The plus-size Pakistani woman exists, and now she's speaking up

Long sidelined by pop culture and the media, plus-size Pakistanis are now staking their claim to style and wellbeing
Updated 18 Jan, 2018

“‘Moti bhaag gayee’ (the fat girl ran away) said my P.E. teacher when I asked him to excuse me for a washroom break,” remembers MBBS student Zehra Husayn. She was only eight years old at the time and those words stung.

The incident marked a turning point in Zehra's life. She filed a complaint against the teacher, a first step in a journey of self-acceptance, of believing that there is nothing to be ashamed of in her body.

Body image, or how a person perceives their body and the way it appears to others, is largely shaped by what we see is acceptable around us. Our beauty standards are influenced by the barrage of images and messages we absorb through mass media. Thin women dominate TV screens, Instagram feeds and fashion spreads all over the world including Pakistan, perpetuating the notion that only thin should be seen as beautiful.

This narrow perception of beauty leads to feelings of inadequacy among people judged to be fat or overweight as well as the common practice of humiliating them for their size.

Also read: Vidya Balan calls out journalists for fat shaming her

While the west is slowly growing sensitised to issues like fat shaming, it’s obvious that Pakistan has a lot of progress left to make.

For her part, Zehra founded the Facebook group Plus Size Pakistan – Xera | Curvy & Co (PSP) in 2015. “Growing up my confidence had been shattered. I worked on it little by little by reminding myself every single day that I am worthy, beautiful and confident.”

The core team of the Facebook group Plus Size Pakistan – Xera | Curvy & Co
The core team of the Facebook group Plus Size Pakistan – Xera | Curvy & Co

She hopes PSP will help other women make the same mental and emotional journey. Currently comprising a membership of about 1200 women or so, PSP is a “highly exclusive” Facebook group that is intended to be a body-positive platform for plus size Pakistani women to collectively nurture their confidence and resolve their body image issues — all while keeping their struggles confidential.

“The struggles of a plus-size person can be better understood by people in the same boat. Many of my plus-size friends aren't happy with their bodies. Since attitudes are contagious, this group changes that by encouraging women to accept and love themselves,” says PSP member Yumna Sadiq.

But there’s plenty to complicate the struggle to attain that goal.

Who’s considered beautiful in Pakistan?

The media’s concept of an ideal woman isn’t stagnant. Over the years we can see drastic changes in the most loved female body shape; from the figure 8 in the early 1900s achieved by the never-ending struggle with a corset to the hourglass figure in the mid 1900s to the latest bootylicious bod a.k.a the Kim Kardashian trend.

According to actor Noor Bukhari, the preference in Pakistan has shifted from curvier bodies to leaner, more angular bodies over the years due to foreign influences.

“Saima was a megastar back in the ‘80s and she was on the bulkier side,” says Noor as she recalls how Shaan had advised her to eat up when she entered the industry as a skinny 20-something. “I think when India started introducing models as heroines, our perception of the perfect body changed.”

How fat shaming begins at home

Rabiya Mumtaz, a registered UK-CPCAB (Counselling and Psychotherapy Central Awarding Body) mental health counsellor, has identified that overweight girls tend to get bullied and fat-shamed without a second thought to how impressionable their age is. “A lot of fat shaming starts at home within families,” Rabiya tells Images, based on her client experiences.

Read on: I'm the friend Parineeti Chopra allegedly body shamed, and I'm not offended at all

This is where children can develop low self-esteem and anxiety, and the signs can be seen in their posture, like a slouch or folding their arms in front to cover their body, she shares. This trickles down into the child feeling ‘not good enough’ and the consequent drop in self-esteem.

Your weight decides your future

As girls step into womanhood they are further frowned upon and have a hard time finding jobs and life partners.

Muneeza Khan, an artist and also a member of PSP, says she has faced issues with marriage proposals:“I often hear I'll never get married because I'm fat. I wouldn't want to marry someone shallow enough to categorise my weight as the only criterion for marriage.”

