Recently I’ve been bombarded by the world’s obsession with body image: from material I’ve coded to assignments for school and even things I come across as I prepare for my wedding. It almost feels like I’m being given a hint, some sort of sign that I need to pay attention to this subject, and who am I to argue?
I have tried on many a wedding dress in my day. Now, I will be the first to admit that my body type is not the average woman’s body type (I distinctly remember the day a friend and I decided to go on a “fat diet” in junior high after receiving one too many taunts about our less-than-voluptuous figures). I know very well that I am thinner than most. The shocker to me is that so many wedding dresses are small, small, small—small enough to fit me, some even too small, sold in most stores in only the sample sizes of 4 and 6.
We read an article recently by Fatema Mernissi entitled “Size Six: The Western Women’s Harem” (http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/6/size_six_the_western_women_s_harem/). In it, she compares the Western world’s obsession with beauty and thinness to the way a Muslim man might try to suppress a woman by excluding her from the public view. She commented that Western attitudes “are even more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones” because while a Muslim man might physically force a woman to veil her face, the Western world figuratively veils older or larger women “wrapping them in shrouds of ugliness” if they don’t conform to an unrealistic expectation of perpetual youth and beauty. Did you know that the average model weighs 23% less than the average American woman? Or that only 5% of American women could possibly attain this body type genetically? Yet that is the standard we are held to.
While writing a paper about the way telenovelas influence Mexican women’s body image, I came across an article that mentioned that Latinas are “opting for the head-to-toe fashion statement” and converting to Islam. Yes, you read right. Several Latinas told a Christian Science Monitor reporter that the reason they converted to Islam was that they wouldn’t be seen as sex objects anymore. I suppose that this isn’t SO surprising when you consider the way Latinas are portrayed: flip on any Spanish television channel and you will be bombarded with unintelligent Latina bombshells. Adding insult to injury, the stereotypical Latina expects men to notice her sex appeal (often wearing low-cut, skin-tight clothes to achieve the desired effect).
A few months ago I coded an article that ran in the magazine Marie Claire entitled “Forced to be Fat” (http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/international/forcefeeding-in-mauritania-2), and to my dismay, I found that the people of Mauritania have taken my silly junior-high “fat diet” to a whole different level. There, where bigger is better and stretch marks are sexy, girls are brutally force-fed a diet of up to 16,000 calories a day to prepare them for marriage. 16,000 calories a day, by the way, is more than four times what a male bodybuilder would eat.
Young girls in Mauritania are sent to a literal “fat camp,” where they have to endure the practice of leblouh—intensive force-feeding. At the end of the camp, force feeders sometimes receive a bonus if their “clients” have gained enough weight to develop silvery stretch marks, the ultimate sign of beauty. Spectacular results are achieved, apparently, by beating the girls, torturing them by squeezing a stick between their toes and isolating them. And at the end of it all, 12-14 year olds become eligible bachelorettes, for in the words of a force-feeder, “How will these poor girls find a husband if they’re bony and revolting?” Goodbye sports.
What is so very frustrating about all three of these extremely diverse examples of the way women suffer to be beautiful is that they are so very, very different. It would be bad enough if all women everywhere were supposed to be thin, or veiled, or fat. But the saddest thing is that it seems as though no matter WHAT the standard of beauty is, it will always be detrimental to women.