No pretty pictures of scenery or food in this post. My blog is a bit all over the place: I created it as a healthy living & travel blog, but my life is distinctively shaped by the realities that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique, and there are things I want to write about. Sometimes I wonder if the things I post about are what people want to read—not enough food, not enough pretty pictures, not enough X or Y, etc. But then I remember that I want this blog to reflect ME, and so it will continue being a little sporadic. Here goes.
The other day, I led a training for about 30 of my Mozambican coworkers. I was in front of the group for most of the time, and I wore a new dress, made from local materials. I thought it was pretty, and I felt good in it.
“Estás a engordar.” Literally translated, “You are getting fat.”
More on this in a moment. The next day, a colleague and friend told me point-blank that the dress made me look big, and that “all the colleagues were asking me if you are pregnant.”
Granted, I have gained a couple pounds in the last weeks. STRESS, not eating super well, not running (I am injured)… it happens. These things come and go. And I of course notice, but want to pretend that it is all going to be okay.
But apparently everyone thinks I am pregnant. “Should I never wear this dress again?”, I wonder.
Let me back up. Here in Mozambique, “estás a engordar” is a complement. Literally, you could have lost a couple of pounds but look healthy and some smiling friendly neighbor might walk up and tell you how fat you look.
After two years I still am unable to completely shrug this off. (At least I don’t cry every time anymore. Kidding.) In my culture, this is a horrible thing to THINK about someone, much less SAY, much less if they look FINE! How DARE you say this to me?!
But then I step back. In Mozambique, “fat” means healthy. “Fat” means rich. “Fat” means happy. Thousands of people are starving. Thousands more go to sleep each night not being sure where their next meal will come from, or when it will happen.
“Fat” means you have food to eat.
People are poor. The average income in most rural sites is less than a dollar a day. Every spare cent is scraped together to buy food or to send the children to school. Often, it is not enough.
“Fat” means you have money to take care of yourself and your family.
HIV and AIDS and chronic malnutrition are all widespread in Mozambique. People get skinny, emaciated, fraca (weak). To be magra is to be sick, to be not able to take care of yourself.
“Fat” means you are healthy.
We shape our body image around our societies’ ideals of beauty. For us, too often this is skinny supermodels or people who seem to champion the anorexic look. (Mozambicans would flip.) It is refreshing in a way to see how many of those ideas of perfection are shaped by our cultures and that there IS NO one ideal of beauty or best body type.
Because of my culture, I will never COMPLETELY take it as a compliment when someone tells me I am fat, but I can recognize the differences. And while we are often very careful about how we describe people for fear of offence, Mozambique is not like that. Calling someone “the fat short white girl” or “the really dark skinned tall guy” is just matter-of-fact. Okay. I can deal with this.
Part of me enjoys the bluntness and what I see as universal acceptance of body types. Okay, if you are skinny maybe you want to get a little bigger, but if you’re a little chunky, or maybe a LOT chunky, you OWN it. You love your body, and you know you look GOOD. I love that easy confidence that Mozambican women seem to have, and envy it.
But at that same meeting, something else significant happened. We were talking about stigma, and I asked my colleagues to draw a picture representing a time in their lives when they felt isolated, rejected, or different. And one of my (presumably female) colleagues submitted this.
This was a complete eye-opener for me. I sit here all at once resenting Mozambicans´ attitude towards bodies (stop calling me fat!) and envying it (none of you worry, why should I!) and then it made me realize that no matter what confidence we portray, women everywhere feel judged because of their bodies. Diferente.
I recognize now that body image issues exist in every culture, regardless of what the ideal of beauty may be. But what I have learned is that “fat” and “different” and “pretty” are just words. What matters is what is on the inside, and how you feel about yourself. And THAT shows more than anything else… whether or not everybody thinks you may be pregnant. And I have Mozambique to thank for finally helping me realize that.
Speaking of self-image, Tina over at Faith, Fitness, Fun is doing an amazing online initiative called “30 Days of Self Love and Reflection” which aims to, according to Tina, ”help us all learn to love ourselves more and to uplift one another in the process. To begin to realize our true beauty and value. To battle the inner dialogue that strives to bring us down.” If anyone is reading my blog who hasn´t gotten into this yet (highly doubtful!!! Or probably impossible…) please check it out, it is a really amazing thing.
Being here and experiencing moments like the one mentioned here give me reason to reflect on how I feel about myself and to recognize how those inner feelings affect every area of my life. I hope we can all take a moment today, whether through the 30 DSLR or on your own, to find something you love about yourself, whatever your society may say.