What’s the hijab REALLY got to do with it? Another look at culture and body image

woman wearing head scarf

In reference to a very interesting NPR article called “Covering Up With The Hijab May Aid Women’s Body Image” by Michaeleen Doucleff September 15, 2014

“…across all parameters, the women who wore the hijab, at least some of the time, had more positive views of their bodies on average. They had less desire to be thin. They appreciated their bodies more. And they weren’t as influenced by media messages about beauty standards.”

Any research, no matter how diligently and expertly conducted, is only as valuable as the interpretations we make from our data. Statistical findings give us a sense of where reality lies, but it is only useful insofar as we interpret it correctly. I am certainly not suggesting that the author is wrong in the conclusions drawn here, but I would like to propose a contrasting analysis.

The findings here are viewed through the top-down lens of body image, the conclusion being that covering up the body takes the body image pressure off. If people don’t see your body, and if you don’t preoccupy yourself with being seen, you are less likely to have poor body image.

Let’s go deeper though, and look at the surrounding landscape of this phenomenon. In order to understand the role of the hijab, we have to look at the broader context of women who choose to wear this attire. Let’s assume that they wear the hijab as part of a lifestyle, one that endorses perhaps traditional roles for women, religious conviction and cultural norms that are more limited for women than they are for men. In other words, they come from a world where women are not expected or encouraged to adopt multiple role obligations. Women have their place in the home, these roles are clearly defined, their role in the community is limited and clearly defined, everyone around them knows and accepts this. So a woman from this kind of background, living this kind of lifestyle will be less likely to pursue lofty role obligations in multiple areas of her life. This is in contrast to a woman who does not wear a hijab, who is more likely to come from a culture or subculture where women are expected and encouraged to pursue the highest achievements, multiple role obligations, etc. So the real difference between the women wearing a hijab and women who don’t could be very profound, involving many aspects of family, culture, internalized self-expectations, etc. In other words, the hijab garment itself might be the least important variance between these two study groups.

Maybe the real question this article is answering is, ‘How do varying role obligations and societal expectations affect body image?

My theory is, the more a woman pours into doing and being everything for everybody, the more likely she is to of course be successful, earn money, change the world, etc., but she is also more likely to be bothered by feelings of failure and exhaustion. In every day, we must balance the energy, time and resources we allocate to self-care v. other-care v. accomplishments. The more roles a woman stacks onto her life, the more difficult it becomes to balance these demands on her energy. She is so busy giving to these obligations and accomplishments, that there isn’t anything left for her. Eating disorders are diseases of exhaustion, and what better way to exhaust yourself than to feel that you must conquer the world in every way humanly possible.

The reason women who take on multiple role obligations are more likely to have distorted body image has to do with the insula, which controls proprioceptive awareness and error detection. The more a woman spreads herself too thin, the more she is likely to feel that she has not done enough, should have done more, let someone down, failed, committed an error, etc. This lights up the insula’s error detection and disturbs the way she experiences her body. She literally starts to feel like she is bigger than she really is, and the more she feels she is failing, the bigger and more distorted she feels.

So back to the original research, my interpretation of these findings is that women who wear a hijab have less opportunity to feel they are insufficient in the pursuit of their role obligations. This makes them less likely to be exhausted in themselves and less likely to be having an insular hyperfiring, which is why they have better body image.

Women in modern, Westernized culture need to protect themselves from overextending into multiple (and often opposing) role obligations. It is not for anyone else to say what your roles should be or how you should define them, but we are bombarded by media messages whose sole aim is to make us feel that we should be doing more, more, more. Sometimes, less is more. Be mindful of when your self-expectations become a liability to your wellbeing and enjoyment of life.

Reference: http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/09/15/347083281/covering-up-with-the-hijab-may-aid-womens-body-image