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In the USA, there is a growing interest in the investigation of the body image of women. However, irrespective of increasing scholarly focus on the body image of women, minimal efforts have been made to analyze Muslim women`s perceptions of the body image (Hughes, 65). This largely attributable to the fact that perception of the body image in the mainstream society has been viewed as norm, and most researches compared the perception of Muslim women to that of white women. According to numerous researches Muslim women have higher prevalence of overweight as compared to white women and they experience little or no body dissatisfaction. The study reveals that Muslim women who suffer from obesity are tolerant to different body sizes and perceive themselves as being attractive (Hughes, 63). Previous study indicates that heavier body ideals and cultural tolerance serves as a protective element in the occurrence of specific eating disorders such as Bulimia and anorexia nervosa. However, other studies have discussed the body image of Muslim women as a social asset, especially in the context of an increasing concern over rising obesity cases (Swami, Noorani and Taylor 43). It has been stated that big body image in the Muslim community may place those women at a higher risk of becoming obese. For instance, such women are at three times greater risk of becoming overweight or obese. Such weight delusions among Muslim women indicate their resistance to standard weight recommendations and guidelines (Hughes, 112). However, despite the fact that body image among women has been researched many times, little research has been done on examining the body image perception among Muslim women.
Background of the Study
Though the body image of women is explicitly multi-dimensional, it has been mainly described as a mental perception (Swami, Noorani and Taylor 45). Although many scholars state that body image encompasses several personal and physical characteristics, especially in the western societies, body image has been linked with individuals` perceptions of the body weight. Besides, it is established that shape and image of a person`s body is defined by what we eat, drink, how we dress, and our normal daily activities (Hughes, 88). Thus, body exemplifies cultural values and beliefs regarding identity, gender roles, and cultural acceptability that act as a means of societal control. Since the public health discourse regarding overweight is largely framed in connection to the occurrence of illness, cultural meaning of the body is often ignored (Swami, Noorani and Taylor 48). Though a proper investigation is still limited, body in the Muslim community acts not only a symbol of wellbeing, but also a communally described self that symbolizes diverse cultural and social significance. It reflects the own cultural beliefs and values and its historical perception in the mainstream Muslim culture. Although due to immigration the number of Muslims in the US continues to increase, the issue of body and its social meaning among Muslim women has attracted limited research. Much effort has been focused on the issue of gender and race though there is growing empirical data supporting the influence of body weight and image on Muslim women`s perception of body (Swami, Noorani and Taylor 56).
There is a significant relationship between Muslim women`s body image and social-cultural expectations.
Purpose of the Research
The main aim of this study is to gain deeper understanding of how Muslim women conceptualize body image and how cultural interaction and norms support and refute such conceptualization. Special consideration will be given to examination of the cultural identity, specifically racial and religious identities, and how they intersect to shape Muslim women’s images of their bodies.
This study used both primary and secondary sources and was guided by a grounded theory approach. The approach facilitated the identification of the meaning, social relationships and processes as the data was collected for the purpose of generalization. Since it originates directly from the data analysis, the resulting model is usually empirically grounded in the experiences, contents, and the perception of the subjects used in the study (Fowler 16). In this investigation, grounded theory was utilized as a guide since the ultimate goal was to institute a conceptual framework that highlights the cultural and social context that defines Muslim people`s choice of food and perceptions of health.
The study used a sample size of 22 Muslim women living in Upstate New York, within a population of approximately 240,000, of which 22 were recruited to participate in the study. The participants were eligible for investigation if they were 21 years old and above, and acknowledged being Sunni Muslims. In sampling, a maximum variation sampling was utilized to identify the subjects of the study with diverse history, ages, experiences and educational backgrounds (Fowler 23). Furthermore, a theoretical sampling technique was used to make the subjects approve or disapprove the hypothesis of the study. Various methods were used to inform the participants of the investigation. In some mosques, religious leaders supported the investigation and allowed the investigator to attend the services and notify the followers about the study.
The information was collected using both structured and non-structured interviews with the participants. However, the follow-up interview session was executed with all the participants of the study except three due to scheduling technicalities. A 45-minute interview was conducted either at the participant`s residence, place of worship or in a restaurant. In order to facilitate the interview process, a guide was established using the data obtained from the background information explored in the literature. However, for ethical purpose the guide was extensively revised together with a Muslim cleric and appropriately reviewed in respect of social and cultural practices (Fowler 26). The final guide largely focused on the body image, social responsibilities, involvement in the religious function and cultural identity among others. The semi-structured interview offers the participants the required flexibility to address the questions in an elaborative manner (Fowler 35). Durin the interview session, all the responses were audiotaped and field notes were well consolidated. Other data such as demographic information was collected using short close-ended questionnaires.
