Roughly 24 hours after arriving back in Dakar from a glorious (somewhat gluttonous) summer in the U.S., I’m at the local grocery store picking up some essentials: bleach, toilet paper, and like thirty kilos of cheddar cheese (because hey, you never know when cheddar might be out of stock for months, so you buy up when you get the chance. True story: the lady working the deli counter once asked Rick if he owned a restaurant because he bought so much cheddar cheese.)
Naby is the general manager of the store. We’ve been friends since he was just the produce guy, and the thing you should know about him is that he’s the kind of guy you want to introduce to your single friends. Young, cute, a smile that takes up most of his face…the kind of guy who goes out of his way to make sure he’s the one bagging my groceries and walking them out to my car, always refusing a tip with a look of mock insult.
I’m perusing the ice cream freezer when Naby finds me.
“Eeeehh, my friend!” he says, gripping my hand. “It’s been a long time.”
Flattered that he’s noticed my absence, I greet him and explain that I’ve been in the U.S. for a few months.
“Well, you must have had a great time,” he says. “You’re so fat!”
Now, there are a few possible reactions that cycle through my mind:
1. Punch my friend Naby with my fat fist.
2. Burst into tears and run out of the store, abandoning the cheddar gold mine
What I actually do is straighten up, suck in my stomach, smile, and say thank you, hoping he doesn’t notice the look of utter despair in my eyes. Because here’s the thing: Naby has actually just paid me a huge compliment, culturally speaking. Here in Senegal, being a little…well, jaay fonde (roughly translated from Wolof as “bootylicious”) is totally hot. It’s his way of saying that I look great — rested, well-fed and happy.
When Senegalese men are looking for a wife, they judge you by the girth of your hips and the ampleness of your backside. I learned this from a taxi driver once, who informed me that he was looking for a second wife and then proceeded to point out all the women along the road who met his requirements. “That one, there — she’s nice and round. The one in the blue pagné — too skinny.”
See, if you’re a little chubby, it means that you have the means to enjoy life…that you’re wealthy enough to eat well and not have to spend your days doing manual labor. It’s also a sign that you’re healthy, and not sick — a very important consideration in a part of the world plagued by so many diseases. And those big hips? Good for one thing: birthing babies. Lots of them.
In fact, the beauty standard of plumpness is so deeply entrenched in West African culture that in Mauritania, our neighboring country to the north, women are actually sent to camps where they are force-fed to put on weight in an attempt to secure better marriage prospects.
Fat camp, anyone?
But just like the West’s obsession with being skinny has produced all kinds of eating disorders and chronic yo-yo dieting, West Africa’s big-is-beautiful ideal has created its own problems — rising epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and all the other health issues that come with diets high in fat and sugar.
I guess what’s surprising to me (and maybe it shouldn’t be) is that objectification of women’s bodies, although it may look different, seems to happen in pretty much every culture across the globe… a woman’s value and worth judged by her body — how many or few curves she has, how much or how little of it she shows — as if her outer appearance, her sexuality, her reproductive capability, and her ability to snag a good man are the total sum of what she has to offer the world.
Generations of women since the beginning of time have conformed their bodies to whatever is considered desirable within their tribe. Seriously, there’s some crazy stuff out there — from foot binding, to neck elongation, to teeth sharpening (my mouth hurts just thinking about that one). Here in West Africa, and in many other parts of the continent and across the Middle East, women practice female genital cutting (FGC) as a way to ensure marriageability. It’s an emotionally and physically devastating practice…and yet a girl who is uncut will be totally ostracized from her community.
It’s easy for those of us who consider ourselves “modern” Westerners to pass judgment on these practices as barbaric and uncivilized (I’m looking at you, burkini-banning countries)…but maybe it’s time we get off of our botox-laden, collagen-injected, lipo-suctioned, teeth-whitened, face-lifted, nose-jobbed high horse and recognize that our own culture’s beauty standards — and the unrealistic beauty narrative we’re fed by the media from the time we’re old enough to brush our own hair — are just as barbaric and harmful to a woman’s sense of identity and value and worth. (“Wake up pretty?” Are you kidding me? This is actually on someone’s list of goals?)
I know…change is slow. But it is coming. I have high hopes that, just as women are coming together in West Africa to end practices like FGC in their culture, my daughters’ generation will be the ones to change what it means to be beautiful in ours. This is just my inner Western feminist talking, but I personally can’t wait for the day that we can start talking about women’s brains instead of their bodies. You know…like, “Man, that girl has some seriously sweet math skills. Did you see the size of her geometry proofs?”
On a shallower note, ladies — if you’re on the jaay fonde side of things, you should totally move to Senegal. If you can get over the Western beauty ideal of the anorexic model, it’s great for your self-esteem.