For centuries, as the 1639 Rubens’ painting “The three Graces” illustrates, buxom bodies were associated with opulence, happiness, beauty and fertility around the world. And indeed in some countries this is still the case. In the Middle East, citizens of Kuwait, notorious for being among the top obese nations according to Euromonitor International figures, regard female obesity as a sign of health and wealth. At the same time, a new body image model that regards thin as successful and healthy is putting increasing pressure on younger generations to fit in a modern society and also creating a generation gap.
- While in the space of one generation, rapidly urbanising societies have adopted all the unhealthiest habits from the Western World, similar demands for nutrition, fitness, weight loss plans and services will grow, particularly among younger families;
- Products, practices and services related to nutrition and exercise have to be specifically designed to suit conservative and religious societies;
- Before health prevention strategies have any obvious effect, remedies and pharmaceuticals as well as cosmetic surgery are the immediate alternative.
Many people in countries in the Middle East have swapped a nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary lifestyle in big cities satiated with home delivery services, fast food shops and a daily diet high on protein, fat and sugar. An example is Qatar, where 73% of men and 70% of women are overweight according to current figures from world health organisation (WHO). Specialists are raising the alarm as cases of diabetes have increased dramatically over the years.
During the 2012 medical symposium organised by the Sidra Medical and Research Centre in Doha, Dr Ahmed Mohammed Saeed El-Awwa, who as head of the Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes Unit at the University of Alexandria Children’s Hospital has researched diabetic children explained: “We are importing most of the food in Qatar, and importing as well the culture and environmental factors from other areas into our area.” However, all measures for preventing future diseases related to unhealthy eating habits clash with a rather conservative society. Director of public health Sheikh Mohammed Hamad J Al Thani says: “Changing the economy is easier than changing the behaviour of people.”Sometimes, in changing [their ways], people feel they are not loyal to their grandfathers.”
Westernisation also brings new aspirations to younger generations and a new understanding of their body image. For instance, after analysing a large number of advertisements from the Middle East, a blogger called bloomingjasmine.com concludes that they systematically idealise fair skin as the necessary requirement for success. She writes, “I was particularly shocked and somewhat outraged as I watched an ad with a young lady who has just graduated from college; she wants to be a reporter. But wait, she cannot because her skin is not fair aka white; thus she starts using the whitening cream and voilà, she is now fit to work and attract a guy too!”
Obese Population in Selected Middle Eastern Countries: (1990 and 2011)
Source: Euromonitor International from WHO/OECDNote: Obese Population (BMI 30kg/Sq m or More). Obese population is measured as a percentage of the population aged 15+.
Exercise and modesty
Eating is not always the cause of obesity, rather a lack of exercise. According to research published in July in journal The Lancet, physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. And while countries in both Americas are generally the least active, not far behind follow many countries east of the Mediterranean such as Iraq, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. It is no coincidence that the USA and many Middle Eastern countries face similar problems since many countries in the region have in record time imported the former’s products and adopted a similar way of life.
Some Muslim and orthodox Jewish women face the dilemma of how to maintain both fitness and modesty. At the same time, the constraints that their dress codes impose upon them do not encourage them to work on their figure. Talking to New York Times journalist Abby Ellin, personal trainer Mubarakha Ibrahim says, “We don’t have the external motivation that non-Muslim women have. There is no little black dress to fit into, no bathing suit. When you pass a mirror or glass you’re not looking to see ‘is my tummy tucked in? Do I look good in these jeans?’ You’re looking to see if you’re covered.”
Keeping their body shapes away from the gaze of men does not promote exercising either. However, women-only gyms are a solution. In Turkey, Bedriye Hülya is credited with opening the first national chain of women-only gyms. The gyms cover the needs of middle-class and lower-middle-class women, offering them a place “where women of every age and type can come and be among only women,” she says.
Israel searching for the right balance
The Fat and Beautiful beauty pageant, held in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba in mid-June, is a beauty contest with a difference: contestants had to weigh between 80kg and 120kg to enter. According to Esterica Nagid, a modelling agent who has sponsored the event for the 20th consecutive year, nobody should decide “that only skinny girls are beautiful”. One of the contestants, Vered Fisher, finds that what matters is how people perceive themselves. At the same time, in a bid to encourage a healthier body image among teens and tweens and stop the spread of severe eating disorders such as anorexia, which affect circa 2% of Israeli girls aged 14-18, a law was passed in Israel in March 2012 requiring models to have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18.5 or a doctor’s note verifying that they are not underweight. The legislation also prohibits the use of models that “look underweight” and demands transparency from advertisers when retouching pictures of models to make them appear thinner.
Meanwhile, to reduce the growing levels of obesity in Israel, the government is set to impose heavy taxes on junk food. The measure, which is supported by most Israelis, will be combined with a new labelling system informing consumers of the nutritious value of products. In November 2011, the government’s economic and social cabinet approved a national health plan banning sales of foods with trans-fats, improving the calorie listings and nutritional information on products, and including fruits and vegetables as part of the entertainment costs exemption basket for businesses.
Fitness nutrition and health are issues that need to be addressed by all Middle Eastern consumers. Governments, civil society and citizens have to pay a defining role in top-down and bottom-up solutions to stop obesity rates from increasing and corresponding diseases such as diabetes. Information campaigns designed to educate families to follow a healthier lifestyle are already in place in many Middle East countries. Women play a decisive role in the demand for health, wellness, gym memberships and pharmaceuticals and vitamins for weight loss. The market for these products is rapidly expanding.
As more women join the labour market in the Middle East, the facial care sector keeps growing significantly in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. According to Euromonitor International, for instance, sales of mass market anti-agers grew by 106% in Saudi Arabia and 79% in Egypt between 2006-2011. In many countries in the region, a growing youth population and global-leaning changes in consumer patterns are likely to fuel further growth.