“We like it, you are big, fat -you are beautiful.”
Something that I least expected to affect me throughout my time here in Ghana is the Ghanaian perception of body size. Mr. Kwasi Adjei Forson, our professor at KNUST, explained to us in class that in Ghana, bigger women are considered beautiful. He went on to explain that “when you are big, you are beautiful…the men want to hold the flesh, they want to hold the woman.”
On our second day in Kumasi, we traveled as a group to Vodafone to set up our phone and internet plans. As students visiting service-sites started to leave, a small group of us remained as we waited for everyone to finish up. Some of the men at Vodafone sat and chatted with us. One of them leaned in, smiling, an asked, “How old are you?” I told him I was 19. He replied, ‘Wow, 19? Woho efe paa. Do you know what that means? It means you are very beautiful.”
I was not sure how to take it since he was considerably older, but I took it as a compliment and sat there as a blush confusingly crept up onto my cheeks. Soon after, we finished and we left.
After asking Dr. Bowles and my friends, it was explained to me that bigger women are associated with wealth and maturity. It is expected that as a woman grows older, you gain wisdom and wealth, and you are able to provide more and eat more. Being fat is also associated with strength, as Mr. Forson explained, “even when you are fat, you are strong…if you try to slim down, you will die.” He added that other features such as big eyes, a tooth gap, or soft skin are also desired in women. Interestingly enough, he also pointed out that “beauty is reserved for women” and intelligence and strength are reserved for men. Kindness, however, is a universal trait of beauty, “when you are kind, you are beautiful.”
Throughout the past few weeks, men have smiled at me, asked for my name, where I am staying, and have proclaimed their love for me. I never expected any of this.
It is both refreshing and uncomfortable. On the one hand, my fatness in the U.S. has never received the same celebration, on the other hand, this newfound attention at times is unwanted and uncomfortable. However, I must nuance this and state that every social interaction and comment I have received is not always because I am beautiful and fat. Whether it is because of my perceived whiteness, my American citizenship, men just trying to sell me a TV or painting, or simply just trying to get my attention and ask me how I am doing, most of these interactions are much more nuanced than beauty standards alone.
The Ghanaian perception of body size significantly contrasts the standards of beauty in the U.S.
To be fat in the U.S. is to be mostly unattractive, lazy, or unhealthy. To be fat in Ghana is to be beautiful, strong, wealthy, wise, and so much more. In the U.S., I am perceived as lazy (I mean, I am) and people assume that because I am fat I am not healthy (I am alive and well). Many Americans seem to forget that for some of us, it is cheaper to afford fast food rather than a salad at Whole Foods. Money comes and goes, and so does food and you eat what you can to get you through the day.
Moreover, in American media, fat characters are limited to their own self-consciousness about their bodies and are assigned the same tropes of the “funny fat sidekick” to the popular and slim main character, or the “unpopular nerd” that everyone underestimates. Fat representation is always intentional and limited to one character. Contrastingly, as I flip through the channels on Freeman’s cable, I see women whose bodies look like mine all over the local channels (minus the American shows and movies). It is so refreshing and comforting to see this representation: to have fat people just be regular people, to exist as they are.
Another important nuance to add, as Mr. Forson, states, the impact of globalization and modernity on Ghanaian beauty standards. This impact manifests in the European beauty trend and desires of some women to be slim and have larger chests or butts. I see this shift in beauty trends and standards in the more contemporary Ghanaian and generally African music videos, where body sizes do not look too dissimilar from an American or Latin American music video.
In many ways, ways I cannot yet comprehend, Ghana has granted me a confidence and comfort that I am not sure I can reproduce in the United States. And this blog post is simply a fragment of a larger reflection around the relationship between myself, my body, my health, and the structures/institutions in place that influenced and continue to influence my health education and accessibility to health care providers.
For those of you that read this post and felt some type of way every time I called myself Fat, why is fatness negative? Why is it ugly? I am Fat and have been for as long as I could remember. I do not know who I would be without my round face and big thighs. I have spent far too much of my life making myself smaller for the comfort and convenience of others. I am not a rolling hill, or sky, or galaxy, or whatever cheap metaphor for fatness anyone can think of – I simply take up the physical space that I do. Nothing more, nothing less.
So, my phone fell in the toilet and I currently do not have any photos to post, but here is a link to a psychological research article that provides a comparative analysis between body ideals and satisfaction between women in U.S. and Ghanaian and Ukrainian women. While this Western and psycho-social perspective is comfortable making generalizations about women and their self-perceptions, they particularly expand on the larger impacts of Western ideologies and culture on beauty standards and the self-perceptions of women as mentioned by Mr. Forson and I think it is worth looking at: https://hrcak.srce.hr/32439
Frederick, David A., Gordon B. Forbes, and Berezovskaya Anna. “Female body dissatisfaction and perceptions of the attractive female body in Ghana, the Ukraine, and the United States.” Psihologijske teme 17, no. 2 (2008): 203-219.
Update: I also saw several weight loss advertisements throughout the city, randomly posted on roadsides and light posts. These advertisements further perpetuate the influence of thinness and European beauty standards that Mr. Forson referenced.
Photo: A weight loss advertisement for “Forever Living Products” being sold in Accra.
Photo: Ghanaian actress Nana Ama McBrown advertising Calorad, a weight loss formula.
Here is a link to a Bitters commercial that display women of different sizes in promoting their product: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kurb-uUDPAQ.