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.

  • Elisha

    (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).

    Actually…I don’t believe that Dove quite has their hearts in the right place. It’s a very elaborate marketing scheme to make more money. It just doesn’t make sense to launch a huge self esteem drive, when you are then basically asking women to buy anti cellulite creams and such, to improve their appearance. It’s a little more shady when you take into account the fact that Dove has a share in Unilever- the same company which markets whitening creams to Southeast Asia.
    If they really were so adamant about raising self esteem, I think they’d try to stop producing dangerous whitening creams to the general public.

    All in all…I find Dove’s Self Esteem campaign extremely insulting, insidious, and just downright contradictory.

  • Pingback: The astonishing case of the shrinking Muslim woman « Cycads

  • Kathy

    What about the fact that anorexia is often less about food or weight and often more about exercising absolute control over at least one aspect of an otherwise out-of-control life?

  • Hoda

    The “common belief that Muslim women, particularly those wear the hijab, are liberated from the media-driven standards of beauty” is a load of crap. As a hijab wearing Muslimah I also feel the enormous constant pressure to look a certain way. I’ve lived half my life in my native country of Yemen, where there is a great social value placed on my virginity ( a woman’s virginity), this is yet another form of reducing woman to their sexuality. I was also reduced to my sexuality by the constant references to my clothing (cover your body, cover this or that, your BODY BODY BODY is all you hear). I always heard my married older sisters and cousins admonished by my mother and aunts to always look beautiful, to wax, to not hold back in the bedroom with their husbands, to give him whatever he wanted or else he would marry another woman. And its your fault because you didn’t please him enough. The West and East both reduce woman to their sexuality in similar and different ways.

  • Muffy

    Kathy makes a good point. Sometimes people stop eating because it’s one of the few things they have power to control. For instance, sometimes people become anorexics as an act of defiance against their parents — I believe I knew a girl like that. Perhaps Emerati women restrict their eating because they have so few rights or power over any other aspect of their lives. In that case, patriarchy and female subordination may play a key role.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Muffy: I don’t think there’s one possible explanation for why Emirati women are anorexic any more than there is only one possible explanation for why women in the U.S. are anorexic. I would assume that their reasons are the same as anyone else’s: stemming from body dysmorphia, control and power issues, low self-esteem, emotional outlets, etc.

  • cycads


    You’re quite right about that and I am fully aware of Unilever’s hypocrisy. Though what I was more concerned about is the actual presence of body acceptance in advertising that does not exist outside the US/Europe/Australia/NZ. (I’m welcome to the idea that I’m wrong about that).

    Now, people might disagree with me on this but I think that although the Dove Real Beauty campaign is (indirectly) bad and far from perfect, it’s still important. Rather than say, banning it, it’s our job to critique it and take whatever is good about it.

  • Jasmine

    I agree with the control comments.Eating disorders are common control situations. When people feel they have no control – they often control their eating: the one thing they can control. The same is true of the majority of eating disorders in the UK. Yes, there are body issues and bodydysmorphic pressures, but often these are also related to control issues. There is a pro ana (pro anoexic) link on my blog: her diary tells a thousand words about this self-harm method.

    Religiosity does not automatically provide us with emotional wellbeing, love and stability: which are the cornerstones of a healthy adult life. But for some very strange reason, there is a view that religiosity is the answer to all problems.

    Alas, there is still much headway to be made in the invisible health that is the mind, the emotions and the thinking process

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Radhika

    Did this survey include expat women as well? Emirati nationals constitute a very small percentage of the UAE population, but the pressures that expats in the UAE face are incredibly high. Perhaps the lack of autonomy among female expats (the majority of whom are South Asian) is causing these disorders?