GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Beyond underweight and overweight: How do processes of globalization and development affect young women’s identity and body projects in the United Arab Emirates?
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Paper Abstract
The United Arab Emirates, along with other “high-income” countries of the Arab Gulf, has been experiencing rapid and extensive socioeconomic development over the last fifty years. With development and globalization have come dramatic epidemiological, sociocultural, and environmental changes that are profoundly affecting the people of the UAE. One such change that has garnered a great deal of attention, both in the healthcare sector and also from the in-country popular media, is the explosion in overweight and obesity that has occurred in recent decades among local Emiratis, along with rapid increases in associated chronic diseases. Increased sedentary living and reliance on fast foods, as well as the greater availability of high-fat foods in general, are usually blamed for these increases, and in this respect, the development trajectories of the UAE (and other countries in the Arab Gulf) correspond with classic “Health Transition” and “Nutrition Transition” theories, which attempt to describe global trends of increasing rates of overweight/obesity and associated chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the wake of urbanization, globalization, and market development (Popkin 2011, 2009; WHO-EMRO 2011, 2010, 2007). At the same time, however, these globalizing forces are uneven and, despite broad similarities, do have context-dependent particularities and nuances. The UAE serves as a case study of both these broad trends and localized specificities.

Within the UAE, this research focuses on young Emirati women, examining the women’s identity projects and in particular their health and beauty projects, during a time and in an environment of massive change and uncertainty. This research examines the impact of development and globalization on a new generation of women exposed to transnational flows of information, products, representations of beauty, ways of inhabiting social spaces, and patterns of consumption; new and changing (and often mutually exclusive) educational, employment, and marital opportunities, etc. It examines how these in turn affect identity and body projects and health, and how these projects are negotiated in the shifting social context(s).

The specific goals of this study was study were to evaluate weight, nutritional status, and attitudes towards weight, health, and the body among a cohort of young women, aged 18-30, drawn from local Emirati populations in the UAE. Health and body, as well as attitudes towards health and body, also served as a lens to evaluate women’s understandings of larger processes occurring in the country and region, their surrounding environment, and issues involving the construction of Emirati nationalism, ideas of local “tradition”, and everyday expectations and stresses. Research for this study was conducted from 2009 to 2011. 103 female Emirati students, drawn from Zayed University in Dubai and UAE University in Al Ain, participated in the study. Methods included the collection of weight and height measurements (to analyze Body Mass Indices) and body fat percentages; 24-Hour Food and Activity Recalls; Semi-Structured, Structured, and Unstructured Interviews; and Participant Observation. The in-depth ethnographic methods and in particular the Unstructured Interviews and Participant Observation were particularly valuable in providing insights, given the relative dearth of previous anthropological research in the area (see Bristol-Rhys 2010, 2007, 2007 for an exception).

In contrast to studies that have found high rates of obesity and overweight in other age cohorts within the Emirati population, the distribution of BMIs in this sample was skewed towards Underweight and Normal Weight in the ZU sample and split evenly between Underweight-to-Normal and Overweight-to-Obese in the UAEU sample. Similarly, this lower distribution of BMIs was correlated with widely expressed concern among the young women over body size and being “too fat”, as well as a high degree of awareness concerning the risks of being obese/overweight and a great deal of casual exposure, not only to public health messages about the UAE’s “obesity problem”, but also to international media messages promoting certain (mainly Western) beauty ideals (where thin was commonly equated with beautiful). Thus, while Nutrition Transition and Health Transition theory often focuses on increasing rates of sedentary living in conjunction with increasing consumption of processed foods, foods high in saturated fat, etc. and the consequent increases in rates of overweight, obesity, and associated chronic diseases; development, globalization, and urbanization can have other effects, as this study illustrates. Exposure to international media and beauty standards, for instance, as well as to diet products and weight-loss strategies, are having a profound effect on the young women in this study.

At the same time, reported interest in and knowledge about nutrition was low among the young women, and dietary patterns reflected frequent attempts among many young women to manage or lose weight. There was a marked trend towards nutritionally poor diets and sedentary living among both populations. Also troubling was the stress that many women reported with respect to weight-related issues: in a time when young people in the UAE are attempting to integrate constantly shifting local and global streams of information, expectations, and opportunities, “being stressed” was a refrain that surfaced constantly in interviews and one of the ways in which it was commonly expressed was concern over weight and body.

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