Saudi Arabia: Is Less Pressure Applied to Saudi Women on Appearance


The majority of Saudi women who I have met are confident and beautiful whether a size six or a size sixteen.  They do not let physical attributes interfere with their confidence and inner self.  That is not to say that Saudi women are not conscious of their outward appearance.  From when the Saudi woman becomes of an age where she is noticed as a possible wife for another woman’s son, she is aware of her appearance and puts her best face forward.  The face may be unadorned of make-up, depending on the family, but generally she will take great care with her hair and body shape.  An unrelated man will not see her but the mothers and grandmothers at weddings will take notice.  Once the Saudi woman is married she will take delight in keeping up a beautiful appearance for her new husband.  However I have noticed that after several years of marriage and several children, a Saudi woman may put on excess weight.  Unlike the western woman though, the Saudi woman will retain her sense of confidence and not feel that excess weight is a liability.


Is it the culture in which the Saudi woman is raised that makes her feel excess weight is not a taboo?  The Saudi women may not have all the pressure that a Western women would face with the stereotype that excess weight on a woman is a liability.  The culture of the Saudi woman does not provide many options of fitness facilities or the type of commercials on western media promoting thin as the primary attractive vantage point of a woman.


Even if a Saudi woman puts on excess weight, she still dresses as a diva under her opaque abaya.  Whereas a Western woman may either choose to mask her weight with shapeless clothes or as if pretending she does not care, dress carelessly without conscious thought to style.


A Western woman may also receive peer pressure that putting on excess weight could cause her husband to have a roving eye.  She might be encouraged to try diets which may make her lose weight fast but are not healthy for her body or consider extreme surgeries.  All for the sake of an outer appearance that meets “society acceptable standards.”


Whereas the Saudi women is taught from a young girl that she is beautiful both inside and out.  It is these same teachings which give a Saudi woman the additional confidence and poise that come natural to her.


39 Responses

  1. American Bedu you framed that to the advantage of the Saudi woman.

    After a few years and one or more children if the Saudi woman gains weight her husband may get a new wife. Not just deal with a roving eye. He could get two to three more wives if she is his first. Personally I think that would be enough to keep me on my toes.

    I do believe that Saudi women don’t have the pressure that western women have but to say we wear shapeless clothes and they don’t?? Really. How about the shapeless clothes like the long skirts loose tops. Not to mention that they don’t have to fix themselves up to go outside because they can comletely cover from head to toe in black.

    Until this last time we were back in kingdom I had never seen a woman in heels. This time I see young women wearing more then 3 inches. I still see older women in those ugly but comfortable black shoes.

    You are so right about the availability of exercise being difficult at best but women are doing some. I have seen small groups walking around the university or any are that is square and will alow for that kind of traffic with out being harassed by men. I have never knowingly seen a women’s gym all of them were for men. I understand they are around but are difficult to get to.

  2. ‘After a few years and one or more children if the Saudi woman gains weight her husband may get a new wife. Not just deal with a roving eye’

    I know! I thought that was funny too! LOL

  3. I believe that no matter whether or not a woman chooses (or is allowed) to wear makeup, no matter what size she is, she should still feel beautiful. One of the most beautiful things is confidence and respect and love for oneself and others (which tend to go hand in hand). I love hearing that some women, even after putting on some weight, retain their confidence and still feel beautiful. I’m about a US size 10, and I sometimes even get self-conscious about my figure because although I’m healthy, I’m not at my “ideal” athletic weight. Most guys generally only seem to care that their significant other is at a healthy weight.

    One problem that some larger women may have is finding clothes that fit properly and enhance their figure.

    I’ve known a few people who have gotten the weight loss surgery, and many of them had to have it removed later because of infection, malfunction, etc.

    Women everywhere should be taught from a young age that they are beautiful on the inside and out. Same thing with men, too.

  4. As a 24 year old Saudi woman, I will tell you this. You have no idea how much my generation is suffering with weight issues and pressures to attain a perfect look.

