Things I’m learning in Uganda # 8 – it’s good to be fat!

The other day, I had to park particularly close to a fence, and I asked Natalie if she had enough room to get out of the car.  She replied, “No, I can’t fit because I’m fat.”

My immediate thought was slight panic –

My beautiful girl

My beautiful girl

What??  She’s not fat!  Why does she think that?  Who told her that?  Oh no, the body image issues are starting already!!  Natalie is almost 5 and has never said anything negative about her body before, but I realize it’s increasingly common to find girls as young as 5 and 6

who have already internalized our culture’s obsession with thinness.

Wanting to find out what was behind her comment, I casually replied, “Oh, you’re fat?”
“Yes,” she said proudly.  “I’m fatter than Georgina (a friend from school).  But our other friend is fatter than both of us, she is the fattest.”

She seemed quite proud of the statement that she was fat, so I asked her, “Is it a good thing to be fat?”
“Yes,” she replied without hesitation, looking at me as though I obviously should have known that.
I let out a huge sigh of relief that her comment was not an indication of a looming eating disorder.  Having come from a culture that idolizes thinness and encourages women to be dissatisfied with their bodies, I have to admit it was very refreshing to hear my five year old daughter boast of being fat, regardless of how inaccurate her statement is.
The influence of the Western media in shaping our standards of beauty became apparent to me many years ago when I first moved to Kenya.  Traditionally in Kenya, being “fat” is a sign of health and prosperity.  It is a signal that people have enough wealth to buy plenty of food, and that they are healthy enough to put on weight.  Thinness is a sign of being poor or sickly, and it can actually be an insult to refer to someone as “thin,” whereas people will happily comment on others being fat or “adding weight.”

In Kenya, I was surprised to find that the models in the advertisements and the actresses on TV actually looked like normal sized women, with attractive feminine curves.  In general, an ideal size in this part of the world might be around a 10 or 12, and I recall only 2 or 3 East African woman that I’ve encountered in my 5+ years of living here who were on a diet.

A current advertisement in Kampala which demonstrates the different standards of beauty in this part of the world

A current advertisement in Kampala which demonstrates the different standards of beauty in this part of the world

How did our American culture become so obsessed with thinness? Why are so many American women unhappy with their bodies, even those who are slender? How did we get to the place where we consider a size unobtainable by the majority of women to be the most beautiful?

Our standards of beauty are shaped by the culture in which we live, and in the US the biggest influence in shaping our culture is the media.  More specifically, advertising, which is the foundation of the media.  All of us think we are not affected by advertising, and this is why it is so powerful.  In 2011, there were 36 companies that spent 1 billion dollars or more on advertising.  Corporations would not be spending this kind of money if advertising was not extremely influential.

A basic premise behind advertising is to make

How photoshop creates an unobtainable ideal

How photoshop creates an unobtainable ideal

us dissatisfied, so that we will buy things to address this dissatisfaction.  If a woman is satisfied with her natural appearance, she doesn’t need to spend much money to maintain it.  But if that woman can be convinced that she falls short of the ideal, and if she can be convinced to the degree that her appearance makes her feel bad about herself, she can be persuaded to buy all kinds of products to feel better about herself and help her attempt to achieve the ideal – diet books and plans, gym memberships, plastic surgery, makeup, haircare products, slimming undergarments, antiwrinkle creams, cellulite

The problem is that even the women we see in advertisements don’t really look like that.  Photoshop has enabled editors to erase every bodily flaw with the click of a mouse.  The “ideal” that is being sold to us is absolute perfection, which in reality is only possible with a computer program.  So we are all chasing after an impossible ideal, and spending a lot of money in the process!  I read a statistic that the average American urban woman spends 1/3 of her income on items related to her appearance.

One of the more disheartening problems of this impossible ideal is that even young girls pick up on our culture’s obsession with thinness and begin to diet and feel shameful of their bodies at such a young age.  So for now, this is one thing I appreciate about living in Uganda.  I love that both my daughter and I are surrounded by images of beautiful, normal women with healthy curves, and that my daughter feels proud and not ashamed of her body.


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