I was talking with a new friend at a party here recently when I confessed I'd always longed to be like the girl splashing about in the middle of the pool, the extremely slender one perched lightly on her boyfriend's shoulders. My new friend had always wanted the same thing and in laughing about how it would never happen for either of us, we bonded. The best part was that I was really laughing, not just pretending to. There is a first time for everything.
Who would think a move from Canada to Abu Dhabi would bring about the kind of self-acceptance I have spent most of my life searching for? A lot of people talk about putting on weight when they move to the UAE. The Dubai stone, they call it. But funnily enough, I feel like I've a lost a little. Most of it came off in the form of emotional baggage, lifted from my shoulders when I stepped far away from fitness, health and body-obsessed North America, where feeling inadequate is a way of life. I realised a lot of the problem there stems from all the beauty and fitness magazines. Now that I think about it, they seemed to track my every move, their thin, bikini-clad cover models mocking me from the supermarket to the petrol station. Here, women's magazines and their relentless calls for self-improvement are tucked away in hotel shops and the back corners of supermarkets. And even if they are not wearing abayas, women here are much more covered than they ever are at home. Since arriving I have not, blessedly, seen an exposed midriff or low-slung pair of jeans. I am proud to say, though I am still not perched on anyone's shoulders in the pool, putting on a swimming costume now means I'm about to have fun, not be stressed out. And I am better for it.
I fear though, that it will not be long before the more forgiving UAE has an attitude change. In Abu Dhabi there seem to be gyms on every corner, though it is clear from signs featuring bulging, Mr Universe-type models that they are no place for ladies. Just like back home, celebrities and television personalities are all as slim as can be. I see loads of adverts for slimming creams and pills and women's saloons touting weight loss wraps and rubs and all sorts of other silliness. But it is still an immense relief that the atmosphere is not even as close to being as full-on as it is back home. And I hope it never is.