    It’s just like the American culture we are so affected by the body shapes and figures that we see through the media. My generation suffers from emotional eating, anorexia, and bulimia. And even though most of the gatherings are female only, as a woman I can tell you women can be very mean and judgemental towards each other.

    However, my generation is very aware of being healthy and fit, that’s why we have many diet clinics, diet shops, and gyms.
    Also, many can take extreme measures to become thin. Such as trying diet pills or diet herbal teas, and as some of my lazy friends did going to a private hospital and get a procedure that involves putting a ring around the stomach 🙂 (that applies to both females and males)

    On another note, you have no idea how the population of main cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah are obsessed with plastic surgeries and cosmetic procedures whether it’s lyposuction or a nose job.

    I find that you have described the older women of Saudi, the ones who just dress up in thoubs and abayas. They can hide all their weight with their clothes. But with the young ones that’s not happening because simply their fashion sense is different.

    PS: I would like to share with American readers here that Saudis are probably the most people on earth who love Kim Kardashian, because in many ways she looks Saudi and she is driving everybody crazy with her fake curves. Many are considering her a role model and getting specific plastic surgeries to copy her.

  5. Based on my experience here J is right. Although for the older generation maybe not so much. But even mid age women strive to look their best. Wife number 2 is a real fear.

    In Saudi MANY things are all about appearance rather than substance. Looks will be more important than charactar in many situations.

  6. a silly question if I may… does segregation and required amount of covering for women have an impact on how Saudi ladies view themselves and their bodies?
    thank you 🙂

  7. I agree with the above comments. In my years spent here in Riyadh I have witnessed many a woman being told off by either her friends or family members for gaining too much weight. They care very much about their appearance and some enjoy wearing tight fitting clothing that show their curves and cleavage; some of the older women do this too.

    I have also noticed more of an awareness towards childhood obesity. I have been in gatherings where a few mothers would express their concerns regarding their children’s eating habits and the steps they were taking to help their child make better choices.

    Lastly, there is satellite here in Saudi after all so the people here do not see anything differently than what Westerners see back home on television. The media is the same here; the woman is depicted as picture perfect at all times and if she is ever anything less she is considered a failure. And I agree with J’s comment that a lot of Saudi women (as well as many from other countries) follow American fashion and celebrities.

    So long as the media pushes the false notion that women must be perfect you will see women all over the world go to unbelievable lengths to achieve that.

  8. @Rosemary – ‘the woman is depicted as picture perfect at all times and if she is ever anything less she is considered a failure’

    Seriously? A failure? I really don’t believe that is true.

    ‘So long as the media pushes the false notion that women must be perfect…’

    I wouldn’t blame the media, if people are going to go to extremes to look like someone else then their problem is much bigger than their belly fat.

    @J – ‘I can tell you women can be very mean and judgemental towards each other’

    Is there a reason why you have to be around people like that? I’d rather stay at home than be friendly with people that are like that.

  9. Interesting post, but I see the comments tell a different story especially of the younger generations.

  10. I think Saudi women should start looking more at the health reasons for not getting fat and to try and ensure that their children don’t become fat either. I see lots of fat Saudi men and boys as well. Turning the tables … would I like to see my husband gain weight and become chubby??? Not on your life! I want him a healthy weight which to me is attractive.
    I agree that there is far too much focus on ‘being beautiful’ and having a perfect body/face. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we should not be copies of each other and should not admire the ‘false beauty’ attained through surgeries, etc. Being beautiful is being healthy as one can and taking care of oneself.
    One of my Saudi friends is very unhappy because the muttawa have closed her gym so now she does mall walking. I know other women who have exercise equipment in their homes or who exercise with tv/dvd programs.
    All of the above should apply to all women worldwide. 😀

  11. I am very glad that this post is generating comments from a wide sector of women.

  12. @ Lynn
    “Is there a reason why you have to be around people like that? I’d rather stay at home than be friendly with people that are like that.”
    Lynn I can’t become antisocial after all I am a Saudi, I can control what kind of friends I have, however I can’t control guests or older family friends who come over to the house.

