The Astonishing Case of the Shrinking Muslim Woman

It’s become common belief that Muslim women, particularly those wear the hijab, are liberated from the media-driven standards of beauty that values the thin and the willowy. But it’s a belief that couches on the idea that head-coverings and modest clothes provide little incentive for showing off a great looking body in public. In other words, Muslim women are supposed to live blissfully unaffected by media and social pressures that both distorts our body image and damages our self-esteem. So when levels of anorexia amongst teenage girls in the U.A.E. were reported to nearly double those in the U.K., the phenomenon was described to be “astonishing”.

The news report I refer to is something Fatemeh had posted up on the Friday Links last week. It revealed that the occurrence of anorexia nervosa amongst young women aged 13 to 19 years old in the Emirates were found to be around 1.8 percent, compared to the 1.0 percent in Britain. Although the article does not explain what drives Emirati teenagers into self-starvation, it does attempt to highlight a little known fact: that women and girls outside the West  also suffer from eating disorders, and that the global nature of the disorder is partially attributed to Western influences. According to one psychiatrist, these influences infiltrate in foreign-made films and other forms of media:

“We have so much influence from other countries, we have the same movies and [the same] messages in the media like in the UK and USA, however there is not any form of understanding about the meaning of the illnesses which are said to be linked to these.”

But it’s not as clear-cut as that. A thought-provoking study led by Tracy Mann, a professor of health psychology at the University of California of Los Angeles, showed that women do not have to be bombarded by imported media to aspire to thinness. In her experiment, she compared the attitudes to beauty and body image of female Iranian university students in Tehran with those studying at the UCLA campus and found that, startlingly, the female students in Iran were just as obsessed with their weight as their American counterparts. And not only that, the number of students in Tehran who desired an empty stomach, went for long periods without food, and vomited to control their weight were significantly higher than those in the U.S.

Problematising the issue of self-induced starvation further is the news media’s portrayal of women on hunger strike as heroines. Although hunger strikes are not anything like anorexia, young and beautiful women like Roxana Saberi have resisted food in what is perceived by many to be a heroic act of protest. Inadvertently, she, like other women in the media and in the fashion industry who may or may not have eating disorders become role models to young women who follow their path to meaningful self-deprivation.

Though the causes for anorexia are notoriously complicated, the one major causal factor (other than physical and psychological trauma) appears to be the dangerous effects of unrealistic media imagery. Without a counterculture that celebrates alternatives to thin Western media ideals, women are made to believe that it’s not okay to be a size 12 or have flabby arms if they want to be successful in romance and life. Ironically, the exemplary models of counterculture that offer hope to women of all body shapes and sizes emerge from the West as well. By this I mean stuff like the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty, among other things. (Although I find Dove’s problematic use of naked women and women in their underwear to uplift the diversity of female bodies does a sad disservice to the dismantling of the male gaze, but you know that they’ve at least got their heart in the right place).

But back to the U.A.E. Psychiatrists at Al Ain University have proposed for a campaign to raise public awareness about how harmful both extreme dieting and binge eating can be. Just as important is pointing out to the public that eating disorders are not as rare as it looks, as many who suffer do not recognise that they had a problem to begin to with. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see if campaigning efforts aim to tackle the media into getting these disorders on their agenda and deal with them in a sensitive and effective way.

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