Yesterday, as I waddled smartly down the road I usually went for long walks every evening, I couldn’t help but over hear a woman like me look my way in disdain and voice out the word ‘fat woman’. She was tall and skinny and stood on top of very high heels. Me Fat ? Since when did the sight of a fat woman become a crime in the motherland? I ignored her and kept on walking but that statement got me thinking about our world today and the rapid evolution of our norms and values and how shallow people have become with time, simply judging people by their looks.
The tabloids and media today are swarmed with the images of celebrities either spotting the ideal bodies or those who need to work on their physical images to look the expected and accepted way, which of course is slim. Gyms and health spas today are a common sight as they are springing up in all corners of urban centres with imported diet tablets, herbal diet teas and other “healthy” meals and snacks which would help achieve this ideal image have, infested our markets in the last decade. It is interesting to know that the modes of usage on some of these imported drugs are not even written in English! Not left out too are the traditional African herbal mixtures which also aid with weight loss as the commercialization of weight loss heightens. Seems the traditionalists do not want to be left out of the show! Just the other day Hafsat my friend had bought one of the diet drinks and boasted to us about her expectations, she had ended up in the hospital as her belly couldn’t hold any food and she was terribly dehydrated . When the doctor had asked to see the drink, it made no sense to him as the instructions were not in English and she had taken the drink based on the prescription of the trader, who hawked the supposed diet drinks from one street to the other and from motor park to motor park!
It would be easy for one to assume that the concept of the beautiful African woman began with the younger and more “expressive” or “enlightened” generation that is gradually being blindfolded by foreign ideals. Yet, a deeper look by the more inquisitive mind however, would reveal that, which really was beautiful and ideal before the infiltration of our thoughts and the rephrasing of terms for the beautifully voluptuous with words like “flabby, fat and other ridiculous names you can think of .” If the stick thin shadow of today’s woman , was ideal and appealing to the African man, why in the early days did the African man who was either a farmer, hunter or warrior look forward to coming home after a hard day to the warmth of his wife’s body? How do we explain the description of beautiful women in African literature? How also do we explain the undeniable high level of sexual energy generated by some of our very vigorous and sensual dance movements passed through generations and still in existence today? Or the waist beads that adorned the thick waists of some of the maidens of old, our mothers, grandmothers and even some of our women today or voluptuous bodies once referred to as birthing bodies? Or even some of our present day popular hip up lyrics which says “shake what your mama gave you”?
The Makosa dance which originated from Cameroon, that has been made popular by our new generation musicians and the Mapouka dance, which to the closed minded is a vulgarization of the Makosa dance are very good examples of these sensual dances for the beautiful voluptuous African woman . As it involves the movement of well rounded thighs and buttocks sensually which in later years men too have also adapted their way of dancing to the same rhythm. Interestingly, these dances are neither a recent development nor discovery. In some African cultures it was used as a practical means of mate selection for young men and women of the community and it was believed that marriages built on such choices lasted the couples entire life time without any need for divorce! It is unfortunate that some of these dances in recent times are being judged by foreign or so called “moral” standards as being vulgar and indecent without much thought to the cultural relevance or reverence of the dance itself. The effect of dance and waist beads cannot be achieved without voluptuous bodies. This is not to say that slim women do not partake in the Makosa dance nor wear waist beads. Of course they do, but before the rave of the foreign ideal of what a beautiful woman (slim) should look like, flesh was in. This explains the Makosa mate selection dance which by a girl’s movement (shaking her ample bum, hips, belly or bosom), one could tell how good a wife she would be. Many great African leaders have been known to have picked their wives this way.
Another phenomenon are waist beads. Why waist beads? These beads, traditionally worn by African women mostly around their waists (under clothes these days) and on the wrists or ankles in other cases have several meanings. The ones worn on the waists was held in place by the buttocks or the belly with its uses, ranging from enticing your husband, rites of passage, to healing and rejuvenation. Traditionally they were constructed in the “fattening houses” used as initiation lodges for young girls in the Old Kongo Empire. They were a symbol of the beginning of a young girl’s reproductive cycle and this was a rite of passage to the mysteries of womanhood. It was also a time of learning from the older women who linked the physical mystery of these beads to menses, courtship, sex and childbearing . Since the art of self adornment has been practiced in Africa since the beginning of time, in Egypt, waist beads were uniforms for teenage girls ignoring any sexual nuance and they were called girdles. In Ghana, women believed that these beads helped achieve the hour glass figure and sexually stimulate their men just as some Islamic cultures allowed women wear these beads under their clothes also for a husband’s pleasure. In other parts of West Africa, women went as far as dipping their beads in scented oil or made them from fragrant material like sandalwood and wore them with tiny bells around their waist so that they jingled as they walked by. This signalled to the man that they were clean and ready in other cases, in some parts of West and North Africa, women are taken to fattening houses , where their bodies are prepared for marriage and in some cases the fattening process begins when a girl hits puberty as it is believed that African men like big women and that the size of a woman is a representation of the size of space she holds in her husband’s heart so the bigger the better !. These days it is interesting to know that the waist beads of old are once again becoming more visible especially amongst the youth as our jeans are getting lower and lower and people are showing more skin. The fit of these beads around the waist, is also used as a means of maintaining women’s body weight and figure, especially after childbirth, which simply shows that they were health and beauty conscious despite their large frames.
A woman was also supposed to be not just a wife, mother and lover to her husband, she was also literarily supposed to provide warmth. This explained why men preferred women with “something” they could hold on to and why young wives to be were taken to fattening huts to prepare their bodies for babies and the ability to provide a cushion effect (comfortable) for the unborn. The size of a woman, they believed, reflected the space you occupied in your husband’s heart. When Mfon had married, her mother in law had screamed at her skinny frame , “this is why you are still not pregnant, where do you expect a baby to rest in this bony body of yours?”
I still find it interesting that some men still appreciate the well rounded built for comfort type of woman like me and not surprised at the image conscious ones, who still believe that people should either look or strive to look a certain way (slim) to be termed as beautiful and healthy. What then happens to those of us born with big frames who just can not be thin? Just the other day I was listening to the lyrics of the song “pot belly” by the South African Group known as Freshly Ground. The title of the song first caught my attention and I wondered what anyone would have to say about a pot belly and when I listened to it , I couldn’t help appreciating and smiling at the chorus which says , “Fat thighs , flabby arms and a pot belly still gives good loving….” .
I shrug as I continue walking, I hear a man whistle in an attempt to get my attention which I ignore. I approach a small hill I used to run up in my slimmer days. I can’t run up it any more now that I am bigger and heavier. I shrug and walk round it continuing my walk. The truth is, I do not need to be thin or a shadow of myself for anyone to accept me as healthy or beautiful. In the midst of all this hogwash of what is and what some think should be, it is important to note that we are beautiful just the way we are and that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder with a big heart and mind. I’ll continue confident, strong and healthy and celebrate my curves for I know I am beautiful and smile at the fact that it is a gift to be a plus sized diva.