    @ Almost A Muslimah
    “does segregation and required amount of covering for women have an impact on how Saudi ladies view themselves and their bodies?”
    Yes, it has a huge effect. It makes us too critical and harsh on ourselves. Also, it makes us compare our bodies to any woman we see!

    “One of my Saudi friends is very unhappy because the muttawa have closed her gym so now she does mall walking.”
    I’m not so sure about the muttawa having enough power to close a gym.
    However, since a couple of my friends own gyms, I know for a fact that inorder to get a legal license and permission to open an all women gym it has to be officially a part of a hospital/clinic/spa/beauty center.

  13. I noticed the opposite. The younger generation seems to take to healthy choices.
    Vanity. I saw so many day spas in the Gulf. There is also a plethora of of salons that thread. ( A form a haor removal popular in the ME)

  14. @Rosemary – ‘the woman is depicted as picture perfect at all times and if she is ever anything less she is considered a failure’

    Lynn: “Seriously? A failure? I really don’t believe that is true.”

    Well then Lynn, you obviously don’t know anyone with an eating disorder. Nine times out of ten they will say they failed in some way to measure up to the high standards of the “other” beautiful and (so called) perfect women around them.

  15. And Lynn, yes I believe the media should accept some responsibility in the false images they portray about women.

    Why do you think some celebrities are supporting campaigns that show them as they truly are (blemishes/wrinkles) without all the airbrushing, make-up, etc as seen on tv and in mags?

    Because they are finally beginning to understand how women and young girls are being inundated with images of “perfect” women which is quite frankly giving them a warped sense of reality and screwing them up!

  16. Weight may be less of an issue for Saudis (and Arabs in general) than for Westerners, but that’s merely a difference in cultural ideas of beauty. A woman who’s attractively slender by Western standards may well be considered too skinny by many Arab men. Individual tastes vary, of course, but in general, Arabs like curvier women than Westerners do.

    In my experience, Arab women (again, speaking generally) are much more conscious of their appearance than Western women. There are a number of factors behind this, including cultural norms that may restrict them from devoting their time to something more useful than makeup and fashion, but I think a large part of it is due to spouse-hunting in a gender-segregated society.

    If a young woman is never permitted to interact with a man semi-normally (for example, by studying or working in a mixed environment), there’s really no opportunity for a man to develop feelings for her based on her personality, intellect, or anything other than her appearance. Those types of conversations have to wait until after he’s proposed to her family in the traditional way, which means her appearance has to be enough to entice him to do that. Women know that, which is why they spend absurd amounts of money on fancy clothes, and wear makeup styles normally seen only on hookers in the West.

  17. @Jacey,

    there are many places in Riyadh which also offer threading and come to the home too. I don’t know how the women bear up to it getting the hair removed from the arms, legs and elsewhere. It looked painful to me.

  18. We have relocated to Seattle Washington USA. I have noticed a lot of places where you can get threadings done. Amazing!

  19. @ J,
    Check it out – the muttawa do have the power. There have been blog topics on this.

    Many of you are skirting around the health issues. All men like curves but not all men like an obese woman and ditto for a woman liking an obese man. That’s a fallacy designed to make obesity seem okay.

  20. @Rosemary – ‘Why do you think some celebrities are supporting campaigns that show them as they truly are’

    Yes, I know. Also, some fashion designers are using real people to model their clothes. I think that is a great thing and I am hopeful for the future in that regard. But, I don’t think that all the blame should be put on the media.There is more involved in the psyche of a person for one to go as far as to become bulimic just so they can look like celebrities. They are surrounded by real live human beings in all shapes and sizes everyday. I would think that those should have more influence than pictures of strangers. No?

    But what I was really questioning was where does the ‘media’ tell the person that she is a failure if she doesn’t fit their image of perfect? Media doesn’t say that, that is just how some individuals might feel, for whatever reasons. Does the media portray heavy people as losers and the skinny ones as winners in some way?

