Double Standards

Joelle SfeirWhen did weight become a national conversation?

I have been living in Canada for the past 10 years, having left Lebanon when I was 25. Three months ago I decided to come back and give Lebanon another try.

Ever since the first day I arrived in Lebanon, I was shocked to realize that all that people had to talk about was diets, weight, light food (or the lack thereof), how much weight I had gained/lost.

I mean, I am invited to dinner and immediately family members I haven’t seen for 10 years will say things like: you look fat, you should diet, wow, in spite of your weight you look good.

And if only this was only between family members! Everyone feels entitled to comment on my body. Friends would ask about my food habits, at every dinner I am invited to, the conversation would be automatically steered on diets… like a cruise control for conversations…

I had a business meeting for a potential photo exhibit and the first thing that was said to me was “first things first. If you are having a photo exhibit here you must lose 15 kilos.” I mean, really?

Today I had lunch with friends in a restaurant. I was starving and ordered 4 meet kebabs and the waiter felt obliged to comment with a “these will be just for you?!”

After a meeting to organize a hiking trip, someone said that I didn’t look like the kind of person who would be able to walk for long (really? Come and feel my thighs!).

These are but very few episodes of daily comments and incidents of the past two and a half months here.

So I can’t help but notice that the weight issue has become a social psychosis of the Lebanese people.

If only budget and environmental and social issues were discussed with the same passion!

From the taxi driver to the waiter who will comment on what you order, from the sales person in a clothes shop who will dismiss you in a second with a we-don’t-have-your-size-here look, to family members, from friends and acquaintances to people met for the first time who will not have a problem looking at you from head to toe and say “you should diet”.

Don’t get me wrong. I was having this conversation with an super feminine Spanish woman in Montreal a few months ago and she thought I was criticizing women who take care of themselves.

I myself am the first one to want to be dressed fashionably, to want to do some sports just to stay fit when I hit my forties (not so far away). I love taking care of and pampering myself. If this is your definition of femininity, than count me a member of that club.

Of course, ad campaigns, TV commercials, movies, series (with stars growing ever younger), movies, etc. have a major impact on all of us and affect the way we see beauty. The effect ripples through different societies, in all part of the world, and take on many perverse aspects.

This means that it doesn’t only exist in Lebanon. Simple personal examples: In India, people told me I was fat, or very healthy, or indicated it with their arms. In Montreal, many times at work, people gave my lunch disapproving looks (too many Tupperwares). As for more “realistic” examples, just take an objective look at the world and you will see so many… or have a look at this project made by a woman photographer about her own physical appearance (click here).

Thankfully, some people are aware of this and in numerous countries, many organizations and individuals and ad campaigns are trying to fight the effect of ads on young girls and teenagers – ads that always showcase impossibly thin and impossibly perfect young women.

The problem – as I find – is that amidst this frenzy, people seem to have forfeited their brains. And in Lebanon, most of us have done so by taking it to the extreme and refusing others the freedom to look how they wish to look. It is the lack of personal freedom in being who you chose to be, no matter the social and moral codes, that bothers me. This tacit obligation to “dress like people like” gets me… especially when this obligation is only applied to me, a woman (or so it seems).

When have you heard a man being criticized for his protuberant belly, or for his unsightly clothes? Now of course, I am not saying we are pure victims. Such men will definitely have less success with women than better looking and better groomed ones. But still, I strongly feel the pressure is not equally shared.

Diets, plastic surgery (with bank loans), the fact that men feel free to comment on your looks if they don’t like it and that you are just supposed to take it with a smile (god forbid you would react and be considered an emotional being). All this coupled with a growing competition between women to find the “good match” (understand “the golden goose”) in a frenzy to get married (who wants to be single after 25?) no matter the cost(s). Add to this an extraordinary need to appear perfect, no matter what lies behind closed curtains…

And while everybody is busy talking about diets, no one is trying to peak behind the curtains. Because most if the times, what you risk finding is too scary to deal with. So it is just easier to keep pretending, to do everything men like us to do, thus contributing to the vicious circle we already are totally submerged in: allow men to tell us how we should look, convincing them that we are all looks and no brain, that we want to be encouraged in looking good. They will grow convinced that this all women are capable of, that women are only physical partners. They will keep imposing their views on us and in turn, we will grow convinced that this is what our daughters should be…

And this is where I will stop, because then I will have to talk about women’s place in society, and their role in raising their children, and women rights… Too brainy for a simple female whose only purpose is to look good to find a husband who will provide for her…

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13 Comments

  1. Hello Joelle, what should we do to be able to reverse this process and could it be done without living ‘outside’ the society?
    Are our only choices to ‘do what others do’ and fit in, or to ‘do whatever we want’ and become paria?

