GoWoman Diary: Dealing with “FAT” in West Africa

Dealing with FAT in a West African CityIn Africa being overweight is a sign of opulence right? Wrong! That may have been so 20 years ago but not in 2013. From Freetown to Accra, Go Women with extra meat on their bones are feeling a lot of pressure to shed the pounds. In Freetown if you put on a little extra pounds you’ll hear “You don fat oh!” What makes it ever more demeaning and sometimes hurtful is that the comments usually come from others either more overweight or worse, more unattractive than you. I mean how is it any of your business if I have gained or lost weight?

Once I was at The Office Night Club in Freetown hanging out with my cousin when a guy walked up to me and said, “You face fine but you don fat”. My cousin who had just moved to Sierra Leone from Canada was so shocked and upset that she asked him to go check himself. I had already checked him out and his big belly was at least two months overdue. I looked at his face, and then his belly, and then his face again. Then I just smiled. The same man later offered
us drinks and had to nerve to try to get cordial with us. It was as though he was hoping his back-handed compliment would have reduced my self-esteem enough to say yes. Of course we politely rejected his offer. And then laughed noisily at him. Later on in the night he walked over to us and tried to apologize. Realizing that we were obviously offended, he said he didn’t mean anything by it and he didn’t understand why it had rubbed us the wrong way. My cousin then proceeded to explain that it wasn’t polite to comment on a woman’s weight.

On the drive home did I wonder if I had actually gained weight? Yes. And that’s the thing. No matter how confident you are when someone calls you fat it knocks you down. It’s almost like being hit in the throat in the middle of a song. Maybe I knew I had put on some weight but on that very night it wasn’t something that bothered me. I just wanted to have fun and that comment from one unknown man who I would never even give the time of day and probably never see again, had me questioning myself.

Fast-forward a year and a half later and I’m back in Sierra Leone covering the president’s inauguration. This means running around at the national stadium taking pictures. Down
in the main bowl I join the line of photographers already on the lawn. I see an old camera man of mine and right after he says hello he says, “Ah you don try wit you body,” insinuating that I was looking better. I recently lost 15 pounds not because I thought I was fat but because I wanted to get healthier. I looked at him barely fitting into his 28 waist jeans, his sunken in cheeks, and waif like structure, and I said, “You noh try wit you own body”. He was really skinny. The kind of thinness that lets you know this person either isn’t eating enough or is ill. He’s not ill though, just poor. But I would never comment on the lack of fat on his body because I understand that life isn’t easy. But if you take a shot at me, you’re getting it right back.

“Bo you too dry bo, you noh di eat?”

I tease him letting. “Ah lek mi bodi so do ya lef mi”, he responds trying to make me believe he was content. But I know he’s lying. Who wants to look poor in a society with Big Man Syndrome? The conversation moves to other things and we talk for a bit. After a while I decide to go up into the presidential stand to take photos of the guests there. I borrow a colleague’s press pass and exit the main bowl past the security. I make my way up the steps to the stand. Someone calls my name and waves me over. I don’t recognize the face but these days I go when I’m called. You don’t want people to dub you as “fit eye”. The woman asks me to take her picture and just as I am about to she says, “Na now you bodi don fine, keep it up”. I look at her. This woman has a chin full of hairs and she is telling me about my weight. I know you’re probably thinking well she did say you were fine now. But that’s just it, again it’s a back-handed compliment. I don’t know this woman. Why does she think that I care what she thinks of my weight now or before? So I say, “I like my body now and I liked it before”. “But na now e fine”, she insists. And with that I decide I’m not going to continue to engage, I’m not going to take her picture either. I walk off.

Your body is your own, and only you should decide how it should look. Unless you’re my family or a close friend, or a lover, I don’t understand why people think that a woman’s body is any of their concern. I don’t mind if you think I’m fat or thin. But keep it to yourself. What you think is your business and how my body is, is my business. Things are changing rapidly on the continent. With facebook, music videos and celebrity blogs, Africans are consuming everything unfiltered. And some would like to argue that perhaps this pressure on young Go Women to have a slimmer waistline comes from exposure to foreign media and perhaps that is so. However, this doesn’t explain it all. Those same images show that the trend to be skinny and fit applies to both men and women. All the international male celebrities we see have buff bodies too and drool worthy six packs. I don’t see the men in Sierra Leone or Ghana spending hours in the gym to get rid of their pot bellies.

Since 2007 when the current government came in to power, so many of the men that they appointed into government offices have increased the size of their bellies. They don’t
get called fat. No one is out there trying to make them feel ashamed for putting on the extra pounds. We see them on those rare Sundays walking on the beach trying to exercise but they do it more as tradition than for the cardiovascular value. The truth is if you’re a young woman in Sierra Leone or Ghana, your body is as feminist Nana Darkoa put it is “every body’s business”. Men just don’t have the same problem. Darkoa wrote an article in Voices of Africa, an online South African publication about her struggles with weight and fat shaming in Ghana. The pressure to lose weight followed her even on a visit to her village of just 100 people in Ghana’s eastern region. “Ei. You have become fat,” is what a female relative said when she saw her. Although she later recanted that the fat looked good on Darkoa, the damage had clearly already been done.

A comment about a young African woman’s weight is enough to cause instant depression. Does this mean that we are not as confident as we say? Should we be unaffected even when someone shrieks at our weight? Or are we just biologically programmed as women to be sensitive to anything that is related to what we’ve been told from time and memorial is our greatest asset? Our looks. These days I cope much better with comments about my weight because I’ve been living on the continent long enough to understand that some of those who may say hurtful things just don’t mean to be. Also I live a healthy lifestyle, making sure I exercise on my worst weeks at least once a week for an hour. On my better weeks I do 4 times a week balancing cardio and strength training. Does this mean that I’m safe from fat shaming? Absolutely not. But I’ve just accepted that the best offence is a good defence. I am least affected by the comments people make about my weight when I feel healthy. Regardless of whether they like my weight or not, what matters the most is that I feel comfortable in my own skin.

I think those of us who have lived in the diaspora are probably a bit more sensitive to being shamed for our weight because in societies in the West while strangers may stare at your overly large behind it’d be quite unusual for them to say; “My aren’t we are little heavy?”. Celebrities carry the brunt of the fat shaming weight for us. When we move back home we’re just not prepared for our bodies to become public property. More than anything else, perhaps that is the issue right there. In Africa the line between public and private is almost none existent. Everything can be up for discussion, from questions about when you will get married, have children, and now to the recently appeared rolls on the back of your neck.

Originally published in GoWoman Issue 1

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