AL AIN // Not so long ago, there was little pressure on Emirati women to be thin indeed, a fuller figure was seen in a wholly positive light. That, however, is changing rapidly, according to a study that found most young UAE women were dieting and as many as a third were underweight. And women put the blame squarely on the shoulders of skinny celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Heidi Klum.
The vast majority of the students surveyed said they had dieted to control their weight, and many cited the portrayal of women in the media as well as seeing expatriate women with modest figures as factors behind their desire to be thin. In the West, concerns have grown in recent years that ultra-slim fashion models and actresses are causing young women, and some men, to diet excessively, putting their health in danger.
The UAE study was carried out by Sarah Trainer, a PhD student at the University of Arizona who interviewed 50 Emirati women aged 18 to 25. Ms Trainer, who presented her preliminary findings at the final session of the Global Health and the UAE conference yesterday at UAE University, said student responses were "very similar to what you hear from American teenagers". The Emirati women said the way the European and, in particular, the American media featured celebrities such as Beckham and Klum, who are each slim despite having several children, influenced how they perceived their own bodies.
"These are the references they're making in western media, particularly women in film, the internet or television," Ms Trainer said. The women surveyed came from Dubai, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah. Sixteen were found to be underweight, with 23 in the normal weight range, six overweight and five classified as obese. These figures contradict World Health Organisation statistics which indicate that 68 per cent of people in the Gulf are overweight and 34 per cent obese. Ms Trainer described the results as "fairly unexpected".
However, dieting and a concern over body image mirror the situation in some western countries, where the media are often blamed for a rise in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Many celebrities are said to suffer from eating disorders as well, and concerns that fashion magazines are filled with excessively slim women have been expressed at the highest levels. The British government minister Tessa Jowell once railed against "the cult of the size zero", a reference to extremely thin catwalk models who were cited as a dangerous influence on young women.
Just over a year ago in Britain, a "Say No to Size Zero" initiative was launched, with campaigners saying anorexia and bulimia had become almost 50 per cent more common during the previous three years. More than one million people in Britain are said to have the conditions, and one case was reported of a child as young as six avoiding food and exercising to excess to avoid weight gain. Eating disorders have also become more common among young men in the West, although the majority of sufferers are women.
The British model Kate Moss was recently criticised by an eating disorders charity for saying in an interview that one of her mottos was "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", although she later claimed to have been misrepresented. In the study of Emirati women, some of those interviewed said they had been overweight at school but had later gone on diets. A number believed that having a fuller figure was "seen as a positive" in earlier generations and so young women previously did not feel the need to diet to the point of becoming underweight.
"Their girlfriends and men like them to be slim," Ms Trainer said. "All of them blame this on the western media." Among the 50 women surveyed, 46 said there was a fear among their fellow students of "being fat" and 43 dieted on a daily basis. Ms Trainer said the fear of putting on weight was not linked to a concern about health, however; only five of the group said they played sport and none walked significant distances outside the campus where they studied. The weather was cited as a reason for not exercising.
"The fear is mostly focused on the idea of getting fat," Ms Trainer said. Despite few of the women actually being overweight, Ms Trainer said unhealthy diets with few fruits and vegetables were "the norm" among those surveyed. Sagir Redabor, 36, an Emirati medical student at UAE University and a mother of four, said her experience tallied with the findings of the research. "I didn't notice the pressure on my generation, but in the new generation I feel they have more pressure," she said. "The pressure is from spouses and if you are single and want to get married, the more attractive is slimmer."
Ms Trainer, who has an MA in anthropology from Stanford University, is scheduled to complete the research for her PhD later this year. firstname.lastname@example.org