Accra, Ghana. 1988-2007
Every afternoon between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m. I would sit in the depths of Accra traffic, under the hot African sun to get from Cantonments to the Spintex Road. On a good day, Daniel would take the Tetteh Quashie main road, but when that was too crowded, he would take the Polo Club back road. To everyone else, he was taking the shortest way home. To me it signaled the beginning of an emotional rollercoaster.
Trying to sit upright in my uncomfortable, unfashionable green-and-white striped school uniform, I would hold my breath as the street hawkers approach, hoping that someone would summon them interested in purchasing their oranges, phone credit, or bright yellow plantain chips. But as they approached, I would try to blend in with the others in the car, engage in conversation, pretend I was asleep. Anything.
Three, two, one, and then I heard it. “Eiiii Obolo.” “Obolo.” From the Ghanaian language Twi which means a person who is fat. It is usually said to make the person feel sad (Urban Dictionary). Welcome to the curse of growing up fat in Ghana.
Join me as I tell the story on behalf of the voices whose politeness silences them.
Growing up fat in Ghana was one of the hardest things I probably had to do. Never did I know that it was possible for someone to be so, so, so aware of their physical appearance on a daily basis. Never did I know that it would sometimes be the people closest to you that would watch the demise of your self-esteem, and be forced to remain silent in the name of cultural norm. If you are Ghanaian, or from any African country, you will understand the cultural currency that is respect. But this value in all its worth is in itself a prison. For that reason, I myself had to stand silently as those around me asked questions like:
“Why are you so fat and your sister is skinny?”
“Did you eat all your sister’s food?”
“Don’t you know that men only like girls who they can carry?”
“How can you look six months pregnant when you are only ten years old?”
Trust me, I could write a book about all the comments that have been made to me in my life. While some may feel that those comments were jokes, the fact that twenty years later, I remember each of these instances vividly, down to the outfit I was wearing and the way I felt should tell you something.
The biggest problem here is that when you hear so much about what you look like, it soon becomes the only thing you know about yourself. Sadly, I grew up in a culture that considers feelings and emotions exclusive to white people. Here is the honest truth: calling someone fat is bullying. No matter who you are, how old you are, or what your relationship is to the person. Bullying has the same effect on a human being, no matter who delivers it. Point-blank period.
What needs to be understood is that teasing grows into insecurities, which multiplies into depression, which in turn feeds eating disorders. However, we dare not discuss those, right? After all, remember in the African culture, we only focus on sicknesses that paracetamol can cure.
The truth is, it wasn’t until I moved to America that I learned a lot about being confident with who I was. It wasn’t until I moved here that I learned about politically correct terms such as curvy, plus-sized, and thick. It wasn’t till I moved to America that my achievements took precedent over my physical appearance.
Now the solution isn’t for everyone to pack their bags and move to America, but let’s just have an honest conversation about how we treat people. Let us realize that we are all vulnerable souls, and as confident as we all try to appear, we are all fragile. Before we comment on someone’s physical appearance, let us take a minute to ask ourselves how those comments will help the person. Don’t for a second feel that you are drawing something to their attention that they may not know of. Let us be very aware that the majority of women own mirrors in their homes. They know what they look like, and you know what? They may like what they look like! Stop being a mirror and projecting people’s appearances back on them with your own words. Turn that mirror around and reflect on yourself and your actions. Learn that while everyone has some inner strength, it may take a storm to break them, and in some cases it only takes a single comment.
Today, I am blessed to have overcome all the anger and pain, and I am now in a great place in my life, where I am in full control of how I feel about myself. I can’t say that if someone called me fat today, it wouldn’t still hurt me, but what I do know is that I have found my own personal solution for dealing with the things I have no control over.
To the young girls, the grown women, the just had a baby and trying to lose weight women, the I am trying to lose weight but cheesecake wins women, I am sorry, but people and their unapologetic ignorance may never change. Only you can change how you let people get to you. That is the most important defense mechanism. Something no one can take away from you is the beauty that you discover in yourself. Start by surrounding yourself with people that exist beyond physical beauty, people with beautiful souls. Learn that no one should be the one to tell you that you are beautiful in order to feel beautiful. Beauty is something that is and should be personal to you and just you. Your beauty may be your mind, your heart, or simply your strength. The truth is that it really is that inner beauty that will help you, shield you, and give you the strength to fight off the comments and rawness of the world we live in.
“The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express.” – Francis Bacon
Photography – Victor Fuentes
Makeup – Angelica Patten
Hair – Christopher Harris