By: Sana Kamal and Mirna Alsharif
The Women and Gender in the Middle East class at the American University in Dubai (AUD) held a workshop on women’s bodies. The workshop explored the societal standards that women are urged to adopt when it comes to their bodies.
Dr. Pamela Chrabieh, Professor of women and gender studies at AUD, wanted to show her students the grim realities of defining a woman based on her body.
“As long as they’re perceived as objects; objects of desire, second class citizens, not being equal to men in so many aspects, not being able to produce knowledge, of course the focus will be on them being pretty. Not more than that,” clarifies Dr. Chrabieh.
Students participated by contributing with uplifting messages, art, and personal stories on five different posters.
The first poster illustrated the different silhouettes of women within each other, resembling a Russian doll. The biggest silhouette represented overweight women who are often dismissed as ‘lazy’ and ‘chunky.’ Within it are many silhouettes that lead to the smallest one, which signifies the ‘flat’ or ‘boyish’ women who are assumed to be ‘anorexic.’
Ermida Koduah, a study abroad from the United States, was ridiculed for being skinny as a child. “Being really skinny in an African community is not necessarily a desired body. I used to get teased a lot and I really tried to make myself gain weight,” says Koduah. “Once my curves came in I was more confident in myself. However, the teasing did not go away. I’ve come to realize no matter what size I am, someone will say something.”
When it comes to what influences our perception of body image, Dr. Chrabieh believes many different factors play a role. “Definitely the environment, so all the cultural [and] social norms about what could be the perfect body. But also nowadays there are global standards of body perception that are being circulated; so it’s about globalization. Also education; how you’re being educated in school, university, within your own family. It’s also related to personal experience; either negative, or positive.”
The second poster displayed the different body types, such as the ‘apple’, ’pear’, ‘pencil’, and ‘hour-glass.’ The objective of this illustration was to shine a spotlight on defining women by equating them to inanimate objects. These toxic perceptions fuel the ideology that women are property by dehumanizing them.
“You can’t escape it somehow,” says Dr. Chrabieh. “I think it’s a continued struggle, but with years and more self-consciousness, you’re able to manage it well. And you’re able to accept your body because it’s part of yourself. As it is, it doesn’t mean that you don’t work on it, you don’t exercise, you don’t take care of your appearances but it’s not to the extent of becoming an extremist.”
Two posters included students’ personal stories involving discrimination based on their body types. One student wrote about how she was not allowed play on the swing because she was “too developed.” Another student recalled what it was like growing up with a “tiny” and “skinny” frame and how in her teenage years, boys would call her names because of her weight.
“There are those who come to a point where they are completely independent and they don’t care about what have become the norms. And of course there are those who completely internalize the common norms and do not claim their own bodies at all,” explains Dr. Chrabieh.
Mahek Punjabi, a student who was bullied for being “boney” expressed her disdain for being judged by others. “I’d be loaded if I had a penny for every time someone called me too skinny. Any comments about my body are not welcome unless I specifically ask you what you think. I don’t live to please you.”
When Elaf Patel, a student, was asked if she accepted her body, her demeanor turned somber. “If you’re in a society that likes skinny women, you’re not going to enjoy being chubby. It’s a personal thing; it’s internal. I don’t have anybody that’s like ‘go lose weight.’ It’s me, I look in the mirror and I say ‘what’s wrong with me, go lose weight,’” confesses Patel.
The last poster displayed inspirational quotes written by students, some of which were original while others quoted celebrities. Kate Winslet was quoted emphasizing that women should stop striving for perfection and accept themselves: “I just don’t believe in perfection. But I do believe in saying, ‘This is who I am and look at me not being perfect.’ I’m proud of that.”
“Healthy for me is when you try to look for this harmony in dealing with everything that constitutes your identity; the body, the mind, your spiritual life. An unhealthy social norm is when you focus on an aspect and forget about the others. So as long as you are working on all the aspects on an individual basis, you’ll become healthier, and the community and society will become healthier.”
Unfortunately in this day and age, society’s perceptions of body have impacted women in profound ways, such as when it comes to career choices.
“I want to do print journalism and I don’t know how much of that is because I actually want to do print journalism and how much of that is because I can’t stand to see myself on video. I honestly cannot tell,” admits Elaf.
However, through education and awareness on a local and global level, especially for the youth, we may be able to break away from the stereotypes surrounding different body images. What we lack is the correct system of knowledge that allows us to be more acceptable of the way we look at ourselves.
“To be able to manage this pressure and to transcend the pressure itself, [is] a continuous struggle and few women are able to do that,” emphasizes Dr. Chrabieh. “To say that this is the way I look, this is the way I am, doesn’t mean that I don’t work on myself. [You] work on developing [your] mind and taking care of [your] body. But one should not take the place of the other. It’s trying to balance a kind of a harmony while dealing with both.”
The focus needs to be on encouraging each other to become more autonomous, active citizens and producers of knowledge; starting this transformation within our own families is key. Though this change might not happen overnight, it would lead to a much more positive and accepting society.