A video dialogue program for young women in the USA and Muslim countries
December 10th, 2006 at 9:56 pm
Posted by Zia in Sessions

Our fifth session addressed clothing, fashion and body image. Here in New York, everyone was extremely impressed by depth and insight of the questions coming from the participants in Gabes. From questions about inner vs. outer beauty to the objectification of women, our counterparts brought up a number of thought-provoking issues.  

Regional fashion. The US participants said fashion was regional in the US: a participant from Philadelphia explained that the clothing people wore there was very different than in New York, even though it was just a couple of hours to the south. Other participants in the US group said it was true there was more pressure to look good and dress fashionably in New York than in most other cities. The participants in Gabes indicated it was the opposite there. When they’d go to Tunis, for example, there was certain anonymity factor: fashion and attire were less important since no one knew them there. In Gabes, by contrast, the participants know a number of people around the city, so they are always expected to look pulled-together.   

Influences on fashion and body image. In Gabes, the participants said their ideas of fashion had been largely influenced by the West. For example, Tunisian women like to wear the same type of clothing worn in France. However, the participants in Gabes indicated their religious background dictated that they dress modestly, and to wear revealing clothing was considered highly inappropriate. The Tunisian participants also mentioned that some trends were unlikely to catch on there: for example, tattoos are forbidden in Islam, as is body piercing other than the ears, so such things are rarely done in Tunisia. In the US, there was considerable discussion of the fact that fashion was presented by tall, thin models who did not represent the vast majority of American women – one participant cited the example of Katie Couric’s promotional photo being digitally altered to make her appear 20 pounds thinner. This led to a discussion of the unattainable beauty used in advertising, and how it often leads women to negative self-images. 

Appearance and identity. Both the US and Tunisia participants indicated that women were used extensively to sell products. In Tunisia, they said women’s images were used to sell everything from chocolate bars to dog food. One participant from Gabes who had worked as a model in the capital said she finally left the industry after feeling objectified by the experience. We discussed how much value our societies place on being beautiful – in both countries, there was consensus that being an attractive woman helped in securing a good job, for example. Overall, participants in Gabes and New York felt that we’d all be better off if people were not judged on their appearances, but this was unlikely given how much importance both societies gave to physical beauty. Still, both groups said confidence and projecting an air of happiness was more important – and would win you more friends – than simply being attractive on the “outside”.  

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