Artist paints plus-sized women to redefine Egypt’s beauty standards
Artist Bassant el-Qassem - Photo courtesy of Bassant el-Qassem official Facebook page

CAIRO: Encouraging women to appreciate their bodies will help them become satisfied, care for their looks, or lose weight, says artist Bassant el-Qassem, adding that it would be “counterproductive” if Egypt caved to societal pressure and standard beauty tastes.

Qassem launched “Love your body… you are beautiful” on Facebook in September, and has already garnered more than 22,000 likes. Qassem said she considers her weight normal, and thus was surprised when a man on the street called her “fat.”

“I looked around, and then asked him if he meant me. He said yes, and walked away,” Bassant, 22, said.

A 2013 U.N. study indicated that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, regardless of their attire.

Photo courtesy of artist Bassant el-Qassem official Facebook page


According to the World Health Organization, 76.9 percent of Egyptian women are overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of over 25. By comparison, 62.4 percent of Egyptian men had a BMI more than 25 in 2008. The majority of the overweight population resides in urban governorates and the Delta, according to Egyptian demographic and health surveys.

Cherin Adel, 34, and Hajja Kawkab, 63, are two Cairo-based matchmakers who have arranged a number of traditional marriages. Both told The Cairo Post that the most common reason for men not to meet potential brides a second time is the women “not being light skinned” and/or being “overweight.”

Photo courtesy of artist Bassant el-Qassem official Facebook page


Qassem said she has seen numerous instances of abuse against heavy women. Men stick their heads out their cars to call random women “elephants, pickle barrels and cows,” she said. This Qassem said is what prompted her to draw large women on a Facebook page directed at women who identify as overweight. Its goal is to let them know they can be beautiful in revealing clothes that they “shy away from wearing, even only for themselves,” she said.

The mass communication graduate writes “art is not haram” under her Facebook name in response to criticism she has received about her paintings being too sexualized.

Photo courtesy of artist Bassant el-Qassem official Facebook page


“Obesity is a sickness, rather than a choice. It is a combination of habits, cravings, addiction, a love affair with food, psychology and denial. The only choice you have is to change your situation. It is damn hard, but not impossible,” Nermeen, 26, told The Cairo Post. She has lost 46 kilos, and plans to lose 30 more.

“Obesity is unhealthy, but it is always nice to make fat people start loving who they are because once they start accepting themselves and who they are, they might as well decide to make better lives for themselves,” she said.

Photo courtesy of artist Bassant el-Qassem official Facebook page


Nermeen said that fat people “feel like animals” because of their portrayal in the media, the public’s treatment and plus-size designs.

“So let’s paint beautiful obese women! People pretend to care about our health, but they only care about how we look. Otherwise, why don’t people hate smokers so much, for example?” Nermeen added.

“Obesity is as much of a choice as smoking, you just find yourself in that situation. Sometimes obesity is not even about eating, but a problem of hormones and glands,” Marwa, who refused to give out her real name, told The Cairo Post. The 31-year-old, who says she has been overweight since childhood, weighs over 90 kilos after a relapse from a significant weight loss in her early twenties.

Marwa, who was a heavy smoker for 10 years and has been “clean” for seven years, said that weight loss and quitting smoking are “equally difficult,” and that quitting smoking made her gain weight.

“Also, life has become so stressful and people do not have time to pick what they eat, and there is no time for the gym, which is already expensive. For girls, it is so difficult to take walks on the streets; there is the harassment, the heavy traffic and the staying home after marriage,” she said.

Qassem plans to hold an exhibition of her paintings in El-Sawy Cultural Wheel, one of Cairo’s busy cultural hubs, in November. After having painted women in private, she said she will also paint women in hijab, an Islamic headscarf that the majority of Egyptian Muslim women wear in public.

“Many women in hijab have sent me messages telling me they look like the women in my paintings, but people just do not know how beautiful they are because hijab hides it,” Qassem added.

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