Saturday, April 24, 2010

The obsession with body image

Today I had to conduct a psychological assessment with a young girl who amongst other things, is struggling with anorexia. Obviously I cannot give away details of the case but this just made me think about things. Here’s this young girl, 16 turning 17 soon, intelligent, seemingly warm and kind, with so much potential and so many opportunities ahead of her, and yet all she is “taught” to focus on is the way her body looks. She and many other young girls like her, have been led to believe that a woman’s body is the most important thing.

It makes me so angry when I think that this ridiculous obsession with women’s bodies has become so extreme that anorexia and bulimia are diseases that occur so commonly. It’s distressing when you consider what a woman has to go through and how low her self-image and confidence has to be for her to cause such grievous harm to herself, and for what? All in the name of “beauty”?

I don’t have to tell you where this comes from, we all know quite well how society’s ideas of the beautiful body has shifted over the years. There used to be times when fat or big women were regarded as the beautiful ones because thin women were regarded as unhealthy. Now, extra skinny women have become the norm, their bodies regarded as the ideal of beauty, to such an extent that for celebrities and models it’s unusual if you are not anorexic or bulimic. This is saddening for many different reasons.

When you think about all this it makes it easier to understand the persistent need to uncover Muslim women. It makes sense why people can’t leave Muslim women to dress how they want to. When Muslim women cover themselves up, this defies the norms of society. It’s not easy to tell exactly what a women’s body looks like when she is all covered up in loosely fit clothing. If you can’t see what another woman’s body looks like then you only have yourself as the guide, and you don’t have to weigh yourself up according to others perceptions of beauty, and thus, you become satisfied with your own body image. Covering up is not about hiding, it’s about being reminded that a woman is more than just a beautiful body. In fact, covering up is about the assertion that all women are beautiful, despite what their bodies look like. There doesn’t have to be one “ideal” that the rest of us should be tirelessly struggling towards. Every woman’s body is ideal for her and covering up makes it clear that no one has the right to decide for a woman what her body should look like.

I am convinced that the entire fashion industry serves only to lower the self-esteem and confidence of women, leaving them unhappy and unsatisfied, constantly yearning to fit in with the common perception, or I’d like to say “mis-perception” of what it is to be beautiful. Let’s not even mention the financial gain that comes from things related to dieting and slimming, from books to pills to every imaginable exercise device, it’s an ever expanding business, isn’t it?

Every woman knows what it feels like to go into a clothing store, see an item of clothing that you like, try fitting it on and find that the size “small” doesn’t fit right or that the “medium” is too tight and now you have to buy a “large”. It becomes distressing for women, and more often than not they end up feeling unattractive, and seriously, this really does not help with their self-esteem. Yet these differences that have been created between clothing sizes are so superficial it’s ridiculous. One day I did a little experiment. I took size “small” pants and measured it up against a size “large”. The difference was minimal, a few centimetres only, that’s all...a few centimetres differentiating between what is considered “small” and what is considered “large”. Then I thought about the impact of these few centimetres. A woman who takes a size “large” is made to feel that she is overweight, unattractive, etc, while a woman who takes a size “small” is regarded as beautiful, petite and “ideal”; and the difference is a few centimetres! Can you begin to understand the superficiality in all this? Everything defined by clothing sizes and weight, it’s sickening to say the least.

Now I’m not saying that Muslim women are immune to all this, because unfortunately we are all a part of this superficial, warped system of thinking. But, when you begin to don clothing based on covering yourself up then sizes don’t matter anymore because you begin to understand that it really is not important at all. So whereas before I may have bought my clothes according to size, now I make sure that I buy my clothes according to how much of my body it will conceal, and so naturally I don’t have a set size, it fluctuates, and this gives me freedom from the oppressive system of boxing women up according to different sizes, and of course, this is only one of the benefits.

I’m not saying that women shouldn’t take care of their bodies, by all means they should; through healthy eating, cleanliness, good grooming and even exercise, women should take care of their bodies, but there’s a difference between taking care of your body and becoming obsessed with your body image.

One has to wonder, why all this focus on women’s bodies? Many women will argue that it’s about liberation and freedom. They believe that showing off their bodies makes them free, they are convinced that they are making this choice to reveal their beautiful bodies... honestly this has never made complete sense to me. I mean, I get how a woman would feel that it’s her choice, and so on and so forth, but who is admiring that beautiful body? The answer to that is obvious, but I’ll point it out anyway, it’s the men who are gawking and staring at her! And if she gains pleasure from having men stare at her body then how can this be freedom? How can it be freedom when it’s dependent on something that someone else does? Would a woman be so ready to freely reveal her body if it did not fit in with popular ideas of beauty? For any woman who says yes, I have to ask, why then do women go on crash diets and fitness programmes and so on, in preparation for summer, to make sure that when they reveal their bodies, it fits in with mainstream ideas of a beautiful body. I don’t know about you, but I believe that true freedom is deciding what makes me feel happy or not, what I am comfortable with and not what men like, or what other people have decided is beautiful.

So, now I have to wonder, is it liberating to constantly have to worry about everything you eat because you are afraid of gaining weight? Is it liberating to guiltily eat food only to experience self induced vomiting thereafter? Is it liberating to have to deal with the pressures of not fitting in to your size 8 clothing? Is it liberating to look at yourself in the mirror every single day and never be satisfied with what you see because it doesn’t fit in with popular ideas of beauty? Is it liberating to deny all the other factors that make you up, like your intelligence, your inner beauty and warmth, your caring nature, your personality, your friendliness, only because these things don’t matter in the world out there? Is all this liberating?

I think that it’s time that people stopped focusing on a woman’s outside body as if it’s the thing that defines her. I think it’s time people began to realize that a woman is much more than the physical being that they see; that she exists on all levels-spiritual, psychological, social, intellectual, and physical. I will argue that the Islamic system comes the closest to this ideal way of seeing a woman, and yes I am totally aware that many people will argue against my assertion, but I will stick to it nonetheless!

To all my sisters, Muslim and non-Muslim, you should not allow yourself to be defined by body image, you are more than that, you are beautiful in many ways, and you will only begin to see that when you stop spending so much time and effort focusing only on beautifying your body.

May Allah Almighty give us all true guidance and correct understanding and may Allah grant us satisfaction and gratitude with all that He has given us, Insha'Allah Ameen!
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  1. salamunalaikum.

    mashallah! well explained in detail.

  2. Wa-alaykumus salaam Hamid

    Thank you, I'm glad you found this post useful.