Skinny vs. Fat : An African Woman on the Politics of Feminine Beauty

 

What do you see, my sister?

 

Mainstream image for all women.

Young members of Sande (Female Secret Society) Sierra Leone

Miss Africa in America contestant, notice her hair and body shape.

The Mask "cut neck' fat goddess she is a symbol of beauty and fertility.

 

monique-naked with her Pagent crew

A member of Sande ( Female Secret Society) Sierra Leone

Vogue the Ideal.

Common phrases for Skinny and Fat Women

1.Bonka Fish (in Creole: Skinny woman whose features resemble that of a dry fish)

2. Duwawu ( In Hausa: A woman with big buttocks)

3. Duguwa ( In Hausa: “A tall skinny woman with no living particulars”)

4. Giwa (  In Hausa: an elephant)

5. Ta Ciko ( In Hausa: the woman has filled out)

6. Flat ( In Creole: Skinny, “chest-less” babe)

When you turn on the television in the West the face of a Skinny chick is what you see. However, most African men love, I mean love, Fat babes ( When African men use the word fat, they mean curvy and voluminous– big breasts and ass– like the shape of a soft drink bottle or an hour glass). Growing up in rural Middle Belt Nigeria, I frequently witnessed the execution of this unwritten constitution. Every man and woman was aware of its power. A woman was considered beautiful if she carried extra weight around the chest, and most importantly, her ass. The complexion should be very dark, the hair needed to be braided at least once a week, and let us not forget it is a must for her to know how to husband her husband’s home and those eight children she birthed from her ample hips.

As a young child, given this is the imagery that I was constantly reminded of, I fell in love with fat women. I remembered when some of my late yayah kaka’s (elder sister’s) friends were saluted by some men on the street with names such as Giwa (elephant- in Hausa) or “Complete” (meaning the babe got correct living particulars in the right places). As the African legend Fela Kuti puts, “ yansh is a wonderful thing.’ That is to say a woman’s big ass is a wonderful thing. I liked the way fat women attracted positive reception when they graced the sight of humankind, the respect they got whenever they exhale words in the midst of both sexes and the self-pride and self-worth that wrapped around their being. Hence, I was convinced that when I grow up I would be the ideal fat bush woman!

In my travels around the world, starting at the age of seven, I noticed and studied diverse ideas as per what represents a beautiful woman. In Liberia 1987-1988 and Sierra Leone 1993-1997 I noticed the glamorization of the large female body, so much so that she was placed amongst the goddesses who watch over us all. For example, I witnessed in Liberia and Sierra Leone Bodu Bush, a Female secret Society, when they would put on display for the community to  watch girls turned women after months of confinement for nourishment of food and knowledge on becoming a woman. As the women paraded down the streets the leading figure for the procession is the mask goddess craved as a fat woman with layers, and layers of neck (anthropologist call this “cut neck”). The image of the fat goddess implies that the girls that now the entire society is blessed to gaze upon have become the ideal beauty that every young girl should aspire to become. Sylvia Boone, an art historian, explains my encounters beautifully when she states, “Beauty, prosperity, health, and fertility are explicitly linked to plumpness (gbogboto) most graphically in the mask image. The Opposite of plump is not thin but ‘dry’ connoting among other things a withered and barren uterus” (Radiance from the Waters, 57). The fat woman is not an ordinary being, she must be respected and looked up to in society, because she carries on her body the terminal where life passes through, but also the source of nourishment to supply her baby’s milk, husband’s nightly ecstasy treats and the beautiful painting that which is her lightens up days and years of mere fans.

