Normally, I wouldn’t write about my weight. But I made a promise to myself to write every day—a promise I intend to keep. This is what’s been on my mind lately, and the situation I find myself is not what I’d call “normal.”
For the past few months, I’ve been living with my extended family in the small Middle Eastern country of Lebanon. Many consider it to be the most “westernized” country in the Middle East—and it is Western in a few obvious (but in my opinion, not very positive) ways.
One is the proliferation of Western consumer goods, and their exorbitantly high prices. Brand name clothing (such as Gap or American Eagle) can cost up to twice as much as in retail stores in the United States—perfume, sunglasses and other accessories up to three times as much. And the beauty culture has women going to the salon weekly—for blow-outs, manicures, waxing and eyebrow shaping. Whenever you got to a shopping mall, you’re likely to see a least one woman still wearing bandages from a recent nose-job, and skin-whitening products are never hard to find at the supermarket.
It would seem that the highly idealized (but nearly unattainable) standard of beauty plastered on billboards and advertising in the United States has been distilled into its skinniest, whitest, most artificial form before being exported all around the globe.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when my first time shopping, I got the up-down skiff look from the saleswoman, before she said, “She needs a medium.”
I’d like to say, I didn’t even want to go shopping in the first place. I am the reluctant shopper who goes twice a year to Good Will and buys all the clothes I’ll need until the weather changes. I especially don’t like shopping when a brand-less, probably-made-in-a-sweatshop t-shirt costs $40. And I especially, especially don’t like getting sized up by the employees. I know I’m a medium, thank you very much.
Perhaps the judgmental eyes of strangers in shopping malls would mean nothing if I didn’t have to deal with the same, thinly veiled criticism at home. If I’m going for seconds—well than I have “no right to complain about that big butt.” If I’m not hungry, then “what, are you dieting?” The worst was being laughed at because one night, when I wanted to sleep over my cousin’s house, her and my aunt laughed at me because I didn’t fit into any of my cousin’s clothes. She’s my height and 90 pounds, by the way.
People in general are thinner here. It’s not entirely a matter of dieting—the men, for example, are not socially pressured to be thin, but they tend to be on the fitter side anyway. There are two reasons for this. One, the food. While clothes and consumer goods are incredibly expensive, fresh, local healthy food is unbelievably cheap. The land is fertile, and many kinds of fruits and vegetables grow here naturally. Olives trees grow nearly everywhere below 1000m above sea level—making olive the main cooking oil. Cow’s milk is replaced by the healthier (but sour) goat’s milk, as well as the meat. And there are three main flavors in Lebanese cuisine. Garlic, lemon, and yogurt—the thick, greek kind.
The other reason is that the nice weather (it never gets below 50F by the coast where most people live) means that people can be active for longer during the year. Just last week I went fishing and swimming in the sea—in mid-November! For these reasons alone, I’ve already lost weight, simply because I’ve been eating better food and moving more than I did back in New England. I don’t know exactly how much I weigh or how much I’ve lost because I never weigh myself. But I can feel my clothes hanging a little looser—and well, I just feel healthier.
But the thing is, a healthy diet and exercise is not what I see in a lot of the women around me. I’ve seen girls eat a pathetic amount of food, then criticize themselves for “pigging out.” I’ve seen girls so tired they can’t stand for more than a half hour before their knees start to hurt them. These are girls my age I’m talking about—twenty-somethings who thing going for a 15 minute walk is excercise. Suggest that they try something like aerobics or sports, and they’ll complain that it will make them too “butch.”
Now this isn’t all woman in Lebanon—I want to make that very clear. My male cousin’s fiance is very athletic and fit, and though she made be picky she eats well. A handful of girls I’ve met through my hiking-enthusiast uncle are also very active, and have healthy appetites. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of them do not spend the majority of their paychecks on trendy clothing, or go through the agony of waxing and chemical hair treatments. And maybe also not coincidentally, many are highly educated and foreign, or have many non-Lebanese friends.
It would seem that having stepped outside of the culture makes you less likely to feel pressured to conform to the highly superficial standards advertized by the media and perpetuated by the society around you. Who would have thought?!
I would venture a guess that this is probably true for all societies, everywhere. Having never left the United States for a period longer than a couple of weeks before now, I’ve come to question many things that are so normalized back home. Here, people grow a lot of their own food. Yes the weather is nicer, but back home food can be grown year-round in green-houses, and some foods can be straight up grown indoors. And even in places where people can grown their own food outside, many don’t. Part of the reason is that in today’s America, people—especially working class people—spend a lot of time working. So they don’t have the time to grow their own beans or potatoes or other easily grown staples.
They don’t, as a matter of fact, have very much free time at all. Though my parents in the US make more money than my aunt and uncle here, both of my parents have to work in the states full time to support the family. They don’t get to come home for lunch, like my aunt and uncle, and they can’t afford to take off enough time for the holidays to come back to Lebanon to visit their friends and family (in 25 years, they’ve only been back once). They also don’t have as much “disposable income”—that is, money to spend going out to eat, or on family outings, vacations, etc. The majority of their money is locked up in a staggering mortgage, or student loans for my brother and me (don’t worry, I’ve taken my student loans upon myself, to ease up the burden on them a bit). But this narrative shouldn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone living in upper-middle-class or lower America, who finds themselves buckling under the pressure of a society that ignores their increasing inability to pay for the house they live in while simultaneously urging them to buy the newest BMW—because it really is “the ultimate driving machine.”
Well and good, but what does this have to do with why, at 22 years old, 5’1″ and 115 pounds, I—a self-proclaimed, short-haired, chino-and-loafer feminist—started feeling self-conscious about my weight for the first time.
My best guess is that its because, until this point in my life, I’d never really been the reject of that culture that seems to be glaring judgement at me right now. I’d never been “the fat girl.”
Let me explain. I’m not trying to say I’ve never feel ostracized. I was weird growing up. I had a unibrow that my mom made the mistake of not getting rid of before I started elementary school. I brought “ethnic” food with me for snack time. I preferred reading to trying to make friends. But let’s be honest—eyebrows can be plucked, and being nerdy or multicultural is never really frowned upon in middle-Amercia. I felt outcast—but I also felt secretly superior all those awkward teenage years knowing that my day of glory would come.
Being overweight is a totally different story. People judge you when you’re overweight. They think it’s your fault—you don’t excercise, or have no self-control when you eat. This of course, is incredibly misguided. The truth is that we don’t know anything about the lives of the people we see, so to judge them—tell ourselves they’re not trying or they deserve it somehow—limits our ability to see beyond the person’s appearance to their true worth. But the mindset is so pervasive that all too often, people that are overweight internalize that mindset, and see themselves as having failed to overcome some flaw within themselves. They see themselves as deserving of others’ ridicule—even ridiculing themselves.
But as obesity trends in the United States illustrate, the nationwide weight-gain is very much a class issue—as working class Americans can neither afford to buy fresh ingredients to feed their families, nor do they have the time to prepare and cook healthy meals, thus relying on fast, cheap, heavily processed and unhealthy alternatives.
The fact that I was 120-125 pounds or so (still small by American standards) is not because I wasn’t active. I was biking 6 miles a day, and spent most days working on my feet. It was because when I ate, more often that not—as a self-supporting college student—I was not taking time to home cook three meals a day. A few times a week I was getting a burrito between classes. And more than a few times a week, I was eating ramen.
I’m not writing this out of some kind of bitter rage—I know that while I may be getting judgmental looks now, the greatest injustice is not done to people like me. In a short time, I’ll be back in the states, where no one will look twice at someone my size and think I should lay off the beef pad-thai. I’ll likely continue to lose weight, because now that I’m out of college, when I’m working full time I won’t also be zapped of energy from late-night papers, and will be able to take the time to cook well-balanced meals for myself from ingredients I can now afford.
But this is not the reality of millions of Americans who must live at minimum wage, many with more than one kid in tow. Millions of Americans who will never have the opportunity for a better paying job, as middle-class skilled labor is disappearing, and college tuition skyrockets while financial aid lags behind. Millions of Americans, who get home after hours on their feet in a service job with just enough energy to prepare something out of a box or freezer bag.
Who after struggling through the working-class grind, day-in day-out—on top of all of that—they have to deal with the judgmental eyes, looking them up and down, telling them they deserve it.