Thursday, July 26, 2012

Big girl, you are beautiful!

**Before you read the following post, please be aware that my words are in no way an invitation to a pity-party; I am not seeking comments to reassure me; and I am actually quite happy in my skin (and every layer in between!)

This post serves to 1) vent a little about current thoughts I have been having and 2) shine light on an interesting intersection between American and Ugandan ideas of beauty.

Now you know where I’m coming from when I say:

I wish it were possible for me not to be offended when my Ugandan girlfriends call me fat/big. They always say it as a compliment...but it always feels like a little stab in my heart.

I see their smiling faces—looking so pleased to see me walk into the room—saying in a thrilled and sincerely good-hearted tone, “WOW! You look big! Have you put on? You are so smart today!” Instead of hearing what they are really saying, I can’t help but think, “Shoot, do this skirt and top really make me look fat?” Almost every time this happens, their words run through my mind while I eat every meal that day. I sit there thinking, “Make sure you don’t finish your whole plate, the ladies say you have put on.”

Bad habits are tough to break, right?

If I hadn't been exposed to a lifetime of American media telling me BIG is BAD, I would be the happiest girl in the world. Some messages are so deeply rooted in our brains, we don't even realize the effect they have had on us until situations like this.

**I would like to make it clear that I recognize obesity is a BIG problem in America (and increasingly so in other developed countries) BUT I am referring to the ridiculous belief that females need to be bone thin. I don’t think we should turn a blind eye to the health problems that overweight and obese patients put themselves at risk of developing. However, I also don’t think it is fair to tell a person who is within her normal weight range for her height that she needs to be 20 lbs. skinnier just to conform to some unrealistic media-produced ideal.

I will spare you a full lesson and rant about my abovementioned beliefs, because I think most people today are at least mildly aware of the media’s false representation of tall skinny girls and the effect that image has on the psyche of most females…

Since I am not qualified to speak on behalf of every American female, I will stick to sharing the thoughts in my own mind. (However, I’d love to hear what my fellow women think regarding this topic)

For me, it is impossible to hear their words for what they really are: Compliments. Instead of welcoming these phrases the same way I would receive, “nice haircut,” “cute dress,” or “your eyes look great today,” I hear them the way I interpret:
“You look better rested!” aka, “You have been looking haggard these days”
“Wow, that’s a short skirt!” aka, “Aren’t you a bit skanky today?”
Or of course, “You look thin, today” aka, “You have looked fat in recent days but with today’s outfit you don’t look so big.” (Particularly offensive when you have not actually lost any weight)

It is such a shame I feel this way, because I get called big or fat almost every day. I am about the same weight as I always have been. Granted, I put on during college, and the 90% carb diet here doesn’t exactly promote thinness, but I wouldn’t call myself fat. I analyze my pictures and think, “I don’t look fat…” I certainly look bigger than I did when I was 18, but I am not convinced I actually had hips at that age, so that isn’t a fair assessment. I have always been the biggest one in my family, but in comparison to friends, I think I am the same size as most of them. All in all, I’m the image of normal for my height and age. I’m a bit curvy, but by all means, BeyoncĂ© and Shakira get away with it, why can’t I?

Almost every day I hear this compliment. I try to imagine what that would do to my self-esteem if I could take it in as they give it out—purely as a flattering statement. I would be on top of the world. Every now and then the women, (sometimes even the men) I work with will say that I look beautiful/smart…“like a model.” I know those are variations of saying I look big or fat, (which makes the model comment ironic) but because these are actually compliments in my culture, they always make me feel a lot better.

For example, a few weeks ago, one of the teachers entered my lesson and exclaimed, “Ay, Kristen! You have reduced, are you ill? You look thin, what is wrong?!” My knee-jerk response was, “Really?! Thank you! Then I looked around the room and the kids, nurses, and the complimenting-teacher looked extremely confused. She was concerned for my health and all I heard was that I looked thin. I have heard that only once since I’ve been here, and it is the only time I felt a flutter of excitement and pride in my body during a conversation about my weight.

It is unfortunate that—somewhere in the deepest crevices of my subconscious—I have imprinted the message, “BIG is BAD; SMALL is GOOD.” I wonder if I could spend any amount of time here and eventually rewire that part of my brain.

If that could ever transpire, I imagine I would become free from the constant curiosity of how big I look in which outfit I wear.

In the meantime, I plan on soaking in the Ugandan attempts to boost my ego during my last two weeks! I’m sure my American peers will not be using the same statements when I’m greeted back home—if they do, it won’t be kindly!

With BIG love,

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