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22 September 2018Last updated
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UAE's fat phobia

Rachael Bruford asks whether women in the UAE are more likely to experience body-image anxiety than those in the rest of the world, 
and if the reasons for this go beyond the media and our beach culture

By Rachael Bruford
1 Jul 2015 | 12:00 am
  • Women in the UAE are faced with the task of being perpetually ‘beach body ready’.

    Source:Shutterstock Image 1 of 2
  • The ‘perfect’ women whom we encounter on the beach.

    Source:Shutterstock Image 2 of 2

Women in the UAE are faced with the task of being perpetually ‘beach body ready’ as well as being visually bombarded with images from both western and local media. Add to this those seemingly ‘perfect’ women whom we encounter on the beach, in the gym and at work, and it becomes all too easy to make comparisons between them and our own possibly negative and distorted opinion of how we think we look.

“Body image is a picture we have in our minds of what our body looks like,” explains Dina Zalami, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia.

“It does not necessarily reflect what we actually look like in reality, but more how we think and feel about ourselves.”

A 2012 All Party Parliamentary study on body image found that 60 per cent of British adults feel ashamed of the way they look, and the Centre for Appearance Research also revealed that a staggering 90 per cent of UK women feel some kind of body- image anxiety. There are not many statistics for the UAE, but a 2013 study of 361 undergraduate students at the American University in Sharjah reported that three quarters of the students were dissatisfied with their bodies and one fifth were shown to have symptoms of disordered eating.

Acknowledging the imperfections of our physical appearance is not what causes body-image dissatisfaction. As Dina Zalami clarifies, “It is the weight we give these imperfections and the fact that we judge our worth based on them that create disturbances in our body image. Essentially, it is a dissatisfaction with who we are.”

Body-image anxiety is without doubt a global issue, but could it be that the unique environment of the UAE means that female expats are more susceptible to body-image dissatisfaction? And if so, what is it about the UAE and expat life that leads to this?

We can’t always blame the media

The media’s portrayal of women and its subsequent effect on their self-esteem has been well documented. The All Party Parliamentary study also concluded that the media, advertising and celebrity culture were perceived by almost 75 per cent of respondents to be the main social influences on body image. The body type commonly depicted in adverts is possessed naturally by only 5 per cent of American females, yet “this unrealistic and often unobtainable ‘ideal’ sees many expats in the UAE consumed by the debilitating desire to become as thin as models and celebrities that they see in the media,” claims Dina.

But it’s not just the flawless models in glossy magazines who can have an impact on our self perception. The digital age has heralded a new, complex culture whereby our smartphones allow us to offer only the best version of ourselves, namely through filters and apps. A 2012 article in UK newspaper The Guardian made the point that airbrushing is not a problem in itself, but that altered images now threaten to replace all others and change our standards of comparison. The fact that celebrities and our friends are also doing it means that we are now drowning in images that give an unrealistic interpretation of what women look like. “We’ve always compared ourselves to others,” says Holli Rubin, psychotherapist at london.endangeredbodies.org. “The difference now is that through our smartphones, we can all be the masters of our own trickery as we photoshop our pictures to fit more with what we think others want to see, never minding what we actually feel about how we look.”

So what specifically about the UAE combines with this new global digital age to impact expat women here?

The pressures of expat life


The Centre for Appearance Research has found that appearance is now key to the value that people place upon themselves. The fact that a lot of women move to Dubai because of their husband and then remain at home, perhaps looking after their children, means that being the perfect wife and mother often becomes a woman’s ‘job’, where looking polished is one of the implicit requirements. Help with children is readily available, so women are seen as having no excuse but to look glamorous at all times, such as on the school run. If you’re not one of these women, it’s hard not to make negative comparisons.“In the UAE we can be judged on a superficial basis, and without the support of close family and friends that you might have back home, it can be easy to fall into feelings of inadequacy,” points out Dr Lavina Ahuja, personal development consultant at LifeWorks Dubai.

In a culture where we are regularly exposed to women on the beach, and where dressing up for a night out is taken to a whole new level, it is not surprising that moving to the UAE can trigger unwanted negative feelings about our appearance.

“Insecurities and fears that we may have carried for a while when we were in the comfort zone of our home countries can easily surface and manifest themselves through a need to control our body shape or weight once we make the transition to the UAE,” says Dina.

Dubai in particular is a melting pot for many different factors that can heighten body-image consciousness and dissatisfaction. “Many people come to Dubai to ‘make it’ and may develop a consuming drive to prove themselves to others as well as to themselves that they are indeed ‘making it’,” says Dina.

