I have been dieting since I was 11. As a little girl whose family migrated to Australia from the Middle East, I always stood out, bullied endlessly for being “fat.” Fat, in this case, simply meant that I was not naturally thin and petite like the rest of the white girls in my class. I was always dismayed and confused as to why I didn’t – and couldn’t – look like that.
Despite being different from the girls I grew up with, we all had one thing in common – we all wanted to be thinner. We knew that being thinner meant being more desirable, even celebrated. At that time, in the Nineties, fat shaming was de rigueur: superstars were ripped apart in the tabloids for having dimples on their thighs, and it was seen as a bit of fun to have Victoria Beckham weigh herself on live television two months after having her first son, Brooklyn. It didn’t matter how much women had achieved; it began and ended with a number on the scale.
In 2022, as we finally begin to embrace body positivity and size inclusion in fashion and pop culture, it seems that Arab women are not invited to the party. When The Economist published an article in July of this year titled Why Women are Fatter Than Men in the Arab World, it ignited global backlash, particularly in the Middle East. The report did not simply present an analysis, but rather revealed the pervasive racism that underlies fat shaming. Although citing the fact that women are indeed larger than men the world over, the article used a smorgasbord of disparaging tropes to explain why Arab and North African women were more likely to be obese. The litany of stereotypes included: a lack of awareness around health and nutrition; that women are socially and economically isolated in the Arab world; and that they are often held back by “cumbersome” headscarves and modest clothing. Worst of all is the suggestion that “shutting women up at home” keeps them Rubenesque in figure.
A picture of renowned Iraqi actress Enas Taleb was used, without her knowledge or permission, to illustrate the ideal of Arab beauty, with the author lamenting: “that is hardly the road to good health, let alone happiness.” Speaking exclusively to Vogue Arabia, Taleb says she feels her rights were “violated by the article, which humiliated Arab women and targeted Iraqi women in particular.” The actress says that the piece “is based on false prejudices that portray Arab women as gluttonous and undermines their awareness, education, and contributions. Arab women are among the most educated, and uphold the highest standards of beauty, reflective of one of the most influential and deep-rooted cultures in the world.” Taleb has sued The Economist for what she says is personal defamation, stating that the article and the attached photo (which she says was photoshopped) have ignited vicious attacks from bullies. She says she hopes the lawsuit will correct the damaging misconceptions leveled against Arab women. “As a public figure, I have a responsibility to advance the values of my country,” she states. “And the value of women is at the top.” Despite her long and illustrious career (acting since 1996, from age 16), Taleb says her greatest achievement is being a mother to her twin 10-year-old girls. “I am a working mother, but I am adamant about cooking for my girls before I leave for work every day. I take their health and wellbeing very seriously, which is why I always make sure they have a balanced, home-cooked meal,” she says.
For The Economist to declare that Arab women with “ample curves” like Taleb are the antithesis of health and happiness is not only offensive but is also a reminder that the origins of diet culture and fat-shaming are rooted in white supremacy and colonialism. Historically, the ideal European woman’s body was voluptuous, made famous by painters such as Flemish Pierre Paul Rubens who celebrated rotund female figures as the pinnacle of beauty. Sociologist Dr Sabrina Strings, chancellor’s fellow and associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, argues that the growth of the slave trade led to new demarcations of race based on what types of appearance and behaviors should be expected from people of different races. “By the middle of the 18th century, white colonialists contended that Africans, and indeed the Arabs and Turks were sensuous by nature. In contrast, European colonizers were to be defined by having rational self-control. This is what they believed made them the premier race of the world. So, in terms of body size, they should be slender and should watch what they eat. If you did not show restraint where food was concerned, that was evidence that you were one of the savages,” states Dr Strings. It is no surprise then, that the word “fat,” a derogatory term that would not be used to describe larger western women today, is used six times in The Economist article, insinuating everything from laziness to disease.
Tunisian model Ameni Esseibi is not surprised by the article’s double standard: “What they did to Enas is the equivalent of cyberbullying. The Western world is all for body-positivity, but they have stereotyped us (Arab women) in a way that is so wrong in so many ways. We are bigger (as Arab women) because, to begin with, our morphology is different. Arab and African women have larger hips and thighs; so why do they come and tell us it’s not normal when it is. The fact that in 2022 we are not normalizing every type of body: thin, thick, big, small, is crazy.” To Esseibi’s point, Dr Strings asserts that some ethnicities, particularly Africans, tend to be healthier at heavier weights than white populations. “The body mass index (BMI), the tool used to measure obesity, has been repeatedly criticized by experts as a completely arbitrary and inaccurate measure of health. While BMI measures the ratio of a person’s weight to their height, it does not account for bone density, muscularity, genetic, cultural, and environmental influences on weight.”
As for headscarves and modest clothing being “cumbersome” to playing sport, these are the type of statements that in fact perpetuate the stereotype that Muslim women who wear the hijab do not belong in sports. Many hijabis around the world still fight for the right to participate, just as Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari have. Still, some are banned altogether. Taleb says when The Economist used her picture and name, they had no idea who they were dealing with. It’s about time the world realizes one should never underestimate an Arab woman.
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia