Thin is in

“Can You Be Fit & Fat” was the title of an article I read in the April 2011 issue of Runner’s World magazine. The heading left me wondering, is it possible to be unhealthy if you are ‘not fat’? Increased physical activity can to lead to weight loss, but losing weight should not be the end itself. Thus we have a variety people who exercise every day to improve endurance, improve their heart or lose weight.
Just because a person falls within the healthy weight range for his height, it must not preclude him from the need to exercise. What role does one’s body satisfaction play with respect to exercise for the sake of him/herself?

In March 2011, a researcher published a study of eating disorders within a multi-faith, multi-cultural community in Ceuta, Spain, and found the incidence of eating disorders two times greater in the Muslim community than within the Christian and Jewish counterparts. The researchers also noted that body dissatisfaction was nearly two times higher within the Muslim population. The growing neuroses communities have over the ‘thin ideal’ and its conflict with Western culture, i.e. an over-sexualized society dedicated to producing images of thin women looking happy with men, on magazine covers, and in movies needs to be explored. In many Muslim cultures, we often find women who are traditionally more round, and until recently, have been considered beautiful in their own right. Increasing compromising and inappropriate media images of unhealthy, uber-thin women have arrived in such places.

A profound ignorance within the Muslim community of eating disorders is likely to contribute to the higher incidence of anorexia and bulimia in our circles. Too many families ignore the elephant in the room, and write off these disturbed eating habits as passing phases. Is there an appropriate awareness and understanding of such eating disorders? These are not meaningless words, but rather, very serious mental illnesses that require professional intervention. I do not believe the Muslim community is prepared to admit these issues exist, and thus a support system is deficient. It is my personal and professional mission to construct such a framework, as I continue to witness this struggle of reconciling a culture of excess eating, body dissatisfaction, and a general aversion towards physical activity with one that is somewhat attuned to healthier eating and may be even slimmer.

Here is an example of the neuroses: I am a runner, and I recognize this is a departure from my culture. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Ayesha you’d better stop losing weight,” or “Why do you run every day if you are so skinny.” Is it a crime to be slim, healthy, and physically active? Ironically, each criticism came from someone who, arguably, was not as fit as me. I would much rather hear someone say, ‘how do you stay fit?’ Unfortunately our community does not allow its own women (and its men, to a lesser degree), to be slim, healthy, and physically active. We do, however, buy into the over-sexed Western culture by admiring those who are thin from whatever diet or lifestyle they’ve chosen to adopt.

A recent trip to Pakistan put this fit / fat / skinny / healthy dilemma into overdrive. When my relatives saw me (after nine years) the questions started before I could sit down. “Doesn’t your husband feed you? What happened to you?” one aunt incredulously asked. Another aunt broke down in tears in front of me and claims it was due to the sight of my fit physique, which of course was supposed to be the physique on the unmarried only. In one moment, it was made clear to me that my physical body, not my own self-image was most important. My extended family expected to see me after nine years with a rotund figure, now that I was married and a mother. Yet I defied all expectations! Isn’t it curious that back home in the States, ‘thin is in’ but here, all I heard was I exercise ‘too much’ and am ‘too skinny’. Why can’t anyone be happy that I’m exercising in the first place!

Unfortunately, the emphasis on weight rather than on one’s overall health and level of activity has infiltrated into the minds of Muslims today As we seesaw from one end of the scale to the other, we may adopt eating disorders, or inappropriately label others as having them. Are we jealous of each other? Are we striving for a sort of perfection that is both unattainable and irrelevant?

This constant and demoralizing struggle with body image is intertwined with the understanding of the media. We are deluged with images, ideas, and lifestyles all forcing us to make a connection between our physique and our level of happiness and success; and we swallow it whole. If both Spanish Muslim and non-Muslim youth are saturated by the very same media messages, why then is the former two times more likely to become bulimic or anorexic? Unfortunately at this time, little evidence exists to support correlations that Muslim cultural neuroses are creating eating disorders. Using the University of Grenada study as a reference, HEART is researching the prevalence of eating disorders among Muslims in college campuses, and how a faith-based organization like HEART can mediate such issues.

(Photo: Miss Kels)
Ayesha Akhtar is Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls Project. HEART empowers women through: Health Education (increasing access to accurate information and resources about one’s body and health issues), Advocacy (advocating for culturally-sensitive health care services & education for faith based communities), Research (conducting research to generate data and information about the status of women and girls from faith based communities), and Training (training women and girls to become leaders of wellness in their communities).

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