While Western standards of feminine beauty have spread across much of the rest of the world in recent decades – particularly the obsession with slender figures as epitomized by “Size 0” runway fashion models of Milan, Parris and New York -- not all corners of the globe have completely bought the notion that “thin is in.”
Consider the West African nation of Ghana, which is currently hosting a fashion week replete with skinny models cavorting on the catwalks.
According to a report in the Guardian newspaper of Britain, most women of Ghana shun the emaciated figures of fashion models and believe that being “full figured” denotes not only attractiveness, but also good health and prosperity.
Indeed, like the rest of West Africa, Ghanaian women aspire to voluptuousness, even purchasing “appetite stimulants” in order to develop large busts, big behinds and thick legs.
Conversely, being thin is associated with poverty and even with wasting diseases like AIDS.
Still, the overwhelming and omnipotent influence of Western mores (as disseminated on television, films and the Internet) may mean that such attitudes towards women’s figures may gradually change in West Africa.
The Guardian pointed to an event in 2001 that might have marked a turning point in West African beauty standards. That year, an 18-year-old Nigerian girl named Agbani Darego (who was tall and skinny) won the Miss World beauty pageant, becoming the first African to gain the honor.
Darego’s sudden emergence allowed the entry of similarly lithe young women into the West African fashion industry.
Still, in the day-to-day world, old standards refuse to die.
A television producer in Ghana named Elizabeth Coleman told Western media that a backlash against non-African ideals wouldn’t surprise her.
“Most beauty pageants send the message that you have to be slim … basically a cute American or British lady,” she said, according to feminist.org.
“We Ghanaians have certain [other] features and characteristics.”
A Nigerian blogger under the title “Thoughts of a Ghetto Intellectual” explained the West African obsession with voluptuous women this way: “When you turn on the television in the West the face of a skinny chick is what you see. However, most African men love, I mean love, fat babes -- when African men use the word fat, they mean curvy and voluminous– big breasts and a_s– like the shape of a soft drink bottle or an hourglass.”
The blogger added: “Growing up in rural Northern Nigeria, I frequently witnessed the execution of this unwritten constitution. Every man and woman was aware of its power. A woman was considered beautiful if she carried extra weight around the chest, and, most importantly, her a_s. The complexion should be very dark, the hair needed to be braided at least once a week, and let us not forget it is a must for her to know how to [run] her husband’s home and those eight children she birthed from her ample hips.”
Yet, there is clearly a negative aspect to the West African fascination with fat bodies. Obesity is climbing in the region. As long ago as 2007, the World Health Organization warned that 15 percent of Ghana’s population was already overweight or obese, particularly among women and in the cities of the south, including the capital Accra.
Some Ghanaians want to change the perception that fat is “healthy” and “attractive.”
Esi Amoaful, a deputy nutrition officer at the Ghana Health Service, lamented to allafrica.com: "Many people probably think that developing a protruding belly or putting on weight is a sign that one is living well; this is not true because growing fat and plump has serious health implications that can affect individuals in their entire lives.”