“You’ve gained a lot of weight!” Those are usually the first words out of Bilal’s relatives’ mouths. A native of Morocco, Bilal (pseudonym) knows that when he visits his homeland, his siblings, cousins, and other family members will mention his body size, usually within seconds of seeing him. Some will call him “chubby” while jovially patting his stomach. Others will offer unsolicited advice about how to lose the extra pounds. Neveen, who lives in the U.S. but is originally from Egypt, has a similar experience. “My cousins and aunts back home always made me feel embarrassed,” she says. “They’re all thin. They say things like, ‘You’d be so attractive if you lost weight.’”
Bilal and Neveen are not alone. In many cultures it is considered acceptable to openly discuss people’s weight gain or loss. All around the world, Muslims (and non-Muslims) offer unsought advice on how to get slimmer (or perhaps curvier, depending on the speaker’s preferences). The critiques on body size are often delivered publicly, with no attempt to phrase them diplomatically or quietly. Is this kind of frank, open discussion of others’ body size positive or negative?
When it comes to speaking freely about other people’s weight, there are two mindsets: those who think discussing it openly is a good thing, and those who wish others would zip their lips. Isra Hashmy, a board-certified nurse practitioner who grew up in the U.S., is in “camp pro-discussion.” She says, “American culture is far more obsessed [than Muslim-majority countries], in a negative way, with weight. It’s a billion-dollar industry to lose weight, be stick-thin, and fat-shame. Openly talking about weight normalizes it.”
Emily Sutcliffe, an American whose husband is from Egypt, tends to agree. “In Egypt, people comment openly about weight because it’s not a taboo subject and people’s self worth isn’t nearly as tied to their weight as it is here [in the U.S.]. I don’t think Middle Eastern cultures are necessarily weight-obsessed compared to Western cultures. I think they’re just more open and direct about weight. If a society doesn’t teach us to be ashamed of our weight, height, skin color, etc. then someone commenting on this matter wouldn’t be too controversial.” Perhaps there is a strong case for addressing weight head-on. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.” The most recent data available from WHO reveals that 9 of the 20 most obese countries on earth are Muslim-majority nations. Maybe we all need to face the stark reality that obesity is an increasing problem that can have serious health ramifications. Perhaps instead of tiptoeing around the topic of weight, we should talk about it openly and remind each other of the importance of moderation and personal accountability.
However, there are valid arguments against commenting on or discussing another person’s weight, especially in front of others. Many people find comments about body size to be offensive and inappropriate. Stephanie Siam, an American who has traveled extensively in the Middle East and currently lives in the United Arab Emirates says, “A fixation of weight has been common in every Arab culture I’ve been around. I think it’s meant to demean the person being addressed. [Arabs] tend to look toward the fake, plasticized, Hollywood-presentable women as ideals of womanhood, despite the women in their culture being much more ‘soft around the edges.’” She adds, “My daughter’s father is from Palestine, and it is very common in their culture to make negative comments toward women and children related to weight. The most infuriating part is that they poke fun out of one side of their mouth and then buy junk food and sweets.” Neveen agrees. “In my experience, it’s very common in Egypt to say, ‘You’ve gained a lot of weight, you really need to lose.” She adds, “I’ve found it offensive.”
When are comments helpful, and when are they harmful? Many people think that pointing out a person’s weight gain will inspire them to make better decisions. Some believe that poking fun at someone’s body size is harmless and perhaps even helpful if it makes the person feel a little ashamed and therefore eager to make changes. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true. According to an article on the website healthline, “Fat shaming involves criticizing and harassing overweight people about their weight or eating habits to make them feel ashamed of themselves.” The article goes on to explain, “However, scientific evidence confirms that nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of motivating people, fat shaming makes them feel terrible about themselves, causing them to eat more and gain more weight.”
But what if your intention is not to shame them, but to advise them? What if your culture doesn’t consider weight to be a taboo subject? What if you don’t like being told what you can and can’t discuss with family and friends?
As always, we should not look to our own feelings about the issue, or our culture’s tendencies. We should look to the Qur’an and Sunnah to see what the appropriate response is. In Islam there is proper etiquette for giving advice. Some of the many considerations we should take into account are the following: we should make sure that we are being sincere and trying to please Allah SWT; we should want the best for our brother or sister; we should examine our true motivations for giving advice; we must never put the other person down or shame him or her; we should base our advice on principles of fairness and decency and what is appropriate to the situation; we should give advice in private, especially if it is a personal or sensitive matter; and, very importantly, we should practice what we preach.
If we are ever tempted to tease someone about their weight, we would be wise to remember these verses of the Qur’an:
“O you who believe, let not a people ridicule [other] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers” (49:11).