Darya, a 35-year-old PhD student in Florida who was born in Iran, shares a painful memory with me. At a New Year’s party, after she hadn’t seen her cousin in Tehran for three years and after an accident that had her gaining weight, “instead of saying hi and how are you doing,” Darya explains, “she tells me, ‘Darya you’re exploding!,’ or let me say it in Farsi, ‘Darya, Natereki!’” Darya responded by justifying her body: “I said, ‘yeah, I’m gaining weight but I will be okay soon.’” After the party, Darya was very upset that she didn’t defend herself; she didn’t want to upset her mother. As she told her mother, “I didn’t answer her [cousin] and next time, I’m going to throw her out of my home and I’m not going to think about you anymore.” Darya mentions that her mother had the same fatphobic mentality and was happy to see her cousin make that comment because she was thinking the same thing. Darya says, “I got very angry and upset, I remember. I even cried because of my anger.”
Darya’s experience is merely one among many that participants of my study on sizeism in the Iranian diaspora shared with me. Sizeism is often experienced from multiple sources, with American cultural expectations being amplified by Iranian culture and family members. Americans tend to exert their body shaming comments in subtle ways while Iranians are exceedingly direct like Darya’s cousin. This intersection of body shaming in both cultures creates traumatizing effects among Iranian Americans.
To understand why sizeism is present among Iranian people, a historical perspective of Iran’s exposure to European culture, especially beauty and health norms, is important. Iran came in close contact with the Europeans between 1789-1925 in the Qajar dynasty period, but Iranian and European ties expanded during 1925-1979 in the Pahlavi dynasty when King Reza Shah Pahlavi imposed Iranian women to unveil. This unveiling helped enforce Western beauty ideals of being tall and thin, having tanned yet lighter skin, big breasts, long hair, high cheekbones, a small nose, and large eyes. King Reza Shah’s dedication to Western hegemony strengthened these beauty ideals. His son, King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was put in power by the United States and United Kingdom and further idealized Western beauty characteristics among the broader Middle East region. After the 1979 overthrow of the Iranian monarchy and mandate of Islamic hijab for women, Western beauty standards have still prevailed among Iranians. Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious dictator of Iran who was put in power by the U.S. and U.K. made sure that Iranian women were second-class citizens, forced them to wear the hijab, outlawed the practice of Western culture, and carried out barbaric punishments if behaviors of women were against traditional Islamic law. For 43 years, Iranian women resisted, and were tortured, raped, and killed by the Islamic regime for standing for equality. It wasn’t until the murder of Mahsa Zhina Amini in 2022 by the Morality Police (which enforces the Islamic dress codes and punishes women who don’t abide) that brave Iranian women took to the streets demanding a feminist revolution. Although innumerable numbers of young women have experienced state violence, their voice is loud and clear. They don’t want to be told how to look and behave. As many Iranian men today join Iranian women in the streets chanting, “woman, life, freedom,” it is clear that this authoritarian government is not representative of most Iranians. Even though Islamic hegemony was imposed among Iranian women since 1979, the act of imposing veiling had consequences with Iranian women’s body image and their drive to Westernize again.
Body image in Iranian culture is understudied even though there has been an increase of body image dissatisfaction in Middle Eastern communities. While there is little research on Iranians and body image, recent studies indicate that 70% of Iranian women age 18 years and older are not satisfied with their bodies. Another survey of 535 Iranian university students of all genders indicated that 67% are unsatisfied with their bodies. Body dissatisfaction in Iranian adolescents ranges from 40-70%. Iran has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures in proportion to the total number of people in the population. Many Iranian women use surgeries to achieve a Western beauty ideal. An increased use of social media has exacerbated the exposure and adherence to Western beauty ideals in Iran. New findings on Iranian women have demonstrated that using Instagram and comparing their appearance with celebrities, relatives, and fitspiration images have a significant correlation with the internalization of beauty ideals, drive for thinness, and body dissatisfaction. Research by Seyed Mahdi Sharifi et al. also indicates that the drive for Iranian women to change their bodies is one of the key reasons they use Instagram. The Iranian diaspora often retains these cultural values and norms.
Iranian American diasporic experiences are unique because of the hybrid identity diasporans have. As they navigate both Western and Middle Eastern cultures of beauty ideals, the physical and psychological tolls on Iranian Americans are inordinate.
Two other female participants of my study, Samaneh and Gita, shared their difficult time video calling their family back in Iran. Samaneh talks about how facetiming her dad’s side of the family back in Iran puts her under pressure: “If I facetime them, they are like, ‘oh, you gained weight, wow, your face?!?, like you gained so much weight.’” Samaneh states that they are not even here in the United States and wonders why they make comments regarding her body. Gita also recalls talking to her family back in Iran and being insecure about her changed body size: “Everytime I finish my video calls with someone that reminds me about my weight, I tell my partner that I want to diet again.” Whether it is Darya, Samaneh, or Gita, it is clear that all of them have trouble responding to comments coming from their loved ones back in Iran.
It is important to note that family pressure is significantly higher in Iranian communities compared to American communities. Social media does not play such a big role in Iranian Americans’ negative body image, rather, family seems to be the most influential factor in determining body image dissatisfaction. This is mainly due to the respectful manner Iranians are supposed to uphold in their family relationships that makes it difficult for Iranian Americans to stand up for themselves in both sizeist cultures and against the people closest to them. Comments on the participants’ bodies coming from family members generated the most difficulty in my interviewees’ lives. They often felt that they had to justify their bodies whether that may be their size, eating, and/or exercise. Family support to create a positive space for my participants was absent or extremely limited. Some couldn’t respond when incidents occurred and the pain of unworthiness stuck with them while they were forced to accept the Iranian cultural norm of “commenting on each other’s bodies.” Many of them told me they want to react differently when they encounter traumatic body comments again, only to relive the moment of trauma to fight back. This, I assume, can have long term consequences on an individual’s mental and physical health.
Comments regarding body size and weight are ingrained in Iranian culture. My study highlights that there is a long way to go to addressing sizeism and negative body image in the Iranian diaspora. More research should be done exploring culturally sensitive treatment options for Iranian Americans struggling with negative body image to ensure they get the support they need to heal and thrive. It is also critical to address the current feminist revolution happening in Iran and its relation to the Iranian diaspora, especially Iranian women’s sense of worth in Iran and internationally. Their cultural upbringing in a prejudiced and unjust society can explain why they tend to be so hard on their bodies and themselves. The Iranian government has policed Iranian women’s existence and worth for a century which can lead to intergenerational trauma, even for those outside the country, especially about how they view their own and others’ bodies.