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Starving for life: Arab women open up about eating disorders

[Santiago Alvarez/Flickr]
[Santiago Alvarez/Flickr]

Eating disorders have for long haunted the lives of girls and women all over the world. The thought of a girl as young as 11 scrutinising herself and starving herself is no longer seen as farfetched, but more of a sad reality that millions are forced with. In the Middle East, however, while girls and women are routinely scrutinised about their weight and the way they look in general, there is little awareness of the extreme lengths in which girls and women take to reach these standards of beauty.

The amount of studies on eating disorders in the Middle East is shockingly disproportionate to the actual effect of eating disorders within the region. Like with most mental illnesses, eating disorders are considered a taboo within Arab communities. However, the obsession with weight and scrutinisation of the appearance of girls and women are overly discussed. Girls and women are often forced to listen to vindictive comments about themselves and deal with the mental scars that follow, but are shunned when they suffer as a result of them.

In 2013, a study in the Zayed University in the UAE found that 75 per cent of female students were unhappy with their bodies and almost a quarter were at risk of developing disorders. The experts who conducted the studies largely blamed “Western ideals and beauty standards”.

“To be honest, I blame both Western and Arab standards of beauty,” Samira, not her name, a former eating disorder patient from Saudi Arabia told MEMO.

“Growing up, I suffered from an eating disorder that was caused by two things; one was my sudden exposure to Hollywood after having been monolingual for the first 13 years of my life. The second was my brother marrying a woman who was very Arab, not influenced by the West at all, but had an obsession with perfection.”

“She bullied and harassed me a lot about my body growing up,” she said.

“People don’t understand that eating disorders are a psychological issue, not only physical. They assume it’s a choice, which is completely sad,” Dana Al-Jawini, also from Saudi Arabia told MEMO. She recently opened up about the death of her sister at the age of 22 after battling with anorexia.

Extreme procedures

Taken to extreme forms, methods of weight loss are becoming more popular in the Arab world. More women are resorting to procedures to lose weight, such as jaw tightening to prevent women from eating, or injecting botox into the stomach to trick the individual’s brain into thinking they are full.

“It is very safe and can even be used to maintain your weight,” said Dr Nader Saab. He is one of the most famous plastic surgeons in Lebanon and among the prime instigators of the procedure. He has even said this in a video advertising the procedure, claiming injecting botox into your stomach has “zero side-effects”. Unsurprisingly, he made such claims with no scientific backing.

74%

of surveyed women in Jordan have changed their lifestyle because of family and media pressure

Still, self-starvation and bulimia remain very common, especially among teenage girls. A study conducted in Jordan in 2014 and which surveyed students between the ages of 18-27 showed that 71 per cent have skipped at least one meal and 86 per cent believe women in Jordan struggle with body image. Some 72 per cent believe eating disorders among women are a problem in Jordan, however only 18 per cent felt adequately informed about eating disorders.

Arab women fight back

Despite patriarchy and stigmas surrounding eating disorders and mental health in general, Arab women refuse to give up on fighting for their voices to be heard and for their struggles to be known.

“We definitely need to be outspoken,” Dana said. For her, it was her personal experience that encouraged her to come forward. “I couldn’t sit and keep quiet about what happened to my sister because I don’t wish it upon anyone.”

Dana is a staunch believer in women supporting other women to remedy the problem.

If someone sees a friend or a sister or even a stranger going through something like this I think it’s our duty as Arab women to speak out.

For Samira, it was making new friends that inspired her to embark on the road of body-positivity. “I met new people, made new friends who helped me change my perspective on what it means to be alive,” she explained.

“Weight loss in general in the modern Arab world is praised and no one stops to think of how and why someone lost weight,” she added. “You realise as you’re healing, there is just so much more to the human experience than all of this.”

Sara Sherbaji, a mental health campaigner from the UAE is currently working with a team to establish mental health provisions in the Arab world. She and her team are currently producing a documentary on mental health in the region and view the topic of eating disorders as a part of a larger stigma on mental health.

“We want to establish a platform that will be up at all times on all days to support people with mental illness and offer both education and links to professional services. We’re currently working with a team of professionals and an established clinic here to see this through,” she told MEMO.

Her team is also trying to initiate a year-long campaign on mental health in the UAE, which is something relatively new. “Our main concern is that we have very short campaigns in the country,” Sara said. Despite this, she spoke of the support she is receiving, and that one of the top English-language news outlets in the UAE has repeatedly featured them and their campaigns.

While there remains a long battle in destigmatising mental health and eating disorders in the Arab world, Arab women are refusing to stay silent. Their fighting spirit is ignited by a love for justice and a need to overcome cultural setbacks, which can only be done through unity. By supporting each other and listening to one another they are slowly but surely instigating change within their communities.

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