EAT, EAT, EAT if you want to be loved In Africa, big is beautiful
By Christina Lamb
The Sunday Telegraph
March 25, 2001
Miss Big World Nigeria 2012
EAT, EAT, EAT if you want to be loved In Africa, big is beautiful. But in southern Nigeria, brides must be not just big but immense to be desirable. CHRISTINA LAMB (a sorry size 10) reports from Madam Eden`s fattening rooms.
Calabar, Nigeria: Arit Asuquo Ibok is large. Her thighs wobble like blancmange as she walks, her bottom is as round and squashy as two over-ripe pumpkins, and at least seven chins quiver when she swallows. For the past two months, she has woken at 5am for a pint of millet in water and a plate piled high with fried plantain, followed by a special body-rounding massage. Then she has spent the day in whale-like recline, stirring only to stuff herself with glutinous bowls of yam and crayfish, or for the occasional game of ludo.
Worried that, at 35, she is still not married, Arit`s family has paid to send her on a three-month programme to make her more desirable to men. Whereas in the West this might mean going to a health farm or gym to lose weight, in the steamy jungle port of Calabar in southern Nigeria, it means going to so-called fattening rooms, where women do nothing but eat.
“I must eat so I`ll be fat and people don`t laugh at my figure,” explained Arit, as she measured her thickening waist with one of the strings of special beads that she wears in the fattening room. “It shows that my family has money and can afford to feed me properly and I will make a good bride.”
The fattening room in which she is staying is run by Madam Eke Eden and Madam Elizabeth Eyo, two middle-aged women, both on the corpulent side. They operate out of 42 Iboku Street, a peeling sky-blue and yellow bungalow, under a large mango tree in a dusty suburb of Calabar.
The terrace functions as a beauty salon, with two young girls busily plaiting and crimping hair. Behind the screen door, the two madams hold court in an expansive room with turquoise satin ruched curtains, a ceiling fan that occasionally stirs the thick air at the whim of the Nigerian Electricity company, and framed photographs of large women - graduates of the fattening room.
“We can make any woman obese,” boasts Madam Eyo, looking critically at my size-10 figure, which has thickened somewhat around the hips since having a baby. “You might find the odd man who thinks that kind of shape is modern but, sorry to say, you look underfed,” she said.
“If a man were to choose you as his bride, people would feel sorry for him. If you stayed here some months, we could help you.”
Though intrigued by the idea that the way to a man`s heart might be through my stomach rather than his, I decided not to take up her offer, which might have been more attractive had it involved bingeing on Belgian chocolates and cream buns, rather than pounded yam and millet water. Instead, I ask for an explanation of her techniques. It is a rare privilege for an outsider to be admitted to a fattening room, because clients are supposed to be kept in seclusion until ready to emerge newly rounded.
The main component of the fattening room experience seems to be total inactivity, combined with as much yam, plantain, millet and pepper soup that can be stuffed into one person in a day. A special red powder, ground from the bark of a tree, is taken to thin the blood to stop it coagulating with all the fat, and the women are painted with a native chalk that cools the skin, enabling them to eat more. Then, in special massages, their bodies are kneaded to direct the fat to certain places, specifically the bottom.
“It is a bit tiring eating all the time,” admitted Arit, as she tucked into another large pan of yam and crayfish. “But I know when I come out that I will be attractive, healthy and beautiful.”
Being fat is a beauty ideal for much of Africa and, in some countries, such as Nigeria, there are beauty contests to be the heaviest, with women eating animal feed and steroids to pile on the pounds. But fattening rooms are peculiar to southern Nigeria and the people of the Efik tribe.
In the Old Residency, a prefabricated house transported from England in 1884 to house the then British governor and now the Calabar Museum, there is a series of black-and-white photographs of fattened Efik women with enormous, pendulous breasts and large pot-bellies.
“Efik men liked their women fat and juicy,” explained Prince E. E. Eyamba, the son of the late Obong of Calabar, the traditional ruler. “My mother spent seven years in a fattening room, as did most women whose families could afford it, from the age of 12.”
However, tastes are changing. “Personally, now I like slick waists, but big breasts and bottoms,” said the prince, tracing a swollen hourglass figure with his hands. “In the past, we said big hips are good for childbearing, but we have learnt that sometimes overblown hips are hiding a narrow pelvis, so now we check out the families to see if they have a history of difficult births.”
In fact, fattening rooms have become increasingly controversial since a recent study that links the intensive fattening to diabetes, and, though the practice is still common, many have moved underground.
A campaign to stop fattening has been launched by Girl Power Initiative (GPI), a Calabar-based women`s rights organisation founded in 1994, long before the Spice Girls adopted the phrase.
Ofon Ekpoudeom, a facilitator for GPI, explained: “We go to schools and villages, telling girls to be happy with their bodies and teaching them to be more assertive, so they can reason with parents not to send them to fattening rooms.”
One of the objections of GPI to the fattening rooms is that time between eating is used to give lessons in how to be a good wife, which basically entails obedience. Arit recounted: “I have learnt that, if my husband is annoyed with me, then, even if it is his fault, I am not to react, but to stay quiet and let his temper calm, maybe cook him coconut rice or melon seed soup.”
In a town with a history as one of the world`s biggest slave-trading centres, where down by the riverside thousands of lives would be bartered for gin or gunpowder, the GPI members see such lessons as imparting a slave mentality into women. “What they are being told is how to be slaves in the homes of their husbands,” said Ms Ekpoudeom.
Fattening rooms, however, have an even more sinister side. Aside from helping brides reach their enormous potential, they are also used to prepare young girls for circumcision, or genital mutilation as it is more commonly referred to in the West.
Sharing a room with Arit is 15-year-old Glory Ita Asuquo, a high school student, naked apart from a short sarong around her waist, her skin painted with chalk designs. She is preparing to undergo female circumcision.
“They will cut off part of my genitalia with a razor blade,” she said matter-of-factly. “It`s painful, but it`s part of our tradition. I feel comfortable about it.”
Asked about cases of local girls who have bled to death or later experienced gynecological problems, she said: “It will be done in a hygienic way and they will put a mixture of gin and special herbs on the wound to stop the bleeding. My friends say the pain goes away after two days.”
Glory, a slim, beautiful girl whose ambition is to go to university and become a lawyer, hopes to return to the fattening room when she is older to prepare to be a bride. “I want to be fat like her,” she said, pointing at Arit admiringly.
Despite the GPI campaign and the changing taste of some Nigerian men in favour of sleeker women, a visit to the town`s sprawling Watt Market shows that the desire to be large remains common. Beyond the tables piled high with cassava, yams and snails is an area with stall upon stall offering fattening accoutrements.
Apart from blood-thinning bark and massage chalk, they sell special fattening peppers for pepper soup, as well as stomach-turning substances such as dead chameleons to soak in water. When drunk, this supposedly cures bloating and allows the women to keep on eating.
Along the road, one of the many Pentecostal churches is called the Church of Divine Enlargement to attract women who want to be fatter. Local pharmacies do a thriving trade in a product called Wate-on, bought by women whose families cannot afford the 5,000 naira ( #30) per month, plus the food cost of the fattening room - a substantial amount in a country where the average wage is #200 a year.
Some younger girls are resisting the pressure to be fat. Mary Adi, a plump, lively 31-year-old who runs a beauty salon where many local girls hang out, said: “I think fattening rooms are a dreadful idea. I try to dissuade the girls who come here.”
Talking as she painted crimson varnish on the toenails of an enormous woman in royal blue, she added: “You have to laugh that you in the West, with all your money, are obsessed with losing weight, whereas us poor Africans, with no money for anything, are trying to be fat.”
While the practice may be on the wane in town, families in local villages struggle to send their daughters to fattening rooms in the hope of their winning the most eligible bachelors.
Creek Town, 20 minutes` boat ride along the muddy Calabar river, used to be a European trading post and is today an eerie place full of abandoned, prefabricated two-storey wood chalets with stained-glass windows criss-crossed with thick cobwebs. On the step of a small concrete shack, across from one of these ghostly relics, three sisters sit sorting periwinkles. Each spent two years in fattening rooms and proudly brings out photographs of her fattened self.
“Women who are not fattened are cursed,” explained Glory Ita Eyo, the middle sister. “If you don`t do it, the gods will be angry and terrible things will happen.”
Back at the bungalow under the mango tree, Madam Eden was busy fixing bells round Arit`s ankles, elaborate brass combs in her hair, and yellow and red pompom bracelets on her newly plumped arms for her coming-out ceremony.
“Any time your husband is losing interest, you just come to Auntie,” she told me, clucking sympathetically. “You`ll see how men like fattened women.”
© 2001 Telegraph Group Limited, London
West African women watch their weight -- and hope it rises
New York Times News Service
February 12, 2001
Miss Big World Beauty Contestants in Nigeria 2012
MARADI, Niger -- A small group of teenage girls crowded into a one-room hair salon here after school recently, and the talk eventually settled, as it perhaps would in a similar setting anywhere else in the world, on their body shapes.