A fat girl isn’t considered wife material in Pakistani society, says stand-up comedian Faiza Saleem
A fat girl isn’t considered wife material in Pakistani society, says stand-up comedian Faiza Saleem

A fat girl isn’t considered good wife material in Pakistani society, says stand-up comedian Faiza Saleem. “Firstly she doesn't stand up to the conventional standards of beauty so ‘log kya kahain gay’ and secondly because it is believed her health might affect her having a family later.” She thinks that health concerns may be valid but women of all sizes struggle with conceiving children, “it is not a plus size-exclusive issue and we need to stop categorising women as wife material or not according to their colour, shape or height.”

Fashion blogger Hadiyya Javed thinks she is a living example of just how false these misconceptions are. Even though she is a plus size woman, she claims to be very active, “When I wasn’t married people pointed out my weight. I got married and had a healthy baby soon after,” shares Hadiyya.

The enormous pressure to live up to the beauty standards is not only damaging to one’s mental well-being but also physical health.

“Being plus sized and being obese are two completely different things. A person who is categorized as being plus sized can be way healthier than the person who isn’t.” — Fareeha Jay, dietician

The fear of gaining weight has led to the popularity of many restrictive diets that cause nutritional deficiencies and other health problems.

Muneeza Khan fought with an eating disorder for some years while she was trying to lose weight. It was only after her health started deteriorating that she realised her mental and physical health was more important than her physique, “I became anaemic and had a severe vitamin D deficiency, which I am still coping with,” she said.

My fat cells have nothing to do with my talent: Hareem Farooq on her fitness transformation

Fareeha Jay, a dietician based in the UK, emphasises that plus size people aren’t unhealthy by default.

Regular sized people can also be extremely unhealthy due to reasons ranging from nutritional deficiencies and lack of exercise to underlying health conditions.

Similarly, a person who is categorized as being plus sized can be healthier than others. “Being plus sized and being obese are two completely different things. A person who is categorized as being plus sized can be way healthier than the person who isn’t.”

Fareeha asserts that the rules made by a society where people are put in categories of plus sized and regular sized based on their weight is in no way an indicator of a person's state of health, “There is no such thing as a perfect body”.

Who’s promoting body positivity in Pakistan?

While mass media largely continues to perpetuate narrow conceptions of beauty, women like Zehra in their individual capacities are chipping away at those monolithic ideals.

Gul E Zahra Mirza, who has been running the Instagram blog Fanny’s World since 2011, says fashion blogging has been a serious challenge, “Incorporating trendiness with my own sense of style, keeping things modest but stylish, finding the right style for my body type, were some of the many hurdles I faced.”

Gul E Zahra doesn't let her body type affect her work as a fashion blogger
Gul E Zahra doesn't let her body type affect her work as a fashion blogger

Lahore-based fashion blogger Hadiyya Javed says she started blogging because she saw the dearth of plus-sized models in the fashion industry. She agrees that the fashion industry currently does not cater to the needs of the average Pakistani women, “No designer or brand caters to the a wide enough range of sizes,” she affirms. She also maintains that no fashion/style magazine features curvier models or public figures as style icons in their editions, “Can’t heavy girls be fashionable or stylish?” she asks.

Explore: Are Parineeti's fake 6-pack abs a new way of body shaming?

The only fashion label we’ve seen actively engage in the global conversation about body sizes is Generation, whose recent campaign #GreaterThanFear brought to the fore non-models as they addressed serious questions like: “Am I too big to wear something like this?”... “Will others like this colour on me?”... “Am I too old or too young for this cut?”

In the process of over-thinking what one would look like in a particular outfit we forget the major question, “What do I want to wear? “The clothes we put on our backs tell a story, about which we are, our fantasies, our dreams and our eccentricities,” maintains Khadija Rehman, Creative Director at Generation.

Interestingly the idea for the campaign originated from a social media query, 'Who wears these clothes? Research revealed that their customer profiles were diverse, ranging from friends to strangers, teen to the elderly, some of whom signed on to become the 'Faces of Generation'.The campaign eventually featured 20 non-models for the range of sizes from 6 to 16.

