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Ghana: Where my body is everybody’s business

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I’m the biggest I have been in five years, almost back full circle to the size I was six years ago. I managed to drop from a UK size 16 to a UK size 12 but now all my size 14 clothes fit a little too snugly. I suspect I’m right back to being a size 16 but I can’t be sure because I haven’t bought any new clothes. I’ve merely stopped wearing the clothes that feel too tight and choose only those items that were once loose on my body.

It’s horrible being overweight in Ghana. Everybody will readily tell you how obolo (fat) you’ve become. Aunties will screech, “Ei. W pai o!” (You’re bursting at the seams!) even though they themselves are spilling over their kaftans and are probably twice your size. Once when I was working out with the office trainer, my manager exclaimed, “Ei Nana. Look how fat the back of your neck has become.” “That’s why I’m working out,” I muttered under my breath. She had the nerve to comment on my body when she’s at least a size and a half bigger than I am. Maybe it’s because she has children – women with children get a pass, I think. But from what my friends with children say, that pass doesn’t last very long.

Many years ago, before the white man came to the Gold Coast, it was a good thing to be fat. Fat women were treasured. Being fat was a sign of prosperity and wealth. Times have indeed changed. The last time I visited my farming village, Kwadarko, in the eastern region of Ghana, one of the women who lives in the community said to me, “Ei. You have become fat. She must’ve seen the reaction on my face because she swiftly added, “But it really suits you.” So even in a small farming village of less than 100 people, 50% of whom I’m related to, it’s not a good thing to be big.

I’ve always had issues with my weight. I was a skinny child, mainly due to the asthma that frequently racked my body. In secondary school I developed breasts really quickly and generally felt uncomfortable with my body. In sixth form, my friend Lauren and I would wake up early, jog around the football field, and do countless sit-ups in an effort to control our weight. When I look back at photos from that time I realise how “normal” my body was. I definitely wasn’t overweight as a child or teenager.

The weight gain happened in my early adult years when I moved from Ghana to London. I was initially unhappy there, living with relatives but not really feeling at home. I got a job at Pizza Hut, and was entitled to a free meal every shift I worked. Another perk was a 50% staff discount on products sold by Pizza Hut, including Häagen-Dazs ice cream. That was when I began to gain weight. Food became my emotional crutch. When I eventually rented a flat with a friend, I had crept from a size 10 to a size 12. She was a size 8 and proud of her body, perhaps too proud. She’d walk around our flat naked and tease me about my weight gain. We stopped doing the weekly grocery shopping together after she complained, “You’re eating us out of house and home.”

“I start diets all the time and I’m sick of them.” (sxc.hu)

Years later, I got married to a (slim) man. He was one of those people who sometimes forgets to eat but I have never forgotten a meal in my life. When we began having problems in our marriage, he kept losing weight and I kept gaining it. I remember him saying, “You don’t even care. Look how much weight you’re gaining while I keep getting skinnier.” The fact that he is now my ex-husband has nothing to do with the different ways in which we dealt with emotional issues.

The worst bit about my weight battle is that I know being fat is a feminist issue. I recognise that women are fed images of ultra-skinny models, actresses and other unattainable ideals via television screens, magazines and billboards. I know that I am not as fat as I feel. When I was at my skinniest I didn’t automatically feel happy, even though I had assumed that being able to buy size 10 clothes would have brought me automatic joy.

I know the roots of my over-eating are emotional. When I’m happy, I celebrate with a posh dinner with a friend. When I’m down, I take refuge in a large bar of chocolate. I recognise that I should drink water, eat almonds instead of chocolate, drink less wine. I start diets all the time and I’m sick of them. Why can’t I be one of the metabolically blessed who can indulge as much as they want without picking up weight? I watch my skinny friends when we go out for meals. The break off half a roll from the bread basket; I keep dipping into it. They order baked fish with a side of veggies; I choose the rich grouper provençal (fish in creamy sauce). I know I should but I just can’t seem to imitate them.

Surely I’m not the only woman who feels this way; who hates being called fat; who worries, perhaps unnecessarily, about what the scale tells her. I’m not the only woman who gets quizzed about her weight as if her body is public property. My friends tell me that in Freetown, Sierra Leone, you could be chilling at Lumley Beach only for a passing driver to stick his head out of his car and yell, “You bomp!” You could be in a boardroom in Lagos and be called “orobo“. Stroll down Electric Avenue in Nairobi and you may overhear someone say, “Eno ne momo.”

What’s this obsession with fat shaming?

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah works as a communications specialist at the African Women’s Development Fund, is co-owner of MAKSI Clothing and curates Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, a highly acclaimed and widely read blog on African women and sexuality. 

Photographer’s Credit: sxc.hu

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15 Responses to “Ghana: Where my body is everybody’s business”

  1. Emilie P #

    Thanks Nana for sharing! Being a fat girl from Northern Europe, going to Ghana was such a nice experience, cause suddenly I was seen as normal sized, I would get positive comments about my body and when I looked around most women were my size. I also remember the obolobo comments, but always laughed them off, as I understood it as people telling me I have become more beautiful.

    It was interesting to hear your perspective cause I often remember Ghana as a place where I felt more relaxed about my body. Less tv adds and less undressed manequines in the clothes shops made me feel less fat. There is no doubt that in my society there is a serious over focus on working out, eating healthy etc, and just as you right, it doesn’t matter if you are actually healthy and normal growing up, you still get to hear how fat you are.

    My experience is that when I do work out I often don’t feel for food or snacks, but just as you, food is for me an emotional healer. I also thought about the fact how difficult it is to work out in Ghana, especially Accra. Biking is close to impossible because of the traffic and lack of sideways. The high temperature makes it horrible to walk or run unless very early in the morning, 5-6am) when it’s still dark and maybe a bit unsafe. Doing sports, going to the gym or swimming often cost a lot of money and is not easily available, on top of this we have the wonderful food, often full with oil.

    I think exercising is great, and it gives you positive feelings, but eating good also does. I read an article saying, taking one piece of chocolate is to be good to yourself but eating the whole chocolate cake is not, I try to think about that.

    Thanks again for sharing! E

    March 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm Reply
  2. Soraya #

    I gained a whole bunch of weight when I moved to the US from Ghana. When I went back home one Christmas for a visit, I got so many horrible comments that I didn’t leave the house for days. Someone actually asked me (after church, incidentally) whether I eat only burgers and fries. Another time, I was with my folks and they bumped into this pastor they kinda sorta knew. They introduced me and his first words were “oh, you are so big, it’s not nice”. You better know I just walked away. My parents were too stunned to scold me for being rude or scold him for being a douchebag.

    Anyways, I have a family history of high blood pressure so I keep a BP monitor at home and do a self-check every few weeks. So far, so good. I’m making the necessary life changes to keep it that way. The other day I had some friends over and I took their BPs, just for fun. One girl’s BP was pretty high (150/92) and I asked her to book an appointment with her doctor ASAP. She was the thinnest person in the room – probably a US size 4-6.

    I tell this story not to excuse poor diet/ no exercise/ couch potato living, but to remind people that while being obese is certainly bad for you, being slender is not an indicator of good health. We tend to focus too much on the end and not the means, giving some slim folks a false sense of security.

    Lastly, please miss me with any attempts to find an evolutionary basis for fat hating. Miss me by a mile.


    February 23, 2013 at 4:27 am Reply
  3. Ben #

    Excuses! excuses!! excuses!!!

    Blame others! blame others!! blame others!!!

    It’s society’s fault!

    Look at it this way….at any given point in time, different societies CHOOSE what they think is acceptable and what they think it’s not.

    I wont worry too much about the reasons why society chooses it thinks r right and not here. Mayb later.

    Right now most societies think being fat is improper. Most African societies also think being a drunk leads to less respect. They also think having many children and not being able to look after them is unwise etc etc

    On the other hand, most African societies think getting an education for a girl child is a good investment. Most think being healthy is good and most have stopped killing disabled children and practicing female circumcision.

    So lady, it’s all about you. If you wanna conform to what society wants…it’s your issue. If u dont…jus bear ya cross!

    I’d be more worried about the health implications than what society thinks to be honest!

    @papabedo on twitter

    February 22, 2013 at 6:34 pm Reply
  4. @Ayanda – Thanks. I think there’s definitely something about moving countries, and having a completely new way of eating which can really mess with efforts to manage your weight. Its like you have a system that works and then suddenly it goes up in the air. Agree re media and fat shaming

    @Malaka – I wish it would stop too. People who are overweight know they are overweight. A lot of the overweight people I know are working on loosing weight, calling them/us fat doesn’t help the process, it just knocks our body confidence.

    @Smensah – It can be a huge shock to the system right? Its like there is no self censorship whatsoever…depending on my mood I’ll respond very cheekily to anyone who comments on my body.

