DR. ZEHRA HUSAIN - Putting an end to body shaming

  • 13 Jul - 19 Jul, 2019
  • Eman Saleem
  • Interview

Its time women should cease to live up to society’s conjured-up benchmarks of ‘what’s perfect?’ Without feeling caged to slender legs, flat abs, classic button nose, popping collar bones, Barbie-sized eyes the colour of the ocean, a full chest and that’s just getting the list started. Itni pyaari ho, bus thora weight kum karlo. Regardless of what people may think, this is not a compliment, it is a fact tinged with toxicity that we all could do without.

Confronting these body standards is Dr. Zehra Husain, Pakistan’s first body activist striving to end body shaming. Encouraging women to accept themselves as they are, she established a clothing line of her own, titled XERA, to end the stigmatised fashion choices of plus-sized women.

Fat-shaming is literally an opening comment for some conversations you come across with people. The comment “moti hogai ho” has been so normalised, it has become culturally and socially acceptable. How do you like to deal with comments like this? Or advise women to deal with it?

I have fortunately stopped receiving unsolicited comments from the start of my activism. What I tell women is to always speak up whenever they hear unwanted comments. If it is a younger family member being addressed to in a derogatory manner, then the elders should take a stand. I fail to understand why every single person cannot look beyond someone's weight. I always tell women that they are not the number on the scale but worthy of love and respect regardless of what they weigh.

How do you influence women to love their bodies but still practice healthy habits from a health point of view?

I refrain from giving unsolicited health advice on the Facebook community I created. There, the members only share the issues they face related to being 'plus-sized' and their body shaming stories. Most of my community members work out one way or the other. I focus more on mental health directly or indirectly by sharing motivational pictures and videos, reaching out to people on a personal level to listen to them, and organising in-person meet ups which have therapeutic influence.

“Plus-size model”, personally I find this term problematic because it disintegrates an entire community into a smaller community. We aren’t women, we are classified as per our sizes. What would you say about this?

I have mixed views on this. At one instance, the society has a very derogatory attitude towards plus-size women and it does not welcome them in any industry. So, we created our own space full of acceptance. On the other hand, I am trying to make an inclusive space for the neglected lot and we need a term that we can relate to.

The conventional model is a size 0-2 straight sized model in other parts of the world, which is now changing for the better as some countries have put a restriction on anorexic models. Plus-sized models face criticism too as they are considered unhealthy but I firmly believe inclusion is the only way of making other people feel better about themselves which will lead to having better approach to having a healthy and dignified life.

As per your experience, what is the earliest age when girls start to feel conscious about their body and start to develop unhealthy feelings towards their bodies?

As young as grade 3. Parents need to be kind to their children and not be obsessed with their bodies, instead focus on their personality development.

In a perfect world, what would your definition of beauty be?

If only someone's good character could be the definition of beauty, the world would be a much better place with lesser anxiety.

In your opinion, what role should the media play towards body positivity and unrealistic standards of beauty?

For starters, stop the constant mockery of a plump person in dramas and films. Cast a chubby woman as the protagonist. We want diversity and inclusion in the media of all shapes, sizes and colours and we want to be treated with respect.

Why do you think size is such an obsession?

Diet culture, media, fashion and health industry, all these entities have contributed to this size obsession. Thigh gaps, size zero, beauty bones and what not. You cannot expect the world to be ONE size. That is just unreal.

Walk me through some difficulties you faced when you launched XERA, your plus-sized clothing line, considering it was almost an unidentified realm in the Pakistani fashion market?

Back in 2015, when I launched XERA, I was skeptic of how people would respond. I made some low-key clothes and sent them abroad. In 2017, I was acknowledged by different online magazines, thanks to my Facebook community and then with a couple of members of my group we did Pakistan’s very first body positivity photoshoot.

How does your body activism reflect in your designing?

The clothes I design are not the typical stuff you would assume curvier women to wear. All our lives, we are told to hide under baggy, ill-fitted dresses and cover ourselves with black or dark colours. We have whites, bling-bling dresses because it's our time to shine! We have flamboyant outfits and corporate wear – a plus-size girl’s dream to have accessibility to good clothing, be it Eastern or Western.

Tell me about the response XERA has received.

I have received a very warm response. When clients come to my studio, they don't just shop but have a heart-to-heart conversation with me, thanking me and sharing their body shaming stories and difficulties they face in life for being a size large.

Give us a little sneak peek into your future plans.

Major overhauling of the fashion and fitness industry. To make Pakistan a more inclusive place for all body types. •