The desire to have in one’s possession and to become a fat woman is spread across the African continent. We see even amongst African leaders such as president Jacob Zuma of South Africa, in his midst are three fat wives, and Nigerian former vice president Atiku Abubakar’s wife Amina Titi is a fat babe. This exigency for ladies to become fat fuels the popularity of fattening farms or houses. For example, the vital grooming process for girls to be married in Mauritania is by transforming a skinny girl into a fat woman. Sometimes girls would spend months at the fattening farm depending on how much weight they carried upon their arrival (seehttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3429903.stm ). Amongst the Igbos in Calabar, Nigerian girls spend up to six months in seclusion under constant watch of an expert who feeds them with food and massage their bodies in preparation for their future husbands. This practice goes back to nineteenth-century (see YouTube video titled, Fat Houses-Nigeria). I myself attempted to gain weight by eating more than my stomach could handle, especially when I was in Sierra Leone, I even went further by layering clothes as if I was set for winter season in London. I looked relatively fat and I tried my very best to keep the weight on, but I have high metabolism and I enjoy long distance running as stress reliever as a result I would lose the weight in a twinkle of an eye, sadly returning to my size 2.

It was shocking to me upon my arrival to America when I noticed how miserable most fat women viewed themselves. And the mainstream media didn’t seem to help the situation when popular magazines such as Vogue, People and Elle would grace most of their page with skinny, blue eye, blonde hair women. At fashion shows you see predominately a pool of starving, ill, pale sick looking ladies show-casing a million dollar dress. This media images of skinny women impacts the psyche of its viewers as a result they begin to associate them with high fashion, valuable women that needed to be treated with dignity.

On the side lines are fat women who are getting treated like left over dinner. It is ironic that mainstream American media seem all of a sudden interested in fat women’s narrative like that of the movie “Precious”. I mention “Precious” because when the movie came out, most viewers expressed remorse by how fat young girls get treated amongst their peers in American society, as if it is some new revelation. I read folks talking about how there is no room for fat women in mainstream media, and I thought that is exactly what Mo’Nique, the self-appointed spokesperson for “BIG” women ( BIG is a term many Americans use for Fat ) has been saying for years. Mo’Nique’s effort to empower herself and other fat or “BIG” women made her an icon, her Beauty pageant ‘Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance” music video appearances such as that of Anthony Hamilton’s “Sister Big Bone” ( see,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT21MqxOQtY), stand-up comedy, movie roles shows her commitment to promoting the fat community in America.

As Michel Foucault would say, those in power define what is and what is not. Using Foucault’s theory, in America the deciders say skinny is beautiful and fat is ugly. And to complicate matters, being fat and black makes life much more difficult as per how the society relates to you and how you see yourself in it. Fat black woman is now at war with three forces: racism, sexism and her body shape. That is why even Mo’Nique is on the move to  lose weight claiming that it is for health reasons. We have folks like musician Missy Elliott, day time television personnel Ricki Lake, musician Jennifer Hudson, actress Queen Latifah, and musician, Kelly Osbourne  who have succumbed to societal pressure to be skinny. (See Wonderwall, “Most Impressive Comeback Bodies”). This is not to suggest that I don’t support healthy living, besides that is one of the reasons why I chose to not bother myself anymore about gaining weight, but there are women who simply will never be a size 2; for that reason American society should be more accepting of fat women. However, because mainstream media is run by folks who promote mainly skinny white women, the propaganda has escalated overseas. Today African cities seem to desire skinny women, this is apparent when you watch mainstream African music videos, the local girls take extreme measures by bleaching their skin and their natural hair that they used to maintain with braids are replaced with wigs and weaves, in order to conform to the standards of the West.

This craving to assimilate into Western skinny woman culture is apparent in the lives of Africans in the diaspora. For example, if you look at their beauty contests, most of them promote the skinny, weave haired, blue contact lenses wearing women. I would suggest that, fat African women and fat babes generally can learn from skinny African women who have being under pressure to gain weight. Personally, I stopped making the effort to eat more than my stomach can handle. I learned to love myself. And I now  feel appreciated because I associate myself with positive affirming people. Fat women who feel out of place in America should find themselves a community of friends and family members who would love them for being themselves. I can testify that whenever I am home and in the midst of fat women, I hardly feel out of place any more. And my mother always reminded me that, just because I am petite, doesn’t necessary mean I can’t achieve big things.

