Africa has always appreciated the curvy woman with the full figure associated with fertility, health and affluence. Just think of the Shona word ‘chivhindikiti’. This describes a strong, full figured woman who many would say is the ‘authentic’, ‘real’ representation of African beauty. And do you remember when the ‘sele’ dance craze gripped our nation or when the Iyasa dance group popularised the “bum jive”?
This was long before America embraced twerking.
If you need further evidence, just take a look at the language that our own African literary discourse uses to describe a beautiful African woman. Let us look at a book that was published decades, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1964 classic ‘Weep Not Child’ . The character of Ngotho’s idea of a good wife is a “fleshy, black body with sweat.”
In Chimamanda Adichie’s book, ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ , the picture of our lead character, Olanna, is painted with a sensually stimulating edibility. She has a “curvy fleshy body” that is like “a yellow cashew, shapely and ripe”. Her beauty is in the arch of her hips, the lusciousness of her bosom, the plumpness of her derriere and the thickness of her thighs.
This is consistent with many other portrayals of the African woman.
Bigger in the ‘right’ places
And now, the rest of the world is catching up. Western pop culture now fiercely endorses the fuller figure. Hits like Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ and Meghan Trainor’s “All About The Bass’ have achieved immense popularity for giving the spotlight to fuller figured women.
Evidently, we are in the age where the curves of a woman are glorified. Look at some of this decade’s fashion icons; Kim Kardashian, Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez. The word ‘bootylicious’ has even been added to the dictionary. This is all testament to how being bigger – at least in all the ‘right’ places – has become better.
This cultural shift has mostly been welcome in accelerating progression towards building healthier body images. The only issue, however, is that it seems that uplifting the voluptuous woman comes at the hidden, and often unaddressed, cost of trampling on the slender figure. In Trainor’s song, she derogatorily addresses the “skinny b*tches” and mocks their “stick figures”. Their bodies are not seen as ‘worthy’, as “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” after all.
Now, let us look again at Adichie’s novel and turn our focus on Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister in ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’. Termed the son of the family and “not pretty at all”, would you like to hazard a guess at her body type?
She is described as “very tall”, “very skinny” and “almost androgynous”. She has “boyish hips” and she “looked very thin and even thinner when she stood beside Olanna.” There is a definite contrast in the description of the physical attributes of the two; Kainene’s description carries heavily negative tones and it seems that her own femininity is not acceptable in any way.
I am biased in all of this because my body type resembles Kainene’s in many ways. However, I also generally have an issue with depictions of what beauty is, as dictated by body type. The image of the voluptuous diva in the African context has become so glorified that often, anyone who is a size 6 and below is made to seem inadequate, less of a woman, androgynous or even masculine. This begs the question: Is our society’s perception of your femininity, your worth as a woman premised upon how curvy you are?
My aunts beam with anticipation at the prospects of charging high lobola for my cousins who are well endowed with ‘assets’ as they call them. As for me, I weigh a little below 50 kgs and I have a petite frame. My aunts ‘console’ me by telling me that at least I am educated and intelligent.
“Mwari vakagona vakakupa njere hako”, they say.
Also, they also have no qualms with telling me,“ You are so tiny. You need to eat.”, or comparing me to a toothpick, and my collar bone to a coat hanger.
I am constantly told to stop dieting (even though I have never been on a diet in my entire life), that I am anorexic, and asked how old I am. I get questions like these constantly, in rude and often condescending ways. And in most cases, from other women.
If it is not acceptable to ask a full figured woman to eat less why do so many people find it appropriate to instruct a slender woman to eat more?
Ridicule and insult are not exclusive to the plus-sized figure. The thin figure is also placed under scrutiny in ways that are just as unkind, hurtful, and problematic. Now, we even have women who have gone to the drastic length of turning to the black market for illegal and sometimes disfiguring tablets such as Appetito all for this elusive perfect figure.
By popular culture standards, the ideal of beauty – who represents beauty, and what is considered as beautiful – changes so radically and drastically. In this age of image awareness, popular culture is redefining beauty by showing us what ‘real women’ look like.
But aren’t all women real?
‘Beauty’, therefore, seems to be an exclusive trait; one not everyone can possess, and one whose standard seems to thrive on building inferiority complexes.
We have to discuss and combat this problem. With the type of body shaming that popular culture perpetuates, we have to rebel and make clear that every body is worthy of pride. If we are going to uplift the full figure, let the message be positive without any snide remarks made about “skinny b*tches”.
This article was first published by Her Zimbabwe and is republished here with their permission.