To Enas Taleb, the headline felt like a spiteful punch line.
“Why women are fatter than men in the Arab world,” it read in bold, above a photograph of the Iraqi actress waving onstage at an arts festival.
The Economist article ran through possible explanations of the obesity gap of 10 percentage points between men and women in the Middle East, then cited Iraqis who see Taleb’s curves as the ideal of beauty.
“Fat,” a word now considered taboo in much of Western media, was repeated six times.
The article triggered torrid criticism on social media. Twitter users blasted it as misogynistic. Local rights groups issued denunciations. Some writers were appalled by what they described as demeaning stereotypes about Arab women.
Taleb, 42, said she’s suing the London-based magazine for defamation.
While analysts acknowledge an epidemic of obesity in the Arab world and its connection to poverty and gender discrimination, Taleb’s case, and the ensuing uproar have thrown a light on the issue of body-shaming that is deeply rooted yet rarely discussed in the region.
“If there’s a student who goes to school and hears mean comments and students bullying her for being fat, how would she feel?” Taleb told The Associated Press from Baghdad. “This article is an insult not only to me but a violation of the rights of all Iraqi and Arab women.”
Fat-shaming is offensive enough in the United States that when two sports commentators called some female athletes overweight on air earlier this year, they were swiftly fired.
In the Middle East, the report argued, the desirability of fleshy women may help explain why the region has experienced an explosion of obesity.
But the angry backlash over the article — and Taleb’s horror that her photo was used to illustrate the growing waistlines of Arab women — contradicts the oft-repeated belief that being heavy is widely seen as a sign of affluence and fertility in the region.
The globalization of Western beauty ideals through branding, TV, and social media has long given rise to unrealistic body standards that skew women’s expectations of themselves and others in the Arab world, research shows.
In a forthcoming study on Egypt, Joan Costa-Font at the London School of Economics said he found that although some older women in rural areas still view rounder women as affluent, “it’s not true in Egypt that being overweight is a sign of beauty. ... Western standards are more relevant.”
Demand for cosmetic surgery has boomed in Lebanon. Some 75% of female Emirati students reported dissatisfaction with their bodies, and 25% are prone to eating disorders, according to a 2010 study at Dubai’s Zayed University.
And yet, many say, fat-shaming remains widespread and acceptable in the region, compared to the U.S. and Europe, where self-esteem movements have gained momentum and galvanized public discussions around inclusivity.
“Our politicians in Lebanon keep making these horrible, sexist comments about women’s bodies. If they come under fire that doesn’t necessarily lead to rising awareness,” said Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author, and human rights activist.
Haddad noted that new forays into female empowerment have provoked “reactionary discourse and anger” from Lebanon’s patriarchal society. Even cavalier public comments about weight can be deeply painful to young women who struggle with insecurity and a pathological will to alter their bodies in pursuit of beauty, she added.
“I’m a 51-year-old harsh, angry feminist and I still weigh myself every single morning,” Haddad said. “You can imagine how hard it is for people who have been less privileged.”
Ameni Esseibi, a Tunisian-born woman who overcame social stigma to become the Arab world’s first plus-sized model, said body positivity remains taboo in the Middle East even as populations have become more overweight.
“Kuwaitis are plus-sized, Saudis are plus-sized. But people are ashamed. They weren’t taught to be confident in this judgmental society,” Esseibi said. “We always want to be skinny, to look good, to get married to the most powerful guy.”
But, she said, there are signs of growing awareness. After years of ignoring vulgar comments about women’s bodies, Arabs are increasingly turning to social media to vent their anger.
The Economist article’s depiction of men “shutting women up at home” to keep them “Rubenesque” touched a nerve.
The Baghdad-based Heya, or “She,” Foundation, which advocates for women in media, denounced the report as “bullying” and demanded the magazine apologize to Taleb.
The Malaysia-based Musawah Foundation, which promotes equality in the Muslim world, said the backlash shows that “women in the region are building a collective discourse that rejects and calls out sexist, racist, and fat-phobic acts and their colonial legacies.”
Taleb, a talk show host, and star in blockbuster Iraqi TV dramas said she had no choice but to speak up.
“They used my photo in this context in a hurtful, negative way,” she said. “I am against using one’s body shape to determine the value of a human being.”
Her lawyer, Samantha Kane, said she has begun legal action, first sending a letter to The Economist demanding an apology for “serious harm caused to (Taleb) and her career.”
Kane declined further comment pending the magazine’s response.
Taleb said she hopes her defamation case serves as “a message” for women “to say, I love myself ... to be strong, to confront those difficulties.”
It’s a message that resonates in a region where women see the odds as stacked against them. Traditional attitudes, discriminatory legislation, and pay disparities, on top of rigid beauty standards, hinder women’s advancement.
“Women don’t get equal salaries. They don’t get high-level positions. They are forced to keep silent when they are harassed. And in media, they have to be thin and beautiful,” said Zeina Tareq, Heya Foundation’s director.
In Taleb’s home country of Iraq, where safety is scarce after years of conflict, outspoken women also face the threat of targeted killings.
Iraqi journalist Manar al-Zubaidi said the fat-shaming of Arab women comes as no surprise in a world where “most media outlets commodify women and make them into objects of ridicule or temptation.”
“There is nothing to deter them,” she added, except ever-louder “campaigns and challenges on social media.”