“I literally wanted to disappear,” Nadia says, adding, “I was abused by my boyfriend who then left me for another girl — an American student studying abroad.” She continues, “I was so jealous and did everything I could to win him back. I guess I thought that if I was very thin he would come back to me.” Nadia suggests that without the availability of Western media and the portrayal of women as “waiflike sexual objects” she may not have even conceived of the idea of actually starving herself to alter her appearance. “The idea that my boyfriend would like me to be thin is one thing — but actually seeing the ads and movies…creates a new standard of thinness that I wouldn’t have even thought about otherwise. To be a size zero became my new goal.”
Nadia is now receiving counseling at the University of Iowa’s eating and weight disorder program. She now weighs 123 pounds, but was a mere 94 pounds upon her arrival. She says the program, which involves weekly group counseling sessions, has allowed her to “make peace with food.” Nadia says her family is very happy with her progress. She says, “They keep reminding me that being curvaceous is good — and that skinny is sick.”
But the ideal of a curvaceous female form may be waning. Although some in the Muslim world consider Barbie a decadent symbol of the West — recently Saudi Arabia banned the doll along with her “revealing clothes and shameful postures” — the strikingly similar Fulla doll is taking the Muslim world by storm. Under her black head scarf and long black abaya, or robe, the Fulla doll appears to be a slightly-smaller-breasted Barbie — unattainably thin waist and all.
University of Iowa Professor Meenakshi Durham, an expert in gender and body image in the media, is not surprised that American, or Western, ideals are being exported to Middle Eastern culture.
Durham explains that the legacy of colonialism has always left its mark on beauty ideals. Following slavery, lighter-skinned African-Americans were favored over darker-skinned individuals. In India and Japan, it is common to find “mixed-race” models typifying both an indigenous beauty as well as the Western ideal.
Durham says that in these colonial areas, eyelid surgeries and skin-lightening creams are commonplace in a never-ending quest to emulate the white, Western model. She notes a recent Harvard study suggesting that eating disorders did not exist in the South Pacific before Western television was available. Since then, anorexia has been on a staggering rise. “Over time, the ideal body has become slimmer, larger-breasted and very muscular,” she says. “That is difficult — if not impossible — to achieve by natural means.”