Food for Thought: Culinary Choices and Unrealistic Beauty Standards

Food for Thought: Culinary Choices and Unrealistic Beauty Standards

Each year, Travel+Leisure asks its readers to write about their travel experiences worldwide and to rate cities for a number of qualities, including food. This year, Beirut also topped the list. With so many international cuisines and restaurants to choose from, the temptation to eat is real, however, particularly difficult for young women who feel the pressure of having to eat less in order to maintain a certain body weight and image. 

Creator: Joseph Kai. All rights reserved.

Given the lack of leisure facilities in most advanced and developing countries, entertainment that revolves around food has always been the most readily available pastime for people in the Middle East. In the case of Lebanon, food is an integral part of Lebanese culture so it is no surprise that Beirut be named the best international city for food in the year 2016 (Lieberman 2016). Each year, Travel+Leisure asks its readers to write about their travel experiences worldwide and to rate cities for a number of qualities, including food. This year, Beirut also topped the list. With so many international cuisines and restaurants to choose from, the temptation to eat is real, however, particularly difficult for young women who feel the pressure of having to eat less in order to maintain a certain body weight and image.

In Arab culture, chubbiness was traditionally considered one of the traits of feminine perfection, and classical Arabic poetry abounds with evidence that points in this direction (eg. Dhū al-Rummah, Qasīdah cited in van Gelder 2013, 23). However, this is no longer the case with an increasing proportion of Lebanese women viewing thinness as a marker of female beauty. Once a Western phenomenon, being very thin is now valued almost globally by young urban women and, as a consequence, there has been a significant shift in the desire for extreme thinness in the Arab region; no doubt in part due to the number of thin models dominating the fashion industry. In response to the newly emerging standards of ‘the perfect body,’ Lebanese women are becoming increasingly concerned about body weight and appearance. Societal values assign great importance to body weight as a measure of women’s beauty and social acceptance or belonging, and this is in turn, endorsed by women’s fashion magazines and advertisements that portray thin women as beautiful and attractive. The pursuit of these ‘desirable’ standards puts Lebanese women under great pressure to lose weight inevitably resulting in unhealthy ways of achieving this, including regularly skipping meals and the taking of, often dangerous, laxatives and diet pills. So enormous is the pressure that some Lebanese women apply for a bank loan to perform plastic surgery. This has led to a sharp increase in products that falsely claim to be effective in weight loss or control. In fact, the streets of Lebanon are swarming with advertisements related to such products; one even claims that it is a non-invasive treatment that works on those pesky love handles that nobody really loves and even that double chin you see in the mirror every morning.

Another growing trend among Lebanese women is that of ordering food from diet centers. Unfortunately, I myself have been a victim of this trend and witnessed first-hand the many shortcomings of these centres. Admittedly, some are well qualified and run by nutritionists who monitor their patients closely and help them lose weight in a sustained fashion. However, most of these enterprises are nothing short of scams designed to make money, with their owners intentionally deceiving their customers by falsely labelling food as ‘healthy’ or ‘light.’ Although such shops often claim that they follow well-proven schemes of weight control, some customers end up with a serious protein or carbohydrate deficiency. As more Lebanese women take up work and have less time to prepare their own food, they are increasingly tempted to subscribe to diet centres and thus more vulnerable to unorthodox eating habits that may lead to serious health problems.

In many instances the Lebanese, along with many other nations, follow global trends initiated by the West and one of the most recent is one that I would like to call ‘free-everything.’ This largely refers to food that is gluten-free, dairy-free, yeast-free, sugar-free, gain-free, etc. The following quotations amply demonstrate that such trends not only lack any medical justification but also take advantage of the public’s ignorance in order to generate profit. According to Samuel Fromartz (2015), ‘consumer data [is] pretty clear: around 22 percent of adults are trying to avoid gluten, creating an estimated $8.8 billion market that grew 63 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to market research firm Mintel. As many as 20 million Americans think gluten-free diets are healthier and around 13 million are giving up gluten to lose weight.’ Yet, ‘the vast majority of individuals on gluten-free diets have no business being gluten-free, because, for them, there is no medical necessity,’ says Alessio Fasano, M.D., Director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children and an authority on the subject.[1] He adds, ‘It’s simply fashion.’ American television host, Jimmy Kimmel, even made fun of this trend on his late-night talk show, asking people on the streets who were planning to go gluten-free if they actually knew what gluten was. Hardly anyone could answer this question![2]

In a study conducted by professors at the American University of Beirut (AUB) between 2000 and 2001, two thousand and thirteen students from five different Lebanese universities were surveyed. It was discovered that 12.4 % of those attempting to lose weight were using medications such as laxatives and diet pills, while 10.8% forced themselves to throw up after eating, a disorder known as Bulimia Nervosa.[3] In another study conducted by AUB professors and published in 2004, nine hundred and fifty-four students at the university between the ages of 16 and 20 were surveyed. The results were stunning, for although only 6.1% of those were overweight, 52.9% of those surveyed wanted to lose weight, and 61% of the women who were within a healthy weight range aspired to be thinner.[4]

An old Lebanese proverb has it that body movement is, literally, a blessing (al-harakah barakah). The lifestyle of previous generations was essentially predicated on perpetual movement, the total antithesis of our sedentary practices today. Herein lies the root of the problem. Like many other groups, Lebanese women are keen to follow Western practices and trends. Yet, in relation to food consumption they ignore a major aspect of Western practice, the fact that in most Western societies, individuals exercise far more than we do here in Lebanon. For example, going to college on a bicycle in the west is common practice among students and faculty alike but we tend to look down on anyone who takes up this practice. Thus, we have adopted harmful practices related to food, but ignored those tangential, more advantageous, behaviours allied to exercise. Common sense has indeed become a rare commodity.

References

Fromartz, S. (2015) ‘Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.’ Available at http://www.eatingwell.com/article/285160/unraveling-the-gluten-free-trend/ (accessed 27 July 2017).

Khawaja, M. and Afifi-Soweid, R.A. (2004) ‘Images of body weight among young men and women: evidence from Beirut, Lebanon.’ Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 58: 352–353.

Lieberman, M. (2016) ‘The Best International Cities for Food,’ Travel+Leisure. Available at http://www.travelandleisure.com/food-drink/worlds-best-cities-for-food (accessed 27 July 17).

Tamim, H., Tamim, R., Almawi, W., Rahi, A., Shamseddeen, W., Ghazi, A., Taha, A. and Musharrafieh, U. (2006) ‘Risky weight control among university students.’ International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39, 1: 80-83.

van Gelder, G.J. (2013) Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

 

[1] See Fromartz, S. (2015) ‘Unraveling the Gluten-Free Trend.’ Available at http://www.eatingwell.com/article/285160/unraveling-the-gluten-free-trend/ (accessed 27 July 2017).

[2] Jimmy Kimmel Asks, ‘What is Gluten?’ Available at http://abcnews.go.com/Health/video/jimmy-kimmel-asks-what-is-gluten-23655461 (accessed 27 July 2017).

[3] See Tamim, H. et al (2006) ‘Risky weight control among university students.’ International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39, 1: 80-83.

[4] Khawaja, M. and Afifi-Soweid, R.A. (2004) ‘Images of body weight among young men and women: evidence from Beirut, Lebanon.’ Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 58: 352–353.

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