My fat sisters, just because someone said you aren’t good enough doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. If your present crew is the sort that talks around you, perhaps it is time that you widen your social pool, allowing outsiders into the inner cycle or try to insert yourself into one, this would help you even meet potential lifelong partners who appreciate fat women. Know  that there are black men who love them some fat babes. And please remember my sister your weight is not all that defines you as a human being, you were made to love and be loved.

 

Please note: Pictures are property of google/ book those of Sande society , Miss. Africa in America, vogue, Monique’s pageant and the first photo is from bbc  Africa/Ivory Coast.

 

©CopyRight, Yoknyam Dabale

18 thoughts on “Skinny vs. Fat : An African Woman on the Politics of Feminine Beauty

  1. Is there a possibility that seeing thick, curvy women as the ideal in African cultures could be oppressive for the skinny women that don’t fit that model. I don’t think the issue is whether skinny or fat women are seen as the ideal but rather that women feel the pressure to conform to a body type that is not there. Too often, I’ve heard people idealize traditional African cultures for their love of thick or big women, but shouldn’t all of us, thick or thin, be able to feel beautiful regardless of our size. I’ve heard too many comments about my thinner aunts who did not fill out when others thought they should and suffered for it.

    We certainly don’t see men preoccupied as much with their body types. Perhaps we should take a lesson from them…

    Also, how do we treat the health issues associated with obesity? Yes, there are plenty of skinny women out there who are not healthy, but all things being equal, extra weight is associated with poor health outcomes. And we don’t have examples of societies where people who are big live longer or just as long as societies where people don’t have weight issues.

    While I’m not a fan of telling people what should be the idea type of beauty, we can’t ignore health issues associated with overweight nor should we ignore the taunting or hostility thinner women face when they don’t subscribe to the norms of a given society.

    • Hello Chi O ,
      thanks for your insightful response and I would attempt to response accordingly.
      Yes, you are right to say in the context where fat is ideal; the skinny could be oppressed by those who set those standards. If you look closely to my article above, you would certainly read that I mentioned about my personal experiences being a thin woman in those African societies where I lived, I went through self searching to be fat, fit in, but I reached a stage in my life where I have accepted my body and being in general., of course through the constant love and support I received from my family and friends. An unfortunate example I could give is one where a woman felt the pressure to become fat, subsequently she overdosed herself with supposedly prescribed pills that would make her heavy set, months later she was found dead. So yes, you are right to point out that the double -edged sword that we have in our hands. But what really matters is how we deal with these ideals.
      My piece is call for response to those in the Western world or in a society that looks down on ‘fat”,” big bone” women to reconsider their agenda, you could also use my argument for those who see fat as beautiful but skinny as not…but again this piece is to suggest that fat women living in the Western world shouldn’t feel that they are not worthy of love or being and belonging general. They are to find themselves individuals in the melting pot who would appreciate them. After all we can’t all be size 2, 3 or 12 we were all molded into different shapes, tone etc… so this is a call for inclusivity .
      Regarding health matters, it is rather problematic for us to believe just because a person is fat hence she is living an unhealthy lifestyle. I have read, and seen girls in their early teens years here in the United States who carried fat on their buttocks and chest so much that you would think they are older, this could be genetics, something they couldn’t do anything about it. So what do we do with those girls? Label them unhealthy? Besides how do we know that the hegemony is not paying attention to fat women due to its focus on perpetuating thin-ness as the way of being? Also when you get the chance perhaps you could take a look at the link our friend Irene suggested below.
      Again, I appreciate your constructive reflection and I look forward to engaging with you further on this and other difficult issues.