    @Josephine – I agree with most of what you say. We all need to ensure that we are healthy, and being overweight can be detrimental to our health

    @Marlaine – I suspect a lot of fat people are not in denial about their weight at all…how can we be when society reminds us all of the time? I’m not convinced that peoples visceral response to ‘fat’ is because its bad for our health…cos like I said in my post some of these people are even bigger than the people they are complaining about. Plus there are a lot of things that are bad for our health, and probably even worse than being overweight.

    @Karen – I am perpetually doing something about ‘it’ :P And does the fact that you’ve never heard anyone being called fat in public mean that it doesn’t happen?

    February 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm Reply
  5. Karen #

    Its very unhealthy to be over weight, so I think you should do something about it. Stop blaming everyone.
    I have never heard people calling fat people names in public!

    February 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm Reply
  6. Marlaine #

    Nana. people who are fat are in denial. They don’t realize how everything in others cringes at the sight of it. From a feminist perspective, yes, the media takes things too far, to the extreme, but the reality is that fat is deadly to ones health! That is the primeval reason why it elicits such a negative reaction fom others. Everything inside of them is repulsed when they see it because they instinctively know that this person needs to shed it fast, otherwise they will, literally, die! Just an extra 5 kilograms of fat around the belly will cause your body to increase it’s insulin output by 10 times!

    The feminist attitude concerning this issue is one that is lulling many fat women into staying fat and wallowing in the health issues and social misery that it brings! The best thing that could ever have happened to me was when I went to a doctor about the water retention in my feet and legs and all he was interested in talking to me about was my weight. I got such a wake up call, because I too was buying into the idea that it’s the media that makes people abhor fat, where in fact it goes much much deeper than that! It is a survival mechanism that is inbuilt into the psyche of society to protect itself from self inflicted sickness and death. Think about it?

    February 22, 2013 at 7:10 am Reply
    • Josephine #

      I totally agree with you on this one. While I think its extremely rude to ‘fat-shame’, the fact of the matter is, is that if you are doing no exercise, eating many rolls out the bread basket and ordering fish stewed in cream, you should be thinking about your heart, cholesterol, blood glucose…You could be putting yourself at serious risk of heart-attack,high cholesterol, diabetes etc.

      The ‘western’ obsession with fat is not only vanity, but that being overweight is a serious health concern. i don’t think its ok to call someone fat unless they are your friend and you are genuinely concerned for them… But I don’t believe that a ‘healthy-weight’ is whatever your body wants to do. If you are overweight, you are putting strain on your organs. And its very obvious when someone is bigger than their frame allows.

      And with regards to the feminist point – Noone is saying one should be supermodel skinny, but one should not be obese either. Why carry extra fat these days? We needed fat in the past to help us survive times of drought/famine. Now we experience exactly the opposite – overabundance of high-energy foods and no exercise to use those energy stores! It’s pure gluttony.

      February 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm Reply
  7. Smensah #

    I had a very similar experience when going to Ghana. It was my first time there (in 2008) although I grew up knowing that my dad was Ghanaian. And for the whole trip I was called things like big mama. And i’ll never forget meeting my dads favorite uncle for the first time. He introduced himself to my aunt thinking that I was her and when I introduced myself the first thing he said was “oh God how did you get so fat.” I have in fact been “fat” most of my life but never having experienced being told so to my face in such blunt ways. And as you mention, not by persons who were often heavier than I was.

    February 21, 2013 at 10:41 pm Reply
  8. Malaka #

    I am one of those people with kids who still doesn’t get a pass. It’s just not fair! Perhaps people still see me as single…

    Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that a ‘healthy weight’ is one that allows your body to do whatever you want it to do, be it sitting behind a desk all day or deep sea diving with other mammals. I don’t know with this obsession with shaming fat people is all about, but I wish it would stop. We don’t walk up to ugly friends and relatives and say “Gosh! You really look like God took a dump and assigned you a face with it.”, do we?

    February 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm Reply
  9. Malaka #

    I don’t know what the obsession with fat shaming is, but I wish it would STOP. I have come to the conclusion that a ‘healthy weight’ is whatever weight your body will allow you to do things you want to do. Period. We don’t walk up to ugly people and call them names…why is it ok to call a woman ‘fat’?

    February 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm Reply
  10. Ayanda #

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I remember gaining a lot of weight too when I moved from South Africa to London and got some of the same comments you did when I went home for my first Christmas.

    I think all the fat shaming that goes on in the media almost gives people licence to call other people out on their weight because they feel like they have society’s backing to do so. It’s crazy.

    February 21, 2013 at 4:00 pm Reply


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