Amina modelled for Generation recently but they never labelled her as a plus size as she modelled for their regular size range i.e. size 14, while plus sizes are considered size 18 and above. “It just the industry’s viewpoint of what is regular size is so narrow that it considers anyone over size 10 plus size and that is incredibly unfortunate,” said Amina who was approached by a friend to model for Generation’s campaign.

"The industry’s viewpoint of what is regular size is so narrow that it considers anyone over size 10 plus size. That is incredibly unfortunate." — Amina, model for Generation's #GreaterThanFear campaign

With a love for dance and ghararas and with a deep-rooted sense of confidence about her physique, Amina too grew up being body shamed but realised that the problem is not hers, “I’ve wasted a lot of time mulling over the way I looked and my size and it stemmed from all aspects of my life,” she said.

After moving to Toronto for her studies she realised nobody cared she was different there and that changed her for good.

Amina for Generation
Amina for Generation

Generation claims that as a retailer they are offering the biggest size set to the Pakistani customer, size from 6 to 16. From the large seam allowances to loose easy to wear silhouettes, they feel their larger sizes have existed since forever.

Khadija thinks that a lot of plus size women refrain from having fun with their clothes, “which is tragic. If you love ghararas, wear them and enjoy them,” she said while giving out tips to the plus-sized beauties of Pakistan, “They just need to develop more swagger in their walk and not worry so much what others would think. So my fashion tip is to dress up, go out and smell the roses!”

“I realised plus size acceptance is neither a movement to eat whatever you want nor is it about placing restrictions. It’s about being kind to your body and realising you are not defined by the size of your waist,” Amina echoes the thoughts of the many women who feel excluded from the society.

“Women approach me all the time, telling me how I've inspired them to get out of their shells. Sadly, I'm an exception with a handful of others,” said Faiza Saleem.

These few emerging bloggers, celebrities and icons embracing their curves are willing to be the change we never thought we needed and are putting haters to shame.


