In the eye of the beholder

Lately it seems like the classrooms of Shkoder have become my own person soapboxes. I’ve been using daily English lessons to try and right the wrongs in society, open minds, and change the world. All in the short 45 minutes before the bell rings. Anyone shocked that results are typically a little underwhelming? Me neither.

But this week the topic of my lesson wasn’t something particularly unique to Albania (although I’d argue that it’s severely heightened here). It’s something that plagues people the world over. And that’s the concept of beauty.

Albania is full of some of the skinniest men and women I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Genetics? Mediterranean diet? Whatever reason you’d like to give, I know for a fact that societal pressures also play a very big role in the reason why so many people are ungodly skinny here.

In the USA we think we have a big problem with the media portraying women in an unrealistic light. Which is true. And many Americans suffer from disordered eating and unhealthy body images as a result. But now imagine being surrounded by that exact same image from tv/magazine/movie but in real life. Every day. Living in Albania has shown me that the fake images photoshopped into magazines in the US are in fact a reality for some people. We might have some serious teenage body issues in the USA but we also have high rates of obesity and positive public health campaigns working against both those things. Needless to say, the variety in appearances in the US make it easier for you to relax and accept who you are.

But I struggle so much in Albania because I don’t have the Albanian body-type. It’s hard to stand out that much every single day. Especially because people here are not shy about expressing their opinions.

Almost every single day someone says to me your face is too round, or stomach is too big, or your legs are too fat, or your arms are too this and your hands are too that. Nothing is off limits. I try to let it roll off without taking offense, but it’s hard. In the USA people would never dream of saying something like that to you. Never in a million years. If someone says “does this dress make me look fat?” the answer is always “no”. But in Albania if someone asks you that, the answer always seems to be “yes, and you should lose 2 kilos”. (Not sure which culture is in the right here, probably neither, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition.)

Sometimes it’s hard for me to hide my shock or offense when these comments are directed at me, but I watch Albanian women absorb these hurtful words and let them roll off gracefully. How do they do it?! How are they not offended by that?! Probably because they are used to it. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me they are on a diet, meaning they are not eating at all, period, end of sentence. No matter how many times I try to tell them that’s not how you lose weight, they don’t want to hear it. All that matters is at the end of the day, standing on the scale and being down 1 kilo. Because then you’ll get a husband. Then you’ll get married. Then you’ll finally be happy. Right?

Albania places an inordinate amount of pressure on women to look good, probably because at the end of the day the thing they value most is the family. And if you aren’t married it’s probably your fault and you should probably lose some weight so you can get a guy. Oh and dye your hair, wear more make up, and put on higher heels with a shorter dress. That will do it.

So all week in class I’ve been showing this amazing TED talk and hoping that some day people look in the mirror and like what they see.

Check it out: Looks Aren’t Everything, Believe Me I’m a Model

It’s hard to live in a society for 2 years that I would argue has more pressure to be skinny and beautiful than any in the US. Don’t get me wrong, I love the honesty. But sometimes too much is too much. Don’t you think I know my legs are thicker than yours? No need for you to remind me and bring me down, thanks.

But instead of giving in to the pressure and starving myself, I’ve decided to spread the word and convince others to join me in loving who they are and stop apologizing for how they look. We as a society, Albanian or American or anything else, need to stop being so hard on each other. If people would stop harping on everything that’s wrong with how we look, we’d all be a little happier. And isn’t happiness more important than being skinny anyway? So watch out English classes of Shkoder, you’re next.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.” 

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3 thoughts on “In the eye of the beholder

  1. Hi! Just wanted to say that I’ve been reading your blog and finding it very helpful. My husband and I are from the states and are planning a move to Albania next year. He volunteered there in March of 2012 and stayed for 6 months and loved it! Please feel free to email me, I’d love to chat more about how you’ve adjusted.

  2. Can you imagine a tour bus full of American visitors in Albania. “That one is fat. She is fat. He is fat.” I can imagine hearing Albanians saying, “excuse me, you are fat.” I remember being told, “don’t eat too much bread, it will make you fat.” and “you’ve gotten much fatter since you the last time I saw you.” Who needs a scale!

  3. I am albanian from Tirana and I must say that albanians consume too much carbs, starting from my mom. She wouldn’t eat a meal without bread. But on the other hand, when these girls or woman try to lose weight they don’t go for a healthier lifestyle, oh no. They want to lose weight and they want to do it quickly and I have met many girls on “diet” that got those kilos back right after.

    You are right when you say that sometimes people here are too direct and they don’t realise they might offend you. I used to get this a year ago when I was just 2 or 3 kilos overweight. Sometimes one has to be polite and not say everything that comes into their mind.

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