As eating disorders are on the rise, it's time to take a positive look at body image.
Artificial ideals of beauty are making some women sick
I t is a common obsession for women: how to lose weight quickly, with the least possible physical activity. Some women I know have even developed abnormal eating habits due to their constant search for new diets.
Body-image issues are not only a concern in the UAE. Societies around the world are worried about the unrealistic "female body ideal" portrayed in much of the media.
But here in the UAE, we seem to have a lack of awareness about eating disorders. I'm sure that many women have at least one symptom of one of these problems.
The UAE is experiencing many of the socio-cultural changes associated with the emergence of eating disorders in the West. The society's rapid transitions have changed both lifestyles and ideas on beauty.
Once, being overweight was a sign of beauty in Emirati society. Men would look for potential wives who were not skinny, but not too fat. Now, the overwhelming media message has created a new general view on beauty: the thinner the better.
A recent study by Dr Justin Thomas of Zayed University (a regular contributor to these pages) and Sabrina Tahboub-Schoult of the American University of Sharjah found that a majority of young Emiratis suffer from body issues. In the study 361 undergraduates - 284 women and 77 men - were asked to rate their own figures against nine silhouettes, and to choose the shape they each aspired to have.
The experiment revealed that nearly three-quarters of women and 58 per cent of men selected an ideal image thinner than one they felt reflected their current size. Four women in five wanted to be thinner.
Another study, of 416 Emirati women aged 17 to 35, found that more than half were unsatisfied with their current shape and would consider any solution, even surgery.
Our obsession with the ideal body is hurting our health. Doctors say the number of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, has increased in recent years, mainly among teenage girls. In one survey, 30 per cent of young women polled were at risk of an eating disorder or had symptoms of anorexia.
Unfortunately, many who suffer from eating disorders are not aware of the serious implications for their mental and social well-being.
Eating disorders are defined as abnormal eating patterns associated with mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, often caused by concerns over body weight or shape. In young people, this can lead to serious health issues affecting growth, development and fertility. In extreme cases, it can raise the risk of early death.
And yet our society does not give eating disorders sufficient attention. Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist, told The National that she believes that Emirati society does not treat the problem seriously enough. "People view it simply as 'just stop eating or don't eat', and don't acknowledge it as a mental illness that could affect the individual medically," Dr Afridi said.
Changes in society have also contributed to the problem. Families gather for meals less often than they used to, and parents today may forego their responsibility to watch over their teenagers' eating habits.
But young people are not the only ones at risk. Adults, mostly women, can also need psychological treatment for these problems. But sometimes reform requires only a simple shift of mindset, leading to a healthier diet and regular exercise.
As part of the continuing Real Beauty by Real Women campaign, the toiletries brand Dove produced a short film to illustrate the difference between how typical women view themselves and how other people perceive them. In Real Beauty Sketches, a professional sketch artist drew several women twice: firstly based on their self-descriptions, and secondly based on descriptions by relative strangers.
Consistently, women looked more beautiful and attractive in their second portraits.
Sometimes all it takes to see our beauty is to have a positive outlook.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui