Thin needs to stop being ‘in’

Published: March 17, 2012

What do we gain by losing our traditional standards of beauty and following a western ideal? PHOTO: AFP

I love fashion and what it has come to represent in modern society- a widely accessible form of individualistic expression, the opportunity to communicate wordlessly from the outside what lies within and a universal, culture-defying form of art. And oh the divine ability to wear something  out-of-style with confidence and suddenly start a trend? I love that the most.

There is no doubt that one of Pakistan’s many gems is its fashion industry. As a Pakistani-American in love with both cultures and often finding myself having to choose between the two, I have no problem pledging my allegiances with the motherland when it comes to my wardrobe. Pakistani fashion is not only doable, it’s beautiful.

However when I peel my eyes away from the clothes and look at the models, all I see is stick-thin figures with jutting cheekbones and razor-sharp clavicles balanced on legs the width of a healthy person’s forearms, staring at the camera with a hungry look in their large, blank eyes. These girls are thin. I mean it. Many of them desperately need sandwiches.

The trend is recent, undeniably western, and inescapable – on runways, glossy magazine pages, and in music videos. The thin standard is an unspoken and largely visual rule, but our reliable-as-ever television hosts have no doubt used their spotlight to openly preach the virtues associated with maintaining a skinny frame as well.

I am sure most of us remember Shaadi Online from Geo TV and their hosts, flowing with pre-marital gems and advice to bestow upon their audience. My favorite (or least favorite) gem is one I will never forget. The wise uncle said:

“Chahey shakal surat ho na ho. rishtey ke waqt larki ka vazan zaroor dekha jaata hai.”

(It doesn’t matter if the girl is good looking or not, but her weight does matter at the time of the marriage proposal)

Nailed it.

Uncle couldn’t have spelled out the rule more plainly if he tried; become thin and you win a husband.

The message is clear: thin is attractive, modern, sophisticated. It is the ultimate beauty ideal for the Pakistani woman.

How surprising, sad, and utterly unrepresentative of the traditional South Asian physique. A look back a few hundred years will tell a different story of what it once meant to be as beautiful as a South Asian woman. Mughal artists painted the women of the day with soft, curving strokes- the silhouette of a hip, the bend of an arm.

The flowing lines outlining the women of the Mughal period convey messages of femininity, fertility, and the celebration of flesh. They juxtapose almost comically against the harsh angles of today’s ideal. Yesterday’s women, once seen as the epitome of beauty, would be viewed today as the stark opposite of it. If they existed today, these women who once served as muses would be told that they’re too fat and will probably never get married. “Vazan zaroor dekha jaata hai,” they’d be informed. The latest of our people would have shunned the earliest of them.

So what do we gain when we lose our traditional standards of beauty and follow a western ideal? A whole lot of low self esteem, it appears.

A recent study was conducted in Pakistan on of both male and female university students in their early twenties. The study evaluated levels of Body Image Dissatisfaction (BID), in these young adults, and measured the findings against each subject’s level of exposure to media.

The results confirmed the inevitable: young Pakistanis with high levels of media exposure are more likely to have greater BID than those with lower exposure levels. What’s more, many young women with high exposure levels who took part in the study vocalized a desire to conform to the thin standard. They saw themselves as outside of it. Outside of the very ideal shoved down their throats through the television and magazines surrounding them.

Pretty ironic, that a country with some of the lowest worldwide rates of obesity is facing increasing rates of young women perceiving themselves as overweight.

In a perfect world, the media industry would be held accountable for the negative messages it conveys to its mass viewership. Instilling a widespread sense of paranoia, low self-esteem, and unrealistic weight perceptions, however subconsciously, can only open the doors for the growth of unhealthy epidemics among young people in and outside of Pakistan, including eating disorders and the reliance on harmful third-party substances to control weight.

It seems as though the obsession is already beginning to take its toll. Time Magazine recently reported on a wave of teenage girls posting their videos  on YouTube, seeking validation from complete strangers by asking bluntly-“Am I pretty or ugly?” In one clip, a girl says:

“I think I am ugly and fat, but all of my friends that are girls, they’re just like, oh you are so beautiful. I’m like ‘shut up, because I’m not beautiful.’”

It’s about time that the entertainment and media industry starts contributing to the prosperity of its viewership by presenting diverse, universal, and above all, realistic images of people conveying positive messages about health, beauty, and self-esteem.

In many countries, the media has stepped up to this challenge. In 2006, Spain banned models with an unhealthy body mass index (BMI) from walking the runway during Madrid Fashion Week as a response to the popularization of the rail-thin, “heroin-chic” look in models. The country continues its no-tolerance policy towards unhealthy images to this day.

There is no question that, like Spain, Pakistani media holds the power to affect change- the question is whether they will choose to do so, and if they do, whether the choice will be positive and accepting of the masses.


Hiba Akhtar

Hiba Akhtar

An aspiring journalist from Washington DC who studied English, Journalism and Comparative Religion at the University of Maryland. Hiba tweets @itshibs.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • kay jay

    The trend of being THIN will never ever fade, no matter what the world says since the beginning of time Women have been perceived to be thin feeble and feminine ….Nowadays its getting too much any girl weighing more than 50 kg or 100lb is considered fat regardless of her age or body demandsRecommend

  • Saira

    I think everyone should be comfortable in their own bodies. Since clothes have been invented, the human race has become more uptight. Look at nudism. It’s an excellent way of life. There is no need of fashion there. People are very comfortable with themselves and don’t care what others think.Recommend

  • irfam
  • Nandita.

    The ideal BMI is between 19 to 24 ( for women ). Any woman who falls within this range has a healthy weight.Models have an unhealthy obsession with being thin, but there’s nothing wrong in trying to control your weight for health reasons. ” the traditional south asian body type ” the author is talking about would definitely NOT fall in the 19-24 BMI bracket. And having a BMI above 24 would make a woman more vulnerable to a plethora of diseases.
    I don’t care a rat’s ass about fashion but i’m very health conscious. So for me, being thin is definitely in.Recommend

  • Anam

    @Saira: Absolutely correct. Fashion is something that’s completely unnecessary. With regards to nudism, I think it is a great lifestyle but I don’t think it will ever be accepted in Pakistan. Many people are in fact turning to nudism around the world. It’s a lifestyle for all ages. Our society is unfortunately very uptight regarding the human body.Recommend

  • vaqas

    Well honey first id like to congratulate you on finding yourself comfortable in your plump self. But to advocate obesity is just plain wrong. You might not like the thin figures that are presented in the media as what is beautiful, but it is just about what this country needs. I like the fact that you took up some good stats to make your point, and a good reporter of todays pakistan would commend you on your cunning. But the fact of the matter is that pakistan is less obese cause of the poor masses that get flooded out of their homes just to be earthquaked into the ground. Grim picture i know. But the people who actually see the pictures of the thin lady are people who do just that. Sit at home and see those pictures. With actualy making it a science of how to move at a minimal. So here is what the reality is as i see it. Low income, thin people, dont watch tv, dont really care what is cool just get them food. Urban middle class and above, fat people, watch tv wish why they had that last kebab roll just before they have a heart attack ( you want to play stats then here is one for you, south asia highest rate of cardiovascular diseases in the world, think that one over ). So if thin ladies makes us get off our plump butts ( i mean excessive butts, i was just being nice ) and work out and eat healthier then good for us, about time we started doing that. But again if you like your plump self im sure people will accept you just the way you are, just dont be distorting realities just to make yourself more acceptable.Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Interesting. Now a man’s viewpoint. Having hanged out in different countries, I have come to understand that the definition of beauty varies across different cultures and even sub-cultures. It is my understanding that Karachi perception of beauty is different from Lahore and Peshawar perception of beauty just like French perception of beauty is different from US and Latin American perception of beauty. However, you hit the nail on the head when it comes to details of body self-perceptions, media is literally making life miserable for many otherwise beautiful human beings because of this continuous deluge of useless Hollywood and Bollywood mania.Recommend

  •!/Pinky_KQ Pinky

    Don’t jaalus!!
    lose weight ;pRecommend

  • Sarah Batool Haider

    Tall, thin, fair complexioned, long haired, and less than 25 years of age.
    (and busty too).Recommend

  • Frantic

    superb analysisRecommend

  • The Only Normal Person Here.

    And spreading thin-hate under the garb of it’s-okay being fat needs to stop being “in” as well.Recommend

  • Maria Nadeem

    Thin or not, I know for a fact that Anorexic-thin the way models are in North America or Europe will never fly well with the Pakistani folks who never appreciate thin-ness to that extent. I think the level of thin Pakistanis idealize isn’t an unhealthy or a stick thin bone like figure at all. Recommend

  • http://janzeebkhan janzeeb

    like Recommend

  • Mlh

    I agree that its really sad that being thin is the only ‘in’ there is, theoretically (not actually..ask them guys),..but dont go calling the likes of me “stick-thin figures with jutting cheekbones and razor-sharp clavicles balanced on legs the width of a healthy person’s forearms”…i take offence!

    oh and we eat more than just sandwiches…Recommend

  • Zara

    @Saira: I think you are correct in mentioning that nudism is good lifestyle. People who don’t wear clothes are more at ease with themselves and their surroundings. Clothes are in fact not necessary. But Pakistan, unfortunately, is not a country where this will be allowed. Recommend

  • Hira

    I feel like you personally attacked the author since nowhere in the blog did I find herself defending her weight (which we both don’t even know what it is). As to the media provoking us to throw up that burger we chugged down half a minute ago, well, that is spot on. Thanks for your stats as well, obesity should NOT be defended whereas being frail beyond recognition should definitely get some people talking.Recommend

  • Someone

    Well done sister, we need to distance ourselves from westren beauty benchmarks. This is true the idea of beauty is increasinglt becoming skin deep in our society and is a cause of concern for most of the young girls causing them nothing but depression. I am not advocating obesity but i am certainly against the skeletonizing of bodiesRecommend

  • Seher

    @Saira: I know what you are taking about. Living in Pakistan is difficult like that. I am a nudist myself but have been only able to practice at home and certain other places. Our society does not accept things easily.Recommend

  • Ayesha Pervez

    Although Im thin (49 kgs when my ideal weight should be around 52)- I think the pressure on women to be thin is really unfair! Whenever I am with some of my friends, the topic almost always turns to weight… and if one friend in the group has lost weight its such a big deal…. with a shower of praises and maybe some inside jealousy cropping up on the ocassion. Ofcourse being obese is unhealthy, but the author is not talking about that… instead shes focusing on the obsession to be stick thin…. with already thin women wanting to be even more thinner – bones jutting out n all!!! Good Job Hiba and all those who are personally attacking the author should focus on the content of the article insead of personally attacking the authors weight… although its not of concern here but the author looks slim and smart. Recommend

  • vaqas

    The point of the article is insecurity about weight. And leaving the remarks that are being deemed personal aside, you should focus on what my comment is about. Just to make it easier for you to understand. Im talking about the necessity of this country to find being thin necessary. Cause whatever you might claim, thin is healthier than fat. Thats a fact. And my response was more pertinent to the country we live in and some of us might be blessed with a thin built but most of our well fed people are not. And alot of people die of that condition. So if striving to be thin if we get even halfway is much better than just trying to be happy the way we are. After we stop being fat ill then think about this article. PeaceRecommend

  • Raza

    Excellent article. The points are spot-on. Recommend

  • Skinny

    Its not exactly true that people die for a thin body..actually the problem with us pakistanis is that we dont leave a person happy in any condition..if you are fat..they will constantly criticize you for that..and if you are too slim..again they ask you to start eating and put on weight…i have been skinny by birth and have a natural slim stature..I am 24 years old and from childood till now, wherever I go, people make sure they criticize me for being under weight and suggest me to eat and make sure they make me lose my in reality noone wants to see you happy with your body…whether you are thin or fat.Recommend

  • Alam, Fahad

    Obesity is not bad “except” on the belly Recommend

  • Amna

    @ Seher and Saira
    You girls are insane.Recommend

  • vaqas

    @Alam, Fahad:
    Oh my god, we have a waist to hip ratio fan. Dude please dont.Recommend

  • Ayesha Pervez

    What the heck??? I cant believe people are promoting nudism here…. r u guys alright? :S Clothes give one respect and dignity…Recommend

  • hiba

    thanks for your comments guys. :)

    i didn’t intend to come off as shunning anyone who’s naturally thin. if anyone felt that way i’m so sorry! i do believe that one should be comfortable with themselves and their natural appearance. that’s kind of why i wrote this- using media to vocally and visually spread a message that thin is the ONLY way to be beautiful in no way reflects or supports the idea that you should be happy however you are, thin or heavier. it places an unrealistic standard on people of all shapes and sizes.
    as for the thoughts on the other end of the spectrum and being especially overweight, i live in the US where morbid obesity is a huge (no pun intended :p) epidemic, and yes, though it is a more widespread issue than the one i’m writing about, it doesn’t negate the idea that television, music videos, magazines, etc. do force women to compare themselves to the often unattainable and unrealistic beauty guidelines they preach. too many girls who are perfectly healthy and gorgeous keep telling themselves they aren’t because they aren’t the size of the chick on the runway- not fair, not cool, not healthy.
    as for the comments on nudism and MY weight, both made me smile. if i didn’t bring my weight into this, why should you? Recommend

  • Moiz

    okay. did any of the guys notice we have 5 girls promoting nudism in the comments? in PAKISTAN?
    (p.s i never use complete upper case but this is just insane.)Recommend

  • Saira

    @Ayesha Pervez: For you maybe. It is a great lifestyle and is being adopted by people all over the world.Recommend

  • TMohsin

    I bet all of these stupid girls are actually just one and the same person posting with different names and its actually a very unrealistic and trying to be funny.Recommend

  • maria

    Being obsessed with being unnaturally unhealthily thin is different from trying to attain a healthy body with a low fat content. the two are not the same thing. if it is the latter that is sweeping pakistan, then good! people need to realize that “curves”, an excess of them, is NOT healthy but just extra deposits of fat that should not be there. now women with healthy body weights trying to drop pounds to fit an image of a photoshopped and unrealy ideal- THAT is wrong.Recommend

  • Waleed

    @ Saira and Seher
    What this going on guys?? The people in world do have nudism in life but they are also protecting their culture is giving them. See what your culture is actually giving you & if you are talking about the world nudism, They are very much involve in Pornography too that leads from having no clothes.Recommend

  • Humanity

    Self worth should be derived from a healthy lifestyle and moderation. Lack of worthiness creates a black hole in the soul which devours the very being of a person. Here is a most unfortunate and tragic outcome of chasing the superficial extreme.

    All are encouraged to promote healthy choices and asked to reject the false parameters of beauty.Recommend

  • Dopeharee

    Women should have weight but in the right places. Unlike women from up north from Karachi, Pakistan who don’t have any ratios at all and are just fat. That’s the typical heroine in Punjabi cinema.Recommend

  • Kanwal

    “Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me.” -J. K. Rowling.

    :D :DRecommend

  • random1

    Great job Hiba. Good message.
    @ Kanwal: True that !Recommend