Tehreem Jan 18, 2018 09:58am
I LOVE THIS. You ladies are amazing and I hope more people are inspired by you. I know I am.
SAVVY Jan 18, 2018 10:09am
Great article. Confidence is all that matters. Would like to point out that Jeeto Pakistan, a popular Game Show ...the host calls out on 'Moti Moti Auntiyan' and puts them on weighing scale and the awards the heaviest much to amusement and jeering of the crowd. Can someone put a stop to this. please?
Qazi Jan 18, 2018 10:59am
I think plus size women are really beautiful
Indian Jan 18, 2018 11:15am
Moti bhaag gayee’ (the fat girl ran away) said my P.E. teacher when I asked him to excuse me for a washroom break,” remembers MBBS student Zehra Husayn. She was only eight years old at the time and those words stung. The PE "teacher" should have been kicked out of his job, at the very least.
sabina khan Jan 18, 2018 12:27pm
A simple request, could the stores make more over 18 or even larger sizes. A lot of women would love to walk into a store and be able to buy what they like. Me in particular. Always, being told by the store ladies that 'unstitched is taraf hai' puts me off.
Najum Jan 18, 2018 12:51pm
This is encouraging bad eating habits and lifestyle. Freedom to choose is all fine and dandy but should not come at the cost of health. The left wing needs to come back to the real world, where facts are the fact of life.
kabeelakhan Jan 18, 2018 12:52pm
@Qazi Thats not the point , point is acceptability without being rude and harsh.
Batool Jan 18, 2018 01:28pm
Great article. Just a note though, that Karachi based designer Samar Mehdi has been doing a plus sized line called 'Plus by Samar Mehdi' for a few years now. Actor Sharmeen Taiyyab is the brand ambassador and Faiza Saleem is also a client and work the line on the ref carpet.
Safeeullah Jan 18, 2018 02:08pm
I appreciate and I always respect women regardless of their physical shape. What do you say about men (Plus size men), in my observation most of the women don't like plus size males. Plus size men are suffering more than women I suppose.
Xera Jan 18, 2018 02:27pm
@sabina khan apart from being a body positive empire - XERA is pakistan's first plus size high street brand you may check the page out on facebook!
Einstein babar Jan 18, 2018 03:32pm
indirectly saying that don't care about your health, keep eating horrific biryanis and niharis
Rizwan Jan 18, 2018 04:24pm
Plus size movement is fine but it should not become a forum to golrify bad eating habits and being a proud obese.
Lubna Jan 18, 2018 04:47pm
I LOVED the article. You guys are doing a great job and the way you are doing it commendable.
Abdullah burki Jan 18, 2018 05:04pm
@sabina khan there was no need to talk like that
A. Khan Jan 18, 2018 06:17pm
Honestly, the title makes it sound like their existence was in doubt. Ladies, eat healthy, exercise and you should never have to worry about your weight. For people in Pakistan, please do all work yourself and that means letting go of your "servants" etc. and you will see the difference within a few weeks. Eating unhealthy food and large quantities of that and sitting all day will result in weight gain. Period. Weight loss is not rocket science. Everyone doesn't need gastric bypass surgery to achieve it
KubRA Rind Jan 18, 2018 11:18pm
Kudos girls
KubRA Rind Jan 18, 2018 11:19pm
Kudos !! u girls made my day Indeed it was worth reading up!!
Abdul Rehman Jan 18, 2018 11:47pm
Great job keep it up
Prabhjyot Singh Madan Jan 19, 2018 02:07am
Watch the movie, "a beautiful mind" it will change your concept of a lady. World is beyond "Rambo" and Rocky.
N abidi Jan 19, 2018 05:00am
Pakistan is a country that majority of people do not get health care. Over weight ,obesity should not be the issues with working class ,and poor , but it does exist. It is hard to maintain weight, but this should be the goal! Obesity , leads to DM, and heat disease , best to control weight ,then to get these chronic diseases!
SYed AnJUM ALI Jan 19, 2018 06:15am
Good comment. Traditionally, from the ancient times (see the statuettes of Mohenjodaro and Gandhara culture) down to the 1970s and 1980s, the South Asian subcontinent had no problem with large, buxom women. This recent trend has emerged as we have submitted to foreign standards and notions of beauty, over the past 20-30 years only. The globalization phenomenon and rapid proliferation of the Internet have helped erode many positive cultural values we once had.
Sam Jan 19, 2018 07:02am
Zeeshan Jan 19, 2018 08:20am
There is no excuse to bully overweight people or look down upon them. That being said i find it distrubing that being overweight is increasingly being viewed as ok. Its not ok medically. Long exposure to obesity can lead to diabetes, heart issues, lung problems etc. We should not make fun of people with obesity but we should also not think its ok or promote an obese lifestyle. Exercise, a balance diet and low sugar intake should be encouraged so people can lose weight and lead a better quality of life.
sarfaraz geologist Jan 19, 2018 08:47am
Roz Jan 19, 2018 08:56am
I thought people of pakistan like plus size women 100 year ago there were concéder very beautifull we have lot of panting from past
Naveed Ahmed Jan 19, 2018 11:10am
we have no right to judge anyone on a certain criteria.
Iffat Allam Jan 19, 2018 06:32pm
Beautifully put together ! I am proud of you. Keep up the good job, as long as one eat healthy , do three times at least some sort of cardio exercise, jogging, walking, treadmill , yoga, Zumba, simple dance at home, you name it and you really can do most of the exercise in your own comfert zone at your home, you really don’t need to look for expensive Gym . Yes you can if you want to. My personal goal to lose weight keeping in mind that when I will die, I should not be too heavy so other 5 women who give me bath will dress me up and will finally put me in the final Carrear . Should not hurt them and they should transport me from one place to other in gently. Well I can go on but I must stop here by saying stay healthy happy and wealthy in this dunya and Akhra Ameen.
Raj Jan 22, 2018 10:19am
A woman should be two things....classy and fabulous! I believe a real woman should have curves and these women have everything a gentleman prefers...the class, the style, the smile and the confidence!
k k tiwari Jan 22, 2018 02:42pm
I prefer plus size these are too attractive