It’s that time of year when people put on a few extra pounds, a little insulation for the colder weather, that happily coincides with Thanksgiving and countless Christmas parties throughout the month of December. The New Year comes and the resolutions to shed those holiday pounds are made and mostly forgotten by Valentine’s Day.
Weight is not only an American issue. In some way or another, what one weighs is scrutinized in every culture across the globe – just not in the way we may expect.
I have long surmised that that wealth equals beauty. What a culture considers beautiful is that which tangibly manifests wealth.
A culturally acceptable beautiful woman in the United States is thin, toned and usually tan. Healthy food is expensive. The luxury of exercise is dependent on having the time. Sunbathing accompanies beach vacations or cruises through the Bahamas. Of course these are all generalizations. But where does our standard for beauty come from? It comes from those things associated with wealth.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, my entire village was thin. There was not a fat person, or even chubby person, in the vicinity. Why? Because they were all dirt poor. Intestinal parasites wreaked havoc in their guts. Bouts of malaria kept them from eating for weeks on end. They had to work in the fields to provide food for their families. For them, to be fat was beautiful. Fat=Wealthy. To be fat meant you had enough food throughout the year; it meant your body could digest the food ingested; it meant you weren’t scrapping by.
During my two years in Guinea I lost a considerable
amount of weight. Coming out of college, I was by no means overweight. But within six months, I was waif thin. I continually battled intestinal parasites. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the constant bloating, vomiting and diarrhea, I was quite happy with the results. At 22, I’d reached a pre-pubescent weight. I can hear the judgment in your head already.
“That’s not healthy”.
“I can’t believe you’d be happy about that.”
Well, you’re just jealous you don’t have parasites! Just kidding. I was 22 and stupid.
When I would return to my village after traveling, all of my neighbors and co-workers would compliment me on how fat I had become while away. At first, I was confused. Did I really look fat to them? Why would they wish to insult me like that? The weight loss wasn’t just in my head, was it? I would become offended quickly and escape to my mud hut to get away from their criticism. You may laugh at my naïveté, but growing up in a skinny-obsessed culture, it was outside my scope of understanding that anyone would find it complimentary to be called fat.
I live in an urban city on Clove Island. It is much more modern than my jungle home in Guinea. Most people aren’t starving. They may work in the field occasionally if they inherited a plot of land from their father, but the produce is not their main form of sustenance.
And yet, the idea that fat equaling beauty remains. I heard a statistic recently, which is unconfirmed, that one-third of all married women on
Clove Island are obese. I spoke with a university professor who believes it’s closer to two-thirds. Unmarried girls and women are naturally thin. But once that ring is on the finger, pop, they balloon. Why?
I can’t say for certain. I have spoken with many people on the subject. Unmarried women long for the day they will be fat and men say they much prefer a woman with meat on her bones. My best guess is that being fat is still associated with wealth and closely tied to honor and shame. As a husband, if you are able to provide enough food for your wife to get fat, that is honorable. If not, you are shamed; you are poor.
Before coming to Clove Island, I assumed that I would lose weight here, just as I had in Guinea. So I put no restraints on what I ate. I love McDonald’s frappés and Starbuck’s chai lattes. I’m a sucker for Five Guy’s burgers and Dominoes pizza. And at 27, my metabolism wasn’t what it was before. So I packed on the pounds. No problem though, I’m going to Africa.
Unfortunately, while I have gotten parasites on several occasions, they’re not the weight loss kinds. My natural weight-loss plan never worked out. When I went home in August, I tried to put on my brave feminist face- it doesn’t matter how much I weigh, I can still be beautiful. But wow, it was hard and I was ashamed of how I looked. On the beach in Florida, I was surrounded by thin bikini models. I felt like a whale. Trying on clothes at the outlet mall, I wanted to cry every time I had pull something “large” over my head.
It was so much easier to be happy with my body on Clove Island. With no television, no malls, no bikinis, no one to impress- I just was. I didn’t dwell on my weight. But I won’t be on this island forever. My 30th birthday is quickly approaching and I want to return to America unashamed of my body.
I decided to make some changes upon my return to the island. I cut out a lot of my sugar intake and I started to work out several times each week. I’ve been using the Nike Training App, which I love! In the past three months, I have lost 20 pounds much to the chagrin of my island friends.
Yesterday I ran into a friend I haven’t seen in about two months. Our conversation went like this, “Jessica, it’s been so long I haven’t seen you.”
“I know. I am so busy.”
She reached up and touched my cheek, “Why you look so thin? You always so thin.”
My face brightened and with a huge grin I said, “Thank you! That is so kind. You make me happy.”
“What? You want be so thin. No, it’s not good. You must eat more.”
Don’t worry. I am not a waif thin Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m still 25lbs heavier than I was when I finished my Peace Corps service. But my brutally honest friend was telling me just how unattractive I had become in her opinion and I couldn’t have been happier!
So for all of you who worry about the Christmas pounds you’re going to put on, take comfort that in some places of the world, you would not be judged or scorned but considered very beautiful!
Also remember there are those less fortunate than you all around the globe, who consider you beautiful because you have more than enough to eat. Spread the joy and donate so they can eat too.