  21. @J – ‘Lynn I can’t become antisocial after all I am a Saudi’

    Aren’t those rude people that you were talking about also Saudis? Rude behavior IS antisocial. Don’t you agree? Perhaps the behaviors would stop if people would stop accepting it.

  22. Since i do not live in Saudi Arabia it would be hard for me to make an actual comment on how women feel about weight, but as a person who lives elsewhere I must say that as you get older you will gain weight. If you see are older and “work out” to try and stay healthy that is a good thing, but this post I believe is trying to say that because women have to wear the abayas in public they have a more positive feeling about themselves.that they are accepted by thier family and they do not have to worry about how society looks at them. I think this is a rational as to why the abayas is a good thing. What I do not understand is since both men and women are both covered when they go out why is the woman in black and the men in white.

  23. Good question. Why to choose the black while the weather is so hot most of the time. A Saudi friend told me that black abayas hide better the curves. don’t men have curves?

  24. Men were many colors. In summer it is mostly white. Beware it can be see through. I saw a young man in a thong once as he bent over to load something in his trunk. I was waiting for my driver. It was not on purpose!!!!!!

    I understand that the women chose the color years ago. Not sure if that is true. But there is no choice now. :<

  25. From my experience, I would say Saudi women took very much care with their appearance, like outfit, makeup, and hair, but were not afraid of their curves. Whenever I felt a bit overweight, I’d choose looser clothing, while many women wear very form fitting-clothing. I didn’t know whether to attribute that to confidence, or the hassle of returning a wrong-sized item. Maybe both 🙂

  26. I think how tight the clothing is worn is partly related to culture. I am not sure if it would have as much to do with how much women love their bodies, to be honest.

    A lot of the people who develop eating disorders tend to develop these based on the ideals of perfection. What “should” be and what actually is are two different things altogether. What is the “perfect body”? Typically, what people perceive by listening to the media AND the general public is that girls must be anything from thin, with a six-pack, big boobs, and moderately proportioned hips to runway-model-bordering-on-anorexia-thin. Some women develop anorexia simply by trying to be the best at their sport/performing art, and in the process of trying to get to a low percentage body fat end up with what is known as the female athlete triad. I have actually noticed more males becoming obsessed with their figure within my generation (20s).

    One of the scariest things I’ve ever been through is watching a loved one struggle with anorexia- it was perhaps even scarier than coming within seconds of almost being raped. I wanted to destroy any women’s magazine that pressured people (men AND women) about their bodies for a couple of years after dealing with that. Yes, a lot of people live through it, but what isn’t said is the kind of strain it can put on a family, and the emotional and psychological things that must be overcome in the process of a person getting better.

    I truly believe that it is important for fashion companies, people in the media, and people in the performing arts, etc. (especially in the realm of ballet) to start promoting a healthier figure. I was once told that the runway models are chosen to act as a “walking hanger” for the clothes- at least that is one theory as to why they are so thin! When I start my own lingerie company, I WILL be promoting a healthy body image. It may not be on a grand scale, but I will do it!

    One of the things that drew me to belly dancing and flamenco rather than ballet is that ballet seems to promote dancers that are too-thin rather than emphasizing women’s natural figures and the performing art of dancing. It really bothered me how many girls in my dance classes were obsessed with gaining 5 lbs while they were still growing. It didn’t have anything to do with the particular studio, just with the general idea of what a ballet dancer should look like. It’s actually quite unrealistic, although it’s improved a lot since the early 90s. I didn’t like that when I auditioned as a “dance education” major once that my being overweight was listed as a reason for not accepting me into the program. It’s not even for performance- it’s simply for teaching! Additionally, one of the best dance education programs in the nation doesn’t even require an audition. So it’s not just the celebrities- it’s everywhere.

    @blooming in the sand: “don’t men have curves?” -Yes, they do. I like my men a little on the curvy side! 😉 Anything within the realm of healthy is fine with me!

