Muslim women have to deal with body image, too
By Nadirah Angail
One of the many benefits of modest dress is that it takes the focus off of the physical and forces you and everyone else to look deeper. It is a way of reinforcing the classic India Arie mantra: “I am not my hair,” or any other part of my body, for that matter. It’s a beautiful thing, this modesty, but it can only do so much. We Muslims live in the same world as everyone else. We contend with the same influences and are not at all exempt from the direct and indirect messages that encourage us to doubt ourselves.
But I’m aware of this. I’m not naive. That’s why I try my best to equip my daughter with what she needs to resist the temptation to flatten herself into a two-dimensional character. We’ve been having real conversations since she was about 3, so she knows all about how strong and intelligent women are and how I make it a point to dress in a way that conveys this gem of truth. She knows women are often fooled into believing their value lies strictly in their bodies, and she knows I never want her to think that. We’ve had great discussions about Victoria Secret commercials and swimsuit ads. Even at 6, I can tell she gets it (as much as a 6-year-old can). I monitor what she watches, what she reads, who she’s exposed to, and what I say and do around her. I’m vigilant—like, super vigilant.
But still, despite everything I do, despite every barrier I try to put in place, I overheard her making a video about how she had been working out and losing weight to get “skinnier and skinnier.” And I quote, “I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m getting there.” Confession: I dropped a tear. I couldn’t believe my ears. Why would my not-at-all-overweight, strong-and-informed daughter be talking about getting skinny as if it were some badge of honor? And beyond that, why was she lying? I can assure you, this child has not been losing weight. Like every other healthy first grader, she’s been gaining weight, growing in every way. I wondered, what would make her say that? Where had she learned that she was supposed to want to get skinnier and skinnier? Where was all this coming from?
Then I thought of all my own body struggles, which I’ve had/have despite my very Muslim upbringing, despite all the TV we didn’t watch, despite all the pants and long skirts I wear. In that moment, I realized how big this all is. I realized how insidious these ideas are, how they slink and slither, how they force their way into any and every pinhole they can find. Though I monitor her exposure as much as I can, she’s still a part of this world. Though I tell her she’s strong and capable, and try to model that for her in my behavior, she’s still a part of this world. She sees billboards that often advertise weight loss products. She sees commercials that often tell women how they need to be cuter, sexier, prettier, skinnier. And she talks to other children whose parents may or may not be planting the same types of seeds. It’s exhausting to think about. It’s exhausting to experience.
But, you know what, I’m thankful I had this glimpse into her mind. It presented a perfect opportunity for me to have another real conversation. I told her the goal of working out is to build stronger, healthier bodies, not to get skinny. I told her there is nothing inherently special about being skinny and there is no particular weight or body type a girl should aspire to “achieve.” I told her there are tons of women who develop sicknesses because of their obsessions with being skinny. At the expense of their health, their strength, and their relationships, they waste away into nearly nothing. I asked her if she wanted that, to be so skinny that she wasn’t healthy anymore. I asked her if she wanted to spend all her time worrying about weight instead of having fun and living life. She said no. She looked sad, like she was being punished. I told her I wasn’t upset, but I’m sure it felt like I was because of my serious tone. I imagine the desperation in my voice sounded a lot like anger. “I just don’t want you to be like so many other women who think all they have is how they look. That’s such a sad way to go through life,” I told her.
“I know,” she said, sounding annoyed, like she’d heard this message a million times before. And she had, but that clearly wasn’t enough. And I don’t know if it ever will be. But at the very least, I can keep talking to her and praying that she is rightly guided. And I will never ever, ever, ever allow myself to believe that my child is exempt.