      Yoknyam

    • Thank you for such an insightful article! I am US born and raised in African -cum American culture🙂 Trust me the big busted and hipped woman is revered as ever…in real life that is. In music videos the best look is very narrow waist with big breast & especially buttocks. TV/print media favors the Euro- or ambigous ethnicity look. Real AA men like a ‘thick chick” described exactly as you depicte dthem at home in Western Africa🙂

      • Hello Sis,

        You are right to point out that in the media you see mainly thin women but in real life “real AA” brothers love them some thick bone :))) However, the sad reality is that our children out there are getting the junk from mainstream groups that the ideal is size 0, causing more harm than good to the psyche of our young girls who from birth were bigger that “normal”.

        it is always a pleasure to learn that others appreciate my work.

        I noticed you too blog, I look forward to checking your work out. Until then, take care of yourself,

        ONE LOVE,

        Yoknyam

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Skinny vs. Fat : An African Woman on the Politics of Feminine Beauty « WEHNAM -- Topsy.com

  3. To the post above: The research surrounding obesity is less conclusive than you might think In fact, there is a study that shows correlation between being fat and having a long life. The weblog Shapely Prose has an excellent post surveying clinical studies whose results we would not expect:
    http://kateharding.net/faq/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy/

    Also, correlation does not necessarily indicate causation. Perhaps, all things being “equal,” you are still more likely to be depressed or anxious if you are fat in a society that rejects your body, or more likely to crash diet. Both behaviors can potentially lead to increased health risks but neither is inherently a product of fat itself, moreso the cultural attitudes that surround fat. It is not necessary to assume the worst until more conclusive data is found.

    And obviously I cannot speak of the writer’s experience, but I’m not sure the hostility to thin women is really comparable. If you are among the very thin, your body type is represented on every catwalk in every major city in the West and in every high fashion ad, regardless of what hostility you may experience is your own microcosm.

    Personally, I think this is more powerful than people realize. For instance, people tend to depict China as a very insular community that is immune to outside cultural influences, but when I have been, I saw many white models featured on billboards. So while I might sometimes be teased for inheriting a Western “tall nose,” that same feature is present everywhere I look and that very presence insulates me slightly. Sad to say, I have found it more comfortable to be visibly half-white in an Asian society (some say it is even more lucrative!) than to be visibly half-Asian in America😦 And if western white, thin fashion media penetrates so throughly in China and Nigeria, as the post notes, I suspect it is more comfortable to be thin there than to be fat here (unless you say otherwise, Yoknyam?). In any case, promoting fat women to similar positions as thin women in American media will not erase the pre-existing representation of thin women.

    “We certainly don’t see men preoccupied as much with their body types. Perhaps we should take a lesson from them…”
    Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s that women don’t attempt to take this lesson, but that they are not allowed to without social repercussion (see the dept. of Health appointee that is considered controversial simply because she is not thin, criticism of women politicians for dowdiness, simply being told to put on/take off makeup to look “professional,” etc.).

    Yok:
    I enjoyed the post, especially the pictures. I’m almost want to send it to some “big” friends who I have seen encouraged to follow crash diets (have you ever heard of the “Skinny Bitch” diet series? yuck), but they probably don’t want to hear it, much less to be identified as fat again.

  4. Hello Irene,
    Thanks for your reflective and substance response to the piece in conversation. I appreciate that you always bring new sets lenses in looking at my articles. I would cohort with you in saying that being thin in the Western world is certainly a bright of fresh air as opposed to being “fat”. On a personal note, I feel very much alive in the West being a size 2 than at home, but that is besides the fact that I too appreciate fat women. As I mentioned in my piece, growing up that is what my society perpetuated hence I don’t look down on fat women but rather appreciate them for who they are and the beauty that which they carry on their shoulders.
    This is something new to me, given that you are of “mixed-race” and felt appreciated in China. I must confess, I am one of those who see some things about the Chinese society as insular, perhaps that is because of my many encounters with them in the diaspora. I just wonder, could it be because your shade is not as dark? I say this because I have a friend who lived in China, she is not as dark as I am but she expressed disgust by how she was treated. Also I noticed that, perhaps due to colonization, the Chine see themselves as inferior to the white man, hence they desire to be like him perhaps that would bring them closer to the superior. For that reason they honor whiter/lighter skin, as beautiful, I noticed amongst most Chinese, they wouldn’t go out in the sun without an umbrella, or fully covered assemble. So one could say, they too in some respect have internalized the thought of their master that, light skin is beautiful???
    Again thanks for your thought provoking ideas and I look forward to learning with you,

