Everybody has something to say when it comes to the physical appearance of the body – and this is not only specific to females. The idea of ‘beauty’ and ‘handsomeness’ has been carefully created and defined with its own set of ideals and standards within society. The sexualisation of ‘the body’ in the mainstream media and each culture’s individual values and norms on weight have heavily contributed to these social standards of body shape. This has inadvertently moulded our perceptions of what we should look like… And what others should look like, too.
I speak from a person of a South Asian background who has seen first hand how beauty standards manifest across my culture. Statistical trends have shown that most world cultures, especially Western, South-Asian and Indian/Pakistani cultures, place heavy emphasis on a slimmer body shape, long straight hair and large muscle-to-fat weight ratio – strictly for men only. This can make it difficult for young Muslims who wish to wear hijab, but are not supported by their families because it can reduce their prospects for marriage, or who have a smaller muscular physique, but are pushed to go to the gym because they are not ‘manly enough’. It is especially difficult for Muslims who have a wider body shape, but are repeatedly told that they are not the ‘ideal’ shape to be considered beautiful.
Ironically, these very cultures are the ones whose diet is rich in saturated fats, like oil and butter, and carbohydrates. Think about the cuisine of India and Pakistan or the food culture of the UK and USA. Ironically, the leading causes of death in these countries include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, intestinal diseases and cancer (WHO). Expectedly, the common underlying risk factor for the occurrence of these diseases is an unhealthy diet. That’s not to say that these cultures, and the wider global community, have not taken steps to inform and encourage people to make a more balanced, vibrant and nutritious diet part of their lives.
So, why is it that we can proactively change our diet and lifestyle to alleviate the physical disease but not take any steps to eradicate the harmful views that chip away at body confidence?
Because these cultural and societal norms that place heavy importance on the idea that ‘being thin makes you beautiful’ have established unspoken standards of attractiveness, that must be abided by every member of the community. The standards that are especially placed on adolescents and those of marital age, by their parents on the dining table, or by the looks that aunties give them at family get-togethers, or even by the gossip churned out from the social rumour-mill. The standards that have made us place more importance on being thin and slim rather than simply being non-obese.
These standards have fed into our minds and are breeding feelings of discontent with ourselves.
They have created a vicious cycle within us, where the discontent that we begin to feel with our body pushes us to go to the extreme in our behaviour – whether that be in extreme dieting/exercising or extreme denial/inactiveness. Either we feel that we need to try the hardest to lose all that fat and all those curves, or we force ourselves to turn a blind eye for fear of failing to reach those ‘standards’ of beauty. Sometimes being diagnosed with a body- or weight-related condition, like hypothyroidism and poly-cystic ovarian syndrome, can also make us feel like giving up because ‘we’re never going to lose weight enough to please everyone’ or ‘we’re never going to lose weight enough to please ourselves’. Whichever way we go, this (non-)obsession with our body image is unhealthy.
It does not only cultivate serious self-esteem and confidence issues, but slowly makes us internalise as fact that to be beautiful is to follow a certain set of rules.
unknowingly become intolerant to the different body shapes, sizes, and colours in our communities. We have begun to believe that people who are of curvier body types are thought of as less than – much like people who have a darker skin tone or people who suffer mental health problems.
Research has found that this emphasis on thinness and social appearance, that has spread from Western societies to other cultures, is also associated with the emergence of mental illnesses, such as social anxiety, anorexia and bulimia. In fact, binge-eating has become so common in people who are overweight and obese, that it has not been classified as an eating disorder, with symptoms including low moods, decreased alertness and restlessness/guilt following a binging episode.
Moreover, being intensely dissatisfied with one’s appearance has been linked to the development of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and unhealthy physical habits, such as perfectionism.
Even North-Asians, who have the lowest rate of obesity because their culture is known to be one of the healthiest in the world, are suffering increasingly from diabetes and hypertension in spite of having ‘normal’ BMI’s.
This just shows that being healthy on the inside is much more important – sometimes even life-changing – than looking a particular way on the outside.
We need to realise that our body shape and size is unique, and we need to appreciate it the way it is. This doesn’t mean that we stop making healthy diet and lifestyle choices; it is essential that we respect our bodies through healthier approaches to diet and exercise. We know if you pump nutritious foods and drinks, and clean air into your body, it will use these quality ingredients to oil its internal systems, and give you vibrant energy and positive emotions.
We cannot change our body, but we can work with it to keep it well-balanced. This is the first step to self-acceptance
Other steps we can take to create this healthy balance in our lives include:
This article was written by Sarah Gulamhusein of the Inspirited Minds team.
Inspirited Minds is a grassroots charity which aims to reduce stigma, raise awareness and provide advice, support and encouragement to those, in particular, Muslims, affected by mental health problems from a faith and culturally sensitive perspective. Inspirited Minds often run online campaigns, deliver workshops up and down the UK, volunteer their services for crises’, and discuss topical issues in their blog and weekly newsletter.