In order to analyze the recorded interviews, the audio data was transcribed; the data was arranged in the form of text files and examined using SPSS program. In line with the grounded approach, a frequentative process of information collection, analysis, and development of a model was implemented to ensure that redundancy in data was reached (Fowler 69). In order to thoroughly understand the information in the transcripts, it was read several times to ensure that all the details were captured. Assessment of the dependability of the data was conducted and included such aspects as member checks, extended engagement and constancy audits.
Though the participants of the study ranged in age from ages of 24 to 60 years, and 75 percent of the interviewed participants were under 40 years old. 56 percent of the participants were married at the time of the interview. Six women were divorced while the rest of the participants have never been married. However, 62 percent of the participants had children aged 16 and below. Eight women were single parents. In respect to education, all the participants have completed high school education while 56 percent were college graduates. 5 percent were employed, though half of the employed participants held a position associated with Islamic religion. The analysis of the data collected divulges a number of subjects relating to the participants` perceptions of the body image. Such a perception was largely discussed in regard to religious, racial, social roles and self-identities aligned with the wider cultural norms.
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The participants` perception of the ideal body size was significantly influenced by the positive perception of their previous body shape. However, the participants noted that an increase in family roles, giving birth and aging make the women add extra weight. However, most of the women interviewed expressed interest in having their previous body shapes, which they had before marriage and giving birth. In an attempt to revert to their previous body shapes, the interviewees indicated to be striving to lose or maintain their body weight in order to achieve contextually defined ideal body shape. In relation to the body image perception, most participants divulged concerns regarding their body weight. Nevertheless, when compared to white women, the participants were more likely to accept their body size. Such a perception is evident since in the mass media white women are portrayed as being more weight conscious than women of any other race and they put more emphasis on thinness. In respect to the domestic norms associated with body size and image, numerous interviewees indicated that women often judge their body sizes in relation to the size of other members of the family. For instance, if one of your parents is big, then such size becomes acceptable in the family.
Perception of the body shape and image of the opposite sex was very critical to the study. Although the participants believed that the large size was acceptable among the members of the opposite sex or partners, the participant reported being pressured by their partners and male relatives to maintain a certain body weight. Besides, the issues of body size were salient among the single women since they perceived it as a barrier to marriage. On the contrary, married participants indicated that their husbands were less concerned with the size or shape of their body. The participants of the study indicated that their perception of their body size and shape was largely related to their ability to meet their societal roles and responsibilities. Maintaining a healthy weight was perceived essential in modeling their children`s behavior. Religious principles played a noteworthy role among the participants in relation to their body image. Most of them noted that maintaining a healthy weight was acceptable in Islam, especially since it’s closely related to the dress code and overall appearance.
Though much consideration was given to body size and shape, religious connotations were evident since most participants indicated that women`s body needs to be a manifestation of the moral and religious values. However, a healthy weight was considered essential since women`s dress code was perceived having potential to make women neglect other aspects of their body. A significant number of the participants indicated that the primary focus should be on the spiritual rather than physical appearance. Overweight among the participants was largely attributable to the fact that their physical body is usually less visible, an aspect that acts as a barrier to paying close attention to their body image. 58 percent of the participants believed that the relationship between health and their body size was significantly impacted by Islam. Some participants noted that Allah requires individuals to take good care of their body. Besides, other claimed that Islam emphasized the concept of moderation in eating in order to make room for prayers.
The outcome of the interview revealed very pertinent issues relating to multiple identities that significantly influence women`s perceptions of the body image. In respect to previous investigations, it was apparent that Muslim women were less preoccupied with their body weight and accepted a wide range of body sizes and focused more on the overall body appearance (Ostman and Susan 45). A number of previous investigations have revealed that Black Muslim women were more tolerant to big body sizes than their white counterparts. In this study, the family and social context appeared to significantly influence the perception of the body shape and image among the Muslims. Besides, the young people`s perception of the body shape was more likely to be shaped by the immediate members of their family (Ostman and Susan 65). In contrast, white adolescents` perception of body shape is largely influenced by their peers and both print and electronic media. In respect to body weight, Muslim women rarely compare themselves with media images. A significant number of Muslim women are usually overweight, but they tend to accept their body especially if one or more members of their family are overweight (Ostman and Susan 78). Noonetheless, the participants of the investigation indicated that they were dissatisfied with being overweight, particularly if one or more members of their family are thin. Such women were also more likely to develop their own ideas of ideal body shape and size instead of using the biomedical standards. 28 percent of the participants expressed their desire to return to their earlier body shape rather than striving to fit their personal definitions of the ideal body size (Tolaymat and Moradi 44).
