I have literally tried anything and everything, from Chinese needles that are supposed to curb your appetite to quitting food all together and just surviving on food supplements for over six months (yes, I actually did that).
Luckily, after my last failed attempt to lose weight, I had a moment of clarity where I realized that I actually like myself the way I am. This decision to accept and love my body the way it is was revolutionary. My life was never the same after that moment; I was never the same. I became a much happier and healthier human being. I don’t feel the need to abuse food or let it control me anymore. I became much more willing to go out of my comfort zone, try new things and delve into new adventures. I still have some days now and then when I struggle, days when I question myself or don’t feel so great about the way I look. Especially when everyone around me feels entitled to let me know that I shouldn’t be so happy with myself and that I need to change. I’m aware of my imperfections and shortcomings, and that there are things I need to work on, but I also embrace those imperfections because I know they make me beautiful and unique; they make me who I am.
It has become absolutely imperative for us as a society to start not only adopting but actively practicing body positivity for the benefit and the development of our community as a whole. Science has actually proved that body shaming has detrimental effects on the mental, psychological and physical health of young girls and women. It is directly linked to depression, high stress levels and anxiety which could actually cause more weight gain. Rather than teaching our future generations values like kindness and unconditional acceptance, children are constantly subjected to messages that place a great amount of value on looks and encourages bullying. Therefore, we are now faced with a big problem in the morality, mannerisms and attitudes of our younger generation. We are basically raising a whole generation of The Plastics from Mean Girls.
As for our current generation of young women it’s still not too late. If we hope for any kind of development in our society, then spreading body positivity would be a must, because how are we are expecting women to assume roles of leadership and be in control of their own lives if they are not even in control of their own bodies? How can we ask them to be more confident and take more risks if they’re feeling so down and helpless about who they are? And finally, I would like to leave my fellow sisters with this thought: Body shaming is not an act of concern or encouragement, it is not tough love and it’s not helpful. It is judgment, shaming and a form of manipulation. So, it is time for you to reclaim your body and take ownership over it by actually embracing its beauty, which is its imperfection.
It is time for you to rebel against patriarchy and against people who want to control you by making your body and your mind your worst enemy. It is time for you to rebel against their colonization of your mind and spirit. It is time for you to break the chains of self doubt and set yourself free. It is time for you to love yourself because that act of self love becomes in itself a great act of rebellion.