    Yok

  5. Thanks for such interesting questions and perspective.
    First, I should clarify that maybe “appreciated” is not the best word. there is the whole “white devil” stereotype and mocking of white features is not uncommon even today; also China is not historically colonized in the way that South Asia is colonized. In an economic sense, China was especially hurt by the opium trade, but military/governmental occupation has always been limited to specific territories- Western presence was associated more with merchants, missionaries, and women in cinema, like Ingrid bergman. But regardless, in advertising, whites are better represented there than Asians here, so globally, representation is still tipped slightly in favor of whites (and the thin, to tie back to your post). So, though people on the street are sometimes rude, there is a constant reminder that the west appreciates you and that the west has more influence globally, which mitigates the criticism on the street.

    That said, while there is not an obvious “master,” China has bought into this western appreciation too, and whiteness and light skin are definitely a part of it. It’s hard to know the exact beginning of these ideas, but as it is now, being white in China is lucrative. For instance, there is an increasingly common practice of companies hiring unaffiliated white men to represent them because that white man is seen as a symbol. Of what exactly? The company’s international appeal? The company’s growing affluence (since they are supposedly able to attract and retain an American/European hire)? Or is it that we internalize ideas of light-skinned superiority through advertisement and want to associate with it? Anyway, I think the perceived desirability of white men leads otherwise xenophobic Chinese to have understanding and curiosity for white-Chinese marriages and white-Chinese children, because the union is viewed as pragmatic or an elevation in class status for the Chinese person.

    But this perception of status does not extend to non-white non-Americans or marriages of Chinese with non-whites. I think this is because a) China has a history of racist xenophobic thought just like many Western nations, but blacks and latinos are SO underrepresented, even in comparison to whites, that there is rarely any reason or opportunity for ethnic Chinese to question or challenge their racist assumptions the way they might in a more racially diverse country***; and b) there is limited perception of wealth attached to African/Latin countries, so no status attached to non-white faces. Probably only a minority of Chinese strongly express prejudice but of course, in a country of over a billion, a small minority can still affect a lot of people, so it could easily feel like they’re everywhere. For instance, Lou Jing, probably the only famous Chinese national that is visibly African, was born of an affair between a Chinese woman and a black american, and the mother was criticized for bringing disgrace by internet communities when Lou Jing became famous. Besides general prejudice against blacks, the thought was partly that, if she had to have a child with an immigrant, it should have been an immigrant of status.

    In general, it’s complicated to say how we came to correlate a race with a class status. Some people say this is racism based in classism (association of dark skin with low-class tanned workers, esp. in south Asia; white skin with the affluent west) but if we ask how the low-class ended up dark and affluent white, this leads back to economic discrimination and colonialism justified by racism. Racism based in classism based in racism- egg chicken egg lol.

    ***China is very ethnically diverse, but does not, to my knowledge, define its ethnic groups in terms of race.

  6. Hello Irene,

    thank you very much for such an outstanding response, It is certainly eye opening for me to read your reflection on the Chinese culture. I hope others get the chance to read over your response. I noticed that the blog is getting around cyberspace, thanks to smart folks like you for making it worth my writing.

    By the way, thanks for the correction regarding China and colonization, you are right, I meant to say Western influence / one could call that colonization in the form of culture.

