Thressa Loga (L) and Rachel Mhango say plump or thin, Malawian women should love their bodies the way God made them. Discussions about body image are informed by western and traditional values. Photo by Amy Leblanc.
By Amy LeBlanc
“I like your shirt,” I say to a student after her visit to the jhr office at the Malawi Institute of Journalism.
“Thanks,” she says with a smile as she leaves, “you are fat.”
Later when the subject came up again, I tried futilely to explain to her that in North America and most Western cultures, being called “fat” is a negative thing and that most women want to be smaller in size than they are.
“Do men in your country only like thin girls?” I pause for a moment on this valid question and answer truthfully that they don’t. “Men like women of all sizes, just like here,” I say.
“So who told you to be thin?” she asks, confused. “Your President?” At this I couldn’t help but laugh, but I stopped short when I realized my response was equally as ridiculous.
“The models...” I said unsurely.
But this student is just one of many young women in Malawi who are slowly being exposed to a different kind of body image. The pro-thin message coming from Western media, music videos and celebrity culture contradicts traditional values which encourage women to be fat to attract a husband, ensure safer childbearing and represent a perceived cultural femininity.
Almost immediately after arriving, my figure was openly discussed among the women I met. “You would make a proper Malawian woman” my former landlord approved, “Malawian men like their women fat.”
I quickly noticed that the younger generation is torn between traditional and foreign influences.
“I diet” Thandie Karrot, 18, tells me, “I skip breakfast and lunch so I won’t get fat.” But Karrot completes the dialogue she has been taught and adds, “it’s okay to be fat, people shouldn’t try to change their size, they should just live.”
All of the women I spoke to more or less agreed that you should love yourself the way God made you and they encourage acceptance of all sizes. But most of them have at some point dieted or exercised to alter their weight.
“There is no difference between Malawian women and Western women” says Rachel Mhango, 27. She admits that neither culture has found a way to accept varying body sizes.
When I asked for examples of ideal body types no one said Kate Moss or one of the Olsen twins, rather, Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez were the names that came up—women who they classified as “average sized.”
And if the "great fat woman" rhetoric is partially because it’s what women believe Malawian men want, this idea is slowly dying as well.
“With the changing times men are starting to accept different sizes,” Mhango reasons. “It all depends on what somebody finds desirable.”
I can’t help but notice that women the world over are defining what men want instead of accepting the reality that men have always, and will always, like women of all colours, shapes and sizes.
In truth, perhaps these idealized body sizes have nothing to do with what men want. There are no men, models or presidents telling us to be a certain size. As women, we are our own worst enemy.
“It all has to do with acceptance” Mhango, a slim woman herself who faced teasing because of her size. “If God created you to be fat or thin, that’s the way you are, you just have to accept it.” She pauses for a moment and sits up straight, “God created me the way I am. I am beautiful.”