The study further reveals that religion plays a crucial role in influencing the opinion of Muslim women about their body size, shape and the overall appearance. The outcomes of the investigation suggest that religious individuals are more likely to tolerate overweight women because of their religious teachings, beliefs and other attributes such as spirituality (Tolaymat and Moradi 54). The study supports previous investigations according to which religious individuals place more focus on religious teachings and behaviors rather than their body weight. As a result, Muslim women experience less pressure in an attempt to comply with cultural norms associated with body weight and appearance. In Islam, body covering appears to be more significant that body weight because it expresses and defines their Islamic distinctiveness. Muslims represent minority in the USA not only in the religious but also in social context. Therefore, negative attitude makes women’s beliefs and perceptions of body covering fortified (Ostman and Susan 112).
The image of a Muslim woman who wears hijab is normally a direct objection to the historical connotation such as sex stereotypes linked to women`s body shape and image. Therefore, sexuality among Muslim women is less related to the perception of body image as compared to their white counterparts (Ostman and Susan 105). Thus, their body image and shape is less defined by the social construction of sexuality and beauty within the American social system. Nevertheless, other studies indicate that negotiating images that overemphasize and stereotype Muslim women`s mannerism and behavior may essentially become overall more noticeable aspect of body image than body weight (Tolaymat and Moradi 69). The study noted that women who covered themselves were treated with more respect and were viewed in a less sexual way. The study has also shown the existence of a link between modesty in Islamic dress code and their view on body image. Wearing of Hijab was linked to fewer reports of sexual objectification. This is consistent with the findings that Muslim women wear hijab in order to mitigate their body images and overall sexual objectification largely associated with the body image of women in the USA. However, hijab has not been connected with body image perception (Ostman and Susan 88). However, wearing of the hijab may be linked with how other behave toward women and the overall body image perceptions.
Though much focus has been placed on covering, the principle in Islam regarding caring for the body was significantly cited as a motivator for the participants to manage their body weight (Chase 12). However, most of the respondents found it difficult to manage their weight effectively. Women within the lower socio-economic strata were unable to monitor their body weight effectively because of inadequacy of resources and competing priorities (Altglas 56). Nonetheless, these findings support the presumption that religious values and beliefs motivate women to engage in healthy behaviors. Furthermore, it is established that self-worth and positive body image of Muslim women are achieved from a close relationship with God, thus motivating women to meet their objectives of losing weight. Self-worth and efficacy have been noted as a potential instrument explaining the connection between health and religion (Chase 23). According to the study Muslim women focus more on the significance of faith in managing their health concerns.
Previous investigation appears to support the influence of romantic relations and marriage on the overall Muslim women`s body perceptions. Some participants in the current study expressed concern that though they were more accepting of their body size, men in their family and social platforms mostly preferred thin women (Altglas 66). This may be attributable to Islamic teaching that emphasizes women`s need to take care of their body. Therefore, Muslim men tend to associate obesity among women as inability to adhere to the religious teachings. Although in marriage Muslim men rarely focus on women`s dressing and physical characteristics, body size and weight may be additional criteria for men to evaluate woman’s beauty and attractiveness due to perceptibility (Chase 34). This supports previous research that indicated that spouses of married women were less concerned with their wives` weight. However, the ability to meet social roles was perceived as a critical factor in defining body image perceptions. Family roles such as child bearing were much emphasized in addition to participation in mosque services and domestic work (Altglas 76). Women`s ability to meet such responsibilities was significant in this sample since several participants had limited access to resources or were single parents.
In conclusion, it is evident that the study has revealed a relationship between Muslim women`s body image, social and family expectation, context and spiritual beliefs. The outcome of this study indicates that ways in which Muslim women view themselves are intricate and deeply rooted in historical, social and religious values upheld by the participants of the study (Ostmanand Susan 117). Muslim women`s body consists not only of weight and general appearance, but also other social responsibilities, religious obligations and health. Besides, tolerant attitudes among the Muslims, as well as less social pressure regarding weight are attributed to differences observed in body image perceptions. However, in order to understand the connection between weight management and body image, it is important to understand the way in which Muslim women conceptualize their body image and the factors that influence it (Altglas 65). Through the use of information provided by 22 women who participated in the study, the study has revealed linkage close relation between social-cultural factors and expectations of Muslim women in regard to body image.
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