  27. I was just looking over some the posts on this thread and I happen to think and actually laugh to myself of all the men I have seen in my country mowing the lawn without a shirt and in shorts., not to mention men wearing speedo bathing suits in Europe. Hum perhaps they should be required to wear an abayas. lol On a more serious side I think that women cause other women to worry about their weight and how they look. Women will almost always make a comment about how another woman looks, or if she has gained wieght or if her house is as neat as it should be, are her children taken care of , can she be considered for public office and the list goes on and on. Perhaps women should be kinder to each other and not worry about our outside covering.

  28. Well, I think that pressure to lose weight is good. Barring special health issues, there is no excuse for being overweight, man or woman. Slender and fit is beautiful. Slender and fit people live better, lead more active lives, get hired more often and their clothes fit better.

    I mean, I don’t think that people ought to get ostracized for being fat, but lately there is a trend toward the other extreme, i.e. “a woman is beautiful no matter what, etc.” Well, let me tell you that if you are a size 20 with tires of fat around your stomach, the only people who find you beautiful are a) your mother, and b) these men who frequent Fat should not be considered normal any more than smoking, and while you should not be forced to lose weight, you shouldn’t be under the impression that fat is beautiful, either. It’s not.

  29. NN,
    I understand what you mean and agree to a point. I consider either extreme to be bad. However, being overweight is better than being underweight as far as it relates to health. There is also a difference between being within a healthy weight range and being in top athletic condition. I believe that as long as people are within their healthy weight range, it’s okay. I don’t think that people should be pressured if they’re overweight- until it starts affecting their health. For instance, if someone I care about is obese, of course I’m going to talk it over with them because I want to see them live a long, healthy life. Same thing if they’re underweight.

    Sometimes, thin (yet fat) chicks are seen as more appealing to men than larger, athletic (lower percentage body fat) women. I don’t get this, either. So I agree with you insofar as someone is personally maintaining a healthy body fat percentage for their build. For instance, I’m not exactly a “slender” build- but I’m not fat, either. And even when I was a size 6 US, there’s no way my thighs were gonna fit into a pair of skinny jeans- I’ve got too much muscle from my dancing days.

    I like how there is now a “visual graph” for the BMI index to explain the healthy weight ranges for men and women:
    This visual graph makes a lot more sense than the weight to height charts, but it is still based off of a “standard” build and therefore may not work for everyone.

    According to, a healthy body fat percentage range for women is as follows: 20-40yrs: 21-33% body fat; 41-60 yrs: 23-35%; 61-79 yrs: 24-36%. For men, it’s: 20-40yrs: 8-19%; 41-60yrs: 11-22%; 61-79yrs: 13-25%.

    From what I have read, the most convenient (while being relatively accurate) way to measure body fat percentages is using a bio-electric impedance scale.

  30. @Strangeone

    I understand your position, but you simply cannot remake an art form in accordance with your own preferences. Ballet is about making beautiful lines with human bodies, which happens to work better if these bodies are thin and flat with defined muscle tone. In fact, thinness and extreme flexibility for ballet dancers are on the rise as beautiful shapes they make with their bodies become more and more extreme. It’s all about the thin long string to make beautiful knots with. This is what ballet requires. And don’t forget that someone has to lift you while you are out there strolling on the stage in size 12 tutu, and that someone has a back they prefer not to crack after 100+ partner lifts a day. It’s the same for figure skating, particularly pairs skating. If you want to skate pairs and you’re a girl, you better be under 5 feet and 100 pounds. If you insist that you MUST be able to do it while size 8 and 5’8”, you can claim discrimination all day long, but all it means is that you chose an art/sport for which your genetic makeup does not qualify.

    Now if you want to pursue the art form that has different requirements, that is all good. Flamenco and belly dancing do not have requirements for thin flat bodies; for one, the dancers there are much more covered so short plump legs are not necessarily career-ending for a flamenco dancer the way they would be for a ballet dancer. Belly dancing is kind to overweight ladies in its own way and has no limitations on weight other than the ability to perform the moves.