    I look forward to exchanging ideas with you. Feel free to share the blog with others and I am open to corrections, suggestions as per what to write about, and how to approach certain aspect of our being as they unfold.
    Until then,
    take it easy,

    Yoknyam

    • Thanks Yok! I’m actually organizing the website for the Women’s Housing Organization next term. I’m sure we can link to your site. Perhaps we can even collaborate at some point in the future. I’m in Durham the rest of the summer🙂

      • Irene,

        I am glad to hear about the Women’s Housing Organization, that is really neat to have such a site in place . I am interested in hearing more about what it hopes to accomplish. I will get in touch with you via facebook , perhaps we could hang out etc etc…Welcome back by the way.

        Yok

  7. Yok

    Wonderful piece of work! Since you have already discussed with me in person much of what you’ve written here I don’t have any comments to make, apart from telling you how articulate you are here. As always, I’m impressed🙂

    -mashal🙂

    • Mashal,

      thank you so much, I am touched to the bones to received such a high mark from you with the phrase ” wonderful piece of Work!….I’m Impressed’ I am humbled , given you are my mentor, cheer leader and most importantly a sister who refuses to let me fall but correct me in a critical loving manner. Thank you and yes, you know where I stand on a lot of issues more than many! Thank you Chicken:)

      By the way, our italian sister ( Chicken) sends greetings and kisses:)

      Talk soon,

      Yok

  8. I saw the movie “phat girls” and it addresses what you write about here.
    Haven come to the west from Nigeria too, I can relate to the perception of fat as beautiful BUT I’ve also seen this evolve over the last few years with the proliferation of music videos, magazines, and other media. In Nigeria, many girls now want to be models…this ambition brings with it, more of the western desires for skinnyness,etc. It also would strike me that Guys don’t mind their girlfriends being skinny but want their wives to be “well rounded” or to be “women”
    On the other hand, again while growing up in Nigeria, skinnier girls would be ridiculed for being so or looking underfed,…or like they had “kwashiokor”
    Take it away from appearances, and it is attitudes…what is the proper attitude for a woman to have in society…
    Women are always expected it seems to be one thing or the other…to conform to certain standards of beauty, piety, behaviour, whatever…
    The one thing I know though is whatever these demands are as women we must learn to be true to ourselves…fat or skinny, rounded or bone thin, reserved or outspoken, the one thing that is attractive is a content woman.

    • Hello Sis Ada,

      thank you for contributing to this important topic, most women would push aside not because they lack a say but rather they avoid it due to its complexity.
      Interesting remark when you expressed, “It also would strike me that Guys don’t mind their girlfriends being skinny but want their wives to be “well rounded” or to be “women”. It hadn’t crossed my mind, but you might be right to suggest that guys while desiring to be ‘Western” “hip” would subscribe to the “skinny” babe but when they reached the age of ‘reasoning” would go back to the “old ways”. At least this observation is evident in terms of marriage covenant on the continent which is shaped enormously by Euro-centric Christian theology that Marriage is between a husband and a wife. Granted a standard has being established by the European Christians, in order for an African to be Christian hence s/he must give up his/her Africa-ness, this meant banning traditional practices such as polygamy (more than one wife). Africans, to be precise some Nigerians made it easier for themselves by marrying one wife ( known as the inside, legal, holy wife) but would have a second wife (outside wife, “pagan”) who is fine with the arrangement. My point, sometimes in order for Africans and others from global south to blend in with those in power, the Western world, they modify certain aspect of their being temporary. So I can see why a man would go back to getting married to a “fat” woman because she is more acceptable.
      I agree with you that as women, we must learn to love and appreciate ourselves despite societal pressure for us to be otherwise. Since in Nigeria fat is beautiful skinny women are to find ways that they could feel loved and appreciated, perhaps reversed my article to say, in order parts of the world skinny is beautiful. As members of global family we need to be open to learning from others without losing ourselves. The perfect example would be Serena Williams the famous tennis player who realized she wasn’t the American “ideal” woman. She expressed in an interview how after years of self searching, she reached a stage where appreciating and embracing herself was the only answer. Attached is a link on her body image: http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/fashion-articles/serena-williams-body-0810-2

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts,

      Respect to you ,

      Yoknyam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s