“Oh my God! You are so thin! Are you frustrated?”
This statement was uttered by a young lady to her middle-aged friend as they hooked up at one of Kigali’s eateries. It was clear they’d spent a while away from each other, hence the surprise at her friend’s new body weight.
It is likely that the last time they had been together, her friend had the conventional African woman’s figure; “fat (or full-bodied), a flabby bosom, wide hips and all. From my point of view as an observer, I found this scenario symbolic: symbolic of the point at which traditional and modern schools of thought differ on whether a woman should stay skinny or put on some weight.
Around the African continent, many people view beauty pageants with undisguised contempt and ridicule. They wonder why the word beauty should be lavished on women with just skin and bone. The much sought-after Western “figure 8”, or “Coca Cola bottle shape” is yet to find room in many “stubborn” African hearts.
While the traditional woman took pride in being fat, the modern woman is struggling to stay thin, at whatever cost. It is now in vogue to keep a slim body.
But is there truth in the theory that once a woman has bagged her man, she lets off a sigh of relief, and leaves her physical shape to go to ruins? What’s wrong with being fat?
“Fat” has always been a complimentary word in the traditional African context. Many cultural societies even sent their girls to ‘fattening houses’ before marriage, and overfed them to ensure that, as brides, they looked fat and presentable.
Popular modern euphemisms like massive, plump, big, heavy, trim, skinny and trendy did not even exist. One was either fat as a hippo (which was positive), or as thin as a newly hatched limping bird (a negative trait) – period!
Fat women proudly wobbled around the village like peacocks. They were regarded as graceful, hardworking, and healthy enough to bear strong children, calm enough to be entrusted with village secrets. Weight was synonymous with beauty and strength, with women who could make endless trips to the river, do household chores late into the night and, above all, give birth to tens of children.
But woe unto you if you were thin. It meant one was deprived in the most important functions of the community, especially child-bearing.
Pierre Kabuga, a retired civil servant, offers an explanation for the bias over slim women. “In the past, tropical diseases like malaria would wipe out entire villages. Those who were lucky to survive tended to lose weight and become very thin. Famine resulted in starvation and people became underweight.”
He adds: “Historically, in Rwanda, thin women had trouble giving birth. Either the baby died, or was born very weak. Thin women were despised because they were deemed to be abusive and short-tempered because of a traditional myth that such women over-produced bile in their body. Since they had no fat to absorb the bile, they ended up with bitter tongues. Thin women were believed to be malicious, too quarrelsome, and not to be entrusted with village secrets.”
On the contrary, he says that fat women were seen as warm and loving.
Why is the modern married woman trying so hard to stay trim? Is it because they have failed to come to terms with their marital status?
Traditionally, a woman had to put on weight after marriage, more so after child-birth. It was only natural. After child-birth, for instance, women tended to eat more and exercise less. Relatives, friends, in-laws and neighbours took to their care, bringing lots of food like milk, eggs and chicken on each visit. Before long, they had gained lots of weight.
Diane Uwase, a housewife in Kacyiru, a Kigali suburb, is all praise for her massive body. “I like being fat. If I become thin, people will conclude that I am suffering. I have to be fat so that my neighbours and relatives can envy me,” she says. Diane is convinced that fatness is a status issue. She adds: “It shows that I’m doing well. When I attend a social function, the other women look at me and envy me. This makes me happy.”
Lydia Kirabo, a Ugandan working in Kigali, weighs 86 kg. Very proud of her weight, she credits it to her husband’s cooking skills.
“Alpha runs a small restaurant and he loves cooking so much that he won’t allow me in the kitchen. I gained weight fast after marrying him seven years ago. I remember he loved baking me chocolate cake, and cooking fatty foods,” she says.
Kirabo admits that she rarely cooks, because her husband has turned her into a “chief tester” for the new recipes he is always coming up with. “On our wedding night, he swore before everybody that it was the last time they would ever see me thin. And he has made real his promise,” she says.
Lillian, an upcoming model, is trim and has no problem with how she is. She says her trendy size is genetic. Everybody in her family is slim and tall. “I eat cake and ice cream as opposed to a square meal. I avoid junk, and skip lunch because I rarely have the time,” she says.
Tess has tested the societal bias that comes along with being “thin”. She recalls that when she was in primary school, other children would tease her with names like ‘Skeleton’, and ‘Spiny Balinky’, implying she was thin and harsh as a wasp. However, she never caved in to the name-calling.
“I believe everybody has to be comfortable with themselves,” she says. “Weight should only be an issue if it is life-threatening.”