  31. @NN,
    I have a friend who is more than capable of lifting me with ease. Of course, he’s 6’4″, but still….When I was a size 6, I weighed about 130lbs. When I danced all the time, I was about a size 8-10 (although my waist was 1-2 sizes smaller) and about 120lbs. Not small, but not large, either. I actually have long, muscular legs. The best way I can describe my build is similar to Marilyn Monroe.

    Ballet orginally started off as a dance in between acts at the opera. Originally, the dancers were very volumptuous (and some doubled as prostitutes for the wealthy men). The thin look did not become popular until Anna Pavlova traveled around the world with her father. She was the antithesis of the average build at the time because she was a very thin build. This thin framed ideal was further perpetuated by Balanchine through the New York City ballet. It’s not a sport; it’s an art. I don’t see why weight should be an issue if you can still perform all the steps as well (or even better) than someone who is a smaller frame. If all else failed, I’d just start dancing solos or start my own ballet/modern group.

    Actually, the thin extreme for ballet dancers was much worse in the early to mid 90s. Now (or at least last time I checked), a higher emphasis is placed on technique and being in top athletic shape than being thin. Not all prima ballerinas dance in pairs with men. There is a large difference between being having toned, lithe muscles and having a low percentage body fat. Ditto with either of these and being “thin” or “small framed”.

    Ballet looks best when a person actually has enough strength, endurance, stamina, etc. to perform the movements. As far as “looking better on thin girls”, this all depends on personal preference and what men like.

  32. and what women like, too.

  33. I have yet to attend a ballet where the female dancers are not thin/slim and I have attended/do attend many. My niece was prima ballerina with Canada’s National ballet before her joints gave out. It is extremely hard on the body. She trained with them away from home from the time she was 12 years old but has danced since she was 6. You simply can’t dance with major ballet companies if you are not slim. For one thing unless you are very thin/slim you can’t perform the leaps, etc. with any height no matter how strong you are. You can’t dance en pointe without really damaging your feet if you are not light weight. For another you can’t subject a male dancer to lift you with anything but minimal weight. A ballerina who is NOT thin/slim will not be dancing with any major dance company. Anna Pavlova did start a trend for slim dancers and she was the one who developed point shoes.

  34. @Wendy,
    In order for leaps to reach a proper height, body weight is just one consideration. How well the muscles are trained to perform the task, whether or not proper technique is used, and how flexible one is also comes into play. There is a book called something like the “physics of dance” that addresses some of these issues. As for male dancers, I agree. Many male dancers are petite, and sometimes for this reason their partners are also petite. If the male dancers were larger, I see no reason why they could not also support a larger female frame, or why a larger female frame could not also support a smaller female frame, depending on what the storyline is.

    I am not against dancers being in top physical condition for their profession. In fact, I support that fully. What I do not support is anorexically-thin women being passed off as the “ideal” body type for ANY form of media, performing art, etc. I believe that as dancers, we have a responsibility to promote a healthy body image among ALL people, especially young dancers who may or may not become professional dancers later in life.

    Both obesity and being underweight can lead to major health problems in the short-term as well as long-term. I do not support either, although I think people should love themselves no matter what size or body fat percentage they are. And because they love themselves, they should take care of their body. Maintaining a healthy weight is most definitely a part of caring for your body.

  35. I am always talking about healthy weights on this forum. I do not advocate skinny at all and ballerinas should not be looked at as a role model for a good body by anybody other than another ballerina. Good ballerinas are thin and that’s the bottom line. I do not say it’s the way women should look. My niece starved herself when she was dancing as do most successful ballerinas. She would eat normally when on holiday and then work and starve to get back to dance weight. Sad but true That’s what I was talking about. It they are dancing with a major company they will unfortunately be very thin.

    Women should pay attention to the BMI index and not be too fat or too thin. Never mind what stars, models and dancers look like. Eat and exercise to be healthy and feel good.

  36. Wendy,
    I can agree with that. Thank you for clarifying.

  37. i really love this peice that you have done on Saudi Arabic women

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