The young women, who were from Niger or other countries in West Africa, almost unanimously agreed -- after a series of squeals --that of all the girls in the room Monique Adimi, 15, had the ideal shape. Monique, who runs the hair salon with her sister, is of medium height and has short hair and a pleasant face. Above all, though, she is heavy for her age and, unmistakably, on the way to becoming corpulent.
“I want to gain weight like Monique,” said Antoinette Dossa, a slim 16-year-old student. “I don`t want to be thin.”
With the confidence of a woman held up as an ideal, Monique said of Antoinette, “Really, she`s just too thin.” Casting her eyes around the room, she remembered perhaps that it was bad business to speak ill of customers. So she finally said of her own sister, Estelle Adimi, 23 but nowhere near as full-bodied “And that one!” Translation: hopeless.
In Niger, as in many other places in Africa, fat is the beauty ideal for women. At one festival, called Hangandi, women of the Djerma ethnic group compete to become the heaviest. They train for the beauty contest by gorging on food, especially millet, and drinking lots of water on the morning before the contest. The heaviest woman is declared the winner and given a prize -- and more food.
Among the Calabari people in southeastern Nigeria, brides are sent to so-called fattening rooms or fattening farms before their weddings. They are not permitted to leave the farms for a few weeks, during which their caretakers prepare copious helpings of food and massage them into a rounder shape. At the end of their stay, before the wedding, the brides are paraded in the village square so everyone can admire their fullness.
So popular is fat that here in Maradi, a sleepy town just north of the border with Nigeria, women take steroids to gain bulk, or pills to sharpen their appetites. To gain weight, some women even ingest feed or vitamins for animals -- though few will admit it.
“Caution: for animal use only,” read the pamphlet for Savit, a well-known livestock feed sold here. Among its benefits: “fleshing in beef animals, body weight increase.”
Abdou Idi, a 24-year-old who sells Savit and other medication from his bicycle, said the fattening pills and animal feed are among his best-selling items.
“It`s usually married women who buy these products,” Idi said. “If the women are too thin, they worry that their families and friends will think that their husbands are not taking care of them or that they have abandoned them. So they come and buy these products, especially before the major holidays.”
And so, if the beauty concept here is the reverse of the West`s, its motivations appear the same: seeking men`s approval.
“If you are a man and your wife is not fleshy, people will say that you are not taking care of her,” said Ramatou Lea Roger, 31, a radio host here, who was sipping soft drinks with two of her friends at a bar in the late afternoon. “But if your wife is fleshy, people will say that you are a wealthy and responsible man who takes care of his family. And so there is a lot of pressure on women to become fat. If they don`t have the money to eat lots of rich food, women will take a shortcut and buy these chemical products.”
Besides animal feed, the most popular product is dexamethasone, a kind of steroid easily bought without prescriptions on the streets, said Dr. Ousmane Batoure, 37, who like many physicians in Niger studied medicine in China. Many women, he said, come to his general clinic desperately wanting to gain weight.
“I tell them to take ordinary vitamins,” Batoure said. He warns them away from the chemical products, especially the animal feed, which can cause lasting health problems. But he said he knew that many did not follow his advice -- the same way women in the West might ignore medical advice not to overdiet.
“The world is a funny place,” the doctor said. “In America, you are rich, you have everything, and the women there want to become so thin as if they had nothing. Here in Africa, we have nothing, the women who buy these products have nothing, but they want to become fat as if they had everything.”
At the bar, one of Roger`s two friends was undeniably corpulent. Saying she was a married Muslim, the woman, who was in her 30s, refused to give her name. Though her friends said the contrary, she denied ever having taken fattening products.
“I`m fat and it`s creating a lot of problems for me,” she said, making a face. “I already have problems with my knees and hips. I`m big like this since I was 11 years old.”
“She`s a comedian,” Roger said of her married friend.
“It`s true,” the woman said, twisting her mouth into a grimace. “And besides fat women like us are good for nothing at night. We tire too easily.”
So did she want to lose weight?
“Well, no,” she said.
Across town, at the hair salon, the young women were expounding on the merits of corpulence. So fashionable is fat that some rich men go out at night surrounded by overweight women, the teen-agers said.
But Laouratou Souley, a slim 17-year-old student, said she wanted none of that.
“Most of the women who take these products are not enlightened,” she said. “They do it to please well-heeled men who like fat women as a status symbol. But girls who go to school know better. Me, I like the way I look. I don`t want to gain weight -- well, maybe just a little bit, not more than a couple of pounds.”
© Copyright 2001 Deseret News Publishing Co.