Perceptions of Body Image around the World
The table is heaving with plates piled with food, creating an elaborate village of the delectable persuasion. Intoxicating aromas of harissa spice and mint tea shroud around the many heads sitting at the table. I eye what might be my next piece of prey to devour, but my body stops my hands.
I am full to capacity. I sigh heavily and hold my stomach. My host grandmother, Fatima, at age 70 with a bulging stomach and wide hips, sits beside me in her billowing pajamas, and catches my resignation of defeat. Never willing to accept my satiety, she grabs a plate of pastries and holds them before my eyes, and I smell the glory that is hot butter, hazelnut and cinnamon. But still I shake my head, grabbing tighter at my stomach.
“I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t,” I plead to her in my haphazard Darija.
She pushes the plate further towards my nostrils. Then she speaks words that will forever resonate with me.
If there is one thing that I have truly appreciated about traveling, it is about learning to get out of your comfort zone, not only in your mind, but also in your body.
“You can only leave Morocco when you are as big as me,” she exclaims, grabbing heartily at her hefty sides, her smile as broad as her hips.
If there is one thing that I have truly appreciated about traveling, it is about learning to get out of your comfort zone, not only in your mind, but also in your body. In your daily routine, it can be all too easy to start to fret about yourself and how you fit into society. When you travel, that fear becomes irrelevant. You don’t fit, you are a foreigner.
My journey to find peace with myself has definitely been connected with the journey I have taken with my feet. The very purpose and capabilities of your own body become that much more noticeable. Carrying 25 kilos on your back because you are an over-packer and keep buying bottles of cheap liquor as “souvenirs,” for instance, tests the physical limits of what your body is able to do.
More than that for me, though, has been learning from other women you encounter on your travels.
Before my time in Morocco, I ventured through Europe, where I experienced an even more severe attitude to maintaining superficial standards than I was used to. In my home country of New Zealand, wearing no shoes, no makeup and pajamas to the supermarket is not entirely unacceptable. In comparison, wearing nothing short of heels in Prague and Rome seemed almost like I was committing a crime against the female gender. Women would be preening on the train, perfecting their already perfect foundation while I would have sweat dripping under my arms and a face that read “poorly functioning.”
Being among young, married mothers, wearing couture while they pushed their prams, I was almost alien with my worn sneakers and messy topknot.
Meeting with other travelers also made me somewhat self-conscious, with girls from Russia being particularly image-focused, discussing how their women were the most beautiful in the world. This proclamation was not at all a judgment against me, however, and in fact I found these girls to be some of the friendliest and headstrong companions I had during my time away. After meeting them, I reassessed how I myself can make calls about others based on their obsession with superficiality. It also made me feel incredibly thankful for having grown up learning to appreciate my personal traits that went beyond my exterior.
High standards about what women should look like were surprisingly felt the most during my time in other parts of Europe, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, and most especially even further East in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. The latter two countries are only just experiencing a surge in tourism, and with that there remains an apprehension towards foreignness, especially the solo female variety.
The cultures of these countries are some of the most hospitable, with food and wine always ready to be shared, and yet in a bizarre paradox I faced the greatest scrutiny about my looks from the women there. Being among young, married mothers, wearing couture while they pushed their prams, I was almost alien with my worn sneakers and messy topknot. I witnessed many scowls and giggling between friends.
A man once asked if he could cut out my eyeballs, completely out of admiration and not from psychopathic.
Anytime I have felt down about myself during my trips away has been quickly counteracted by my memories from Morocco. Living there gave me a dose of reality that I can always depend on when I am catcalled or scowled at on the street overseas or back home. While there are of course many pressures for women in Morocco, the need to be stick-thin and blemish-free is not the top priority. Rather than giving me a questioning glance when I asked for second helpings, the several women I stayed with insisted I have five or six. For once, it helped that I was an oddity, with the very difference in my eye and hair color making me interesting.
A man once asked if he could cut out my eyeballs, completely out of admiration and not from psychopathic. The girls I taught English to at a local school were always inspecting my face and saying how beautiful I was. It made me worry about their self-esteem, as a greater influence from Europe is shaping how these girls are starting to view their bodies.
But my fear is lessened when I think of the influence their mothers and grandmothers will have on them. For these women, their bodies are precious vessels, allowing them to prepare food for their family, give birth to their beloved children and allow them to eat as much damn lemon chicken as they like. Their girth is a sign of their happiness and prosperity.
Traveling into rural areas gave a whole other dimension to my understanding of the female form. Women there have most likely never seen a magazine, let alone a mirror. Their bodies are strong, even into old age. I saw a woman who must have been ninety carrying a pile of reeds the size of her up a hilly roadside, all the while having a cheeky smirk on her face. Comparing her expression to those I saw begging on the streets back in the major urban centers, exposing frail arms and legs, made me appreciate that my body is a worthy thing. It is healthy and strong and well provided for. For that reason alone I should never, ever criticize my body, or, for that matter, anyone else’s.
So yes, Fatima, I will take that pastry, and I will have another tea.
I didn’t end up leaving Morocco quite as big as you, but give me time. I’ll be back again one day.