Judge not your beauty by the number of people who look at you, but rather by the number of people who smile at you. African Proverb
I was planning to write about my favourite hotel for the ‘My Happy Place’ prompt, but then an arse got in the way…
Yesterday I was at an event about increasing access to safe abortion and contraception for women in Africa. After the speeches came the networking and I found myself catching up with a Kenyan woman I’d previously worked with. As she bent over to get her new card from her bag, a man walked past and knocked into her. Apologies exchanged, she glanced my way, rolled her eyes and said: “My arse is in the next postcode.”
Oh, how I love the no nonsense attitude to body shape and size common to many African countries. I have travelled to Africa many many times, but never as a tourist. I work in villages and hospitals and schools and I sit and chat with people whose questions and opinions are not diluted by the rules of tourism or customer service. And there are no barriers!
She and I stood at the back of an austere room in the House of Lords yesterday hooting with laughter as I told her about my first visit 13 years ago, where in Rwanda I was surrounded by six or seven women who at first stared at and then poked my arse before chattering loudly, dissolving into hysterical contagious laughter and slapping their thighs with glee. I looked at my translator. “They are saying your behind is very flat,” he said, with no trace of embarrassment.
Fast forward to last year and I’m sat on a wall in Nigeria pondering a manky toenail:
Her: What has happened to your toenail?
Me: I went running and my nails were too long so it’s got a bit bruised.
Her: You are running! Are you SERIOUS? How far? A few metres?
Me: No, I’m training for a marathon.
Her: Oh my! God have mercy on you, running with your weight.
There was no cruelty intended in either of these exchanges, they were just statements of fact. Of course, media-promoted ideals are creeping in in the same way I noticed in Brazil earlier this year, but, if I were going to make a sweeping statement about a continent of 54 countries for the sake of a blog post, I’d say (based on my experience) beauty is a pretty democratic thing. And big is often beautiful.
One of the first stories I worked on, way back in 2002, was about the Miss Fats Beauty Pageant in South Africa. In Burkina Faso a previous winner of the national beauty contest weighed in at 18 stone, double the weight of some contestants. Yesterday my colleague and I found ourselves chatting about the character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah whose body is appreciated more by her Nigerian lover after she returns from America, gives up the quinoa and takes up a fried plantain habit.
I have a friend of similar height and weight to me who lived in Africa for many years and also travels there frequently for work. We had a conversation once about how much sexier and attractive we both feel there. In many of the countries and communities we have worked in, our body types are much more in keeping with what is regarded as gorgeous and sought after and it would be pointless to pretend that this isn’t a nice feeling when at home we often feel the opposite.
My personality also seems to somehow fit better there. Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly happy with myself wherever in the world I am, but I’m not shy, I laugh loudly, I ask direct questions, I offer blunt feedback, I eat salad with my fingers in smart restaurants, and I rarely say no to an extra portion or a last glass. I fit in well in places where they comment on your arse within five minutes of meeting you! Although I must admit even I was lost for words when earlier this year a woman I’d never met before greeted me with a squeeze of my breast to check whether I was ripe…
I’ve been pondering a post about Africa and body image pretty much since I started this blog at the end of February. In fact, the images here were snapped in preparation way back in March. I can share some of my personal reflections and anecdotes as I have done here, but that is one perspective and only scratches the surface. I am interested in delving deeper and bringing in other voices.
Yesterday afternoon we didn’t just cover arses, we ran the gamut from arses to stomachs to ‘what’s the point of underwear that creates a lie?’ to getting naked with new partners. Someone walked over and said “I’m watching you two, you’re making me laugh.”
My email pinged last night: “Let’s continue that conversation.”
I replied enthusiastically.
This morning: “Then let’s find an event serving wine!”
She’s right. Women like us aren’t suited to cucumber sandwiches and china teacups in fusty old buildings.