  2. Thank you Joelle! The pressure is on men too to look good but of course not as much as on women.
    And i think this is the only country where there are bank loans for plastic surgery…
    Such a shame!
    We need national campaigns for education and democracy/citizenship!

  3. Huge Huge problem in Lebanon and I’m sure also elsewhere, but in Lebanon, such a small country… a disaster!
    Maybe it has to do with the war and its consequences? Maybe people are trying to escape their current situation?? Maybe most women are drowning in Patriarchy and its oppressing standards?
    I think that what you are doing, writing about the subject, having the courage to talk about it and share your stories and observations, is a start!
    But the road to salvation or at least a kind of a balance between the physical and the intellect is long … too long !!

  4. Hi Joelle! Nice article!
    I also experience the same things on a daily basis. It is traumatizing. One thing is to take care of oneself, eat healthy as much as possible and exercise. Another thing is to use extreme measures… However, unless it is not imposed, people are free to be extreme. After all, it’s their bodies and their lives. But when it comes to imposing it on others and that this is the ‘norm’ to follow or you do not fit in society, i completely agree what you are stating.

  5. thank you all for your comments.
    To answer some of them, I don’t think that we have to chose between fitting in like society wants or live as a paria. I think that if we are ok with what we are, people will eventually get used to it. Especially after they have talked about it for a couple of months and moved on to another topic.
    As for the war aspect, i have a lot of trouble accepting this as everything that happens here is blamed on the war. But the war ended 20 years ago and if we refuse to take responsibility of our mistakes, we will not (actually we aren’t) move forward.
    Education starts with people speaking up. There was another post in April i think on this blog, but there are more and more people writing and addressing these issues. not enough maybe, but it’s a start.
    So let’s read your stories!

  6. When I was in Lebanon two years ago after a long absence, people- women and men, felt that they needed to comment on my looks. I dress comfortably: shorts, t-Shirts flat sandals. I don’t color my hair and as I hit my mid 40’s, my greys started to show. I had gained some weight, and it s the first thing would mention.
    Why don’t you color your hair? Why don’t you diet? Why don’t you wear high heels? why don’t you put more make-up on? My response to my relatives and friends was: “Would you love me more if I did?” If so, then I don’t care about your opinion, if not then you shouldn’t worry about it.
    The desire to look like a magazine cover model, to dress in the latest fashion, to be as decked out as a Christmas tree is not for me, and at times it almost seems like my desire to look as I want to look is upsetting to others. But that is their cross to bear and not mine.

  7. Bonjour Joelle et merci pour ce beau texte.
    Je vis l’enfer au Liban en ce qui concerne les apparences et le suivi du poids.
    Je m’occupe de mon moi-même à tous les niveaux, mais je ne comprends pas cet excès dans le physique versus une décadence intellectuelle et culturelle.
    Les gens (la plupart) n’ont pas de savoir-vivre, ni de respect, ni de culture générale, ni de sens de la citoyenneté, ni de créativité, et se rivent à une compétition féroce (surtout les femmes) à qui va paraître la ‘plus jolie’ et la ‘plus sexy’. Je n’ai rien contre la beauté physique au contraire, mais ce qui me tracasse l’esprit, et vous d’ailleurs, c’est justement ce virage inquiétant!

  8. Hi Joelle! Thank you for expressing what many of us women aren’t able to or do not even think of it this way. This morning i met 2 friends and the first thing we said to each other: ‘hi kifik ca va? Oh you lost weight! How did you do it? Let’s order a cappucino but skimmed milk, less calories. We will definitely gain weight during the holidays. Omg! Going back to the gym as soon as i can. Which dietician is the best? …’ well, no other conversation except for kids…

  9. 3 years later i am rereading all the comments. I think i didn t realize i wasn t alone in this. Also i realize the topic is still the #1 topic discussed, no matter the setting. And the irony is that EVERYONE, ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE feels entitled to comment.
    So thank you again and 3 years later for all your answers.
    I hope i will one day be able to be a b*** when i answer but for now i simply answer when told i should lose weight (or gained some): there is more of me to love. Or: i am gorgeous no matter what i do. People laugh and drop it.

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