“I’ve had patients talk to me about how much pressure they feel in Dubai to be perfect: to look their best, to be the perfect mum, the breadwinner, the perfect employee or employer and so on.

“The more we get sucked into the drive to be perfect, the more we cultivate insecurities and fears, making us more vulnerable to over evaluate any imperfections in ourselves, including our bodies.“

The materialistic element that exists within the UAE may also play a role, and living in a largely affluent society can also contribute to the value we attach to physical appearance. “The more we try to wear the best clothes, drive the best cars, live in the best homes and so on, the more likely we are to start aligning our self-esteem to such extrinsic variables. This can make us focus more on our physical appearance as opposed to valuing who we really are,” says Dina.

Cosmetic surgery

Body-image anxiety is not limited to weight dissatisfaction; it can be about other aspects of physical appearance. Is the prevalence of cosmetic surgeons in Dubai any kind of indicator of how we feel about our bodies? Dr Ahuja isn’t too sure. “Dubai is trying to become an international hub for medical tourism, so the high number of cosmetic surgeons is not just due to demand from UAE residents,” she comments.

However, it does mean that those who experience severe body-image anxiety have easy access to cosmetic surgery, often without fully considering the risks and consequences. “Many people see it as an easy way out,” Dr Ahuja continues. “They rush into cosmetic surgery thinking that their lives will get better, but they don’t, as the problem lies with their negative evaluation of themselves.” Indeed, it can then become addictive, with patients moving from one surgery to another. “The negative feelings do not simply go away.”

Although some countries have counsellors to assess patients and ensure that they are having surgery for the right reasons, this practice is not always adhered to in the UAE. “Here there is a lack of awareness about mental health issues,” suggests Dr Ahuja. “ Some people are trying to feel better about themselves and surgery is not the answer.”

It’s clear that women in the UAE are in the unenviable position of being exposed to both global factors relating to body image, as well as being influenced by those around them and the sometimes ostentatious culture of UAE expats. It’s never easy moving to a new country, particularly one that is so appearance-conscious and where the beauty industry is booming.

If only we could all follow in the singer Pink’s footsteps, who after being pictured in a dress that drew criticism about her weight, tweeted, “I felt very pretty. In fact, I felt beautiful. So, my good and concerned peoples, please don’t worry about me. I’m not worried about me. And I’m not worried about you either.” That, sadly, may be easier said than done.

How can we help friends with negative body-image issues?

Dr Ahuja says that women who negatively evaluate themselves are often secretive and don’t talk about how they are feeling. Family and friends may notice some alarming signs such as sacrificing health and well-being for their appearance, perhaps by smoking to suppress their appetite, developing disordered eating habits, or getting into debt to pay for surgeries.

The first step is to talk to an expert, or to confront your friend with the fact that this level of anxiety is not normal. “Many women are often brought in to LifeWorks by concerned family and friends,” says Dr Lavina. “They need to let go of the fear, and in order for that to happen we work with them to make them realise that stopping worrying about looking a certain way doesn’t mean that they are going to put on weight or have their fears become justified.”

Have your say

Aquarius readers share their experiences

“Body image goes beyond where you live”

Pauline Shaw, 32, teacher from the UK

“I wouldn’t say living in the UAE has impacted my body image really. I’ve always seen myself as ‘the fat one’ amongst my friends, even back in primary school. Here I have the money for personal training, but I probably looked my best back home when I wasn’t going out to brunches and ladies nights so much. I think my figure is directly linked to my happiness, and that there is so much wrapped up in body image that goes way beyond where you live.”

“I definitely feel I have to make more of an effort in Dubai than I did back home in the UK”

Katherine Harrison, 27, events manager from the UK

“When I first moved here I owned two cocktail dresses – I now have at least 20, and that’s not many compared to my friends! I definitely feel like I have to make much more of an effort in Dubai compared to back home. The thing I find odd is you can go out and see people in shorts, T-shirts and flip flops in the same place as a woman in a ball gown.”

“It’s exhausting trying to keep up”

Melissa Naidoo, 30, school administrator from South Africa

“You should be comfortable in your own skin rather than worrying about what everyone thinks. However, Dubai has set an image and nothing less is acceptable. It takes time and money to look great all the time, and it’s also exhausting trying to keep up with this great hub where everything is moving, growing and upbeat. Even at the gym women look at each other and analyse what brand others are wearing or if someone has come without make-up.”

By Rachael Bruford

By Rachael Bruford