Ask any Canadian about the image associated with obesity, and the answer likely has to do with poor health; lack of knowledge and resources; and a multitude of health problems. But travel 13,000 km southeast to Africa with that reasoning in hand, and you’d be met with either blank stares or quick denials.
During the Baroque era, painter Peter Paul Rubens popularly portrayed the female figure as large, voluptuous and curvy. They didn’t know what we know about the side effects of fatness – it meant something totally different. Fat meant a woman was wealthy and well taken care of by her husband. Rich people had their pick of the buffet, and rich people didn’t sweat from exercise, something reserved for the poor. While a few hundred years was enough for the western world to change its views about the image associated with obesity, African countries still lag behind.
African culture dictates that a woman’s beauty is in direct proportion to her size. Clothing is designed in a flowy manner, better suited for the fat. And because there is such widespread poverty across the continent, fat women are a sign of males who can afford to provide for their families.
But do some people go too far? Much like the Chinese used to bind the feet of their girls and women, Africans would go to great lengths to ensure their females were large. Only a generation ago, about one-third of the girls in Mauritania were force-fed to ensure a suitable girth. While the rate has decreased to 10 percent today, the fact girls are still being treated like geese intended to be made into foie gras is alarming. It seems as though the people who should be preparing their young for long, healthy lives disregard that in favour of perpetuating the image of pseudo-wealth.
In North America, our media is bombarded with messages crying out about the dangers of a high Body Mass Index (BMI), with many influential people like Michelle Obama taking it upon themselves to kick-start movements aimed at reducing the waistlines of our children. Seeing the people who are our future afflicted with diabetes and heart disease is enough to scare us into taking action, so why haven’t our neighbours to the east? Are their cultural distinctions so strong that they’ll continue to throw caution to the wind and place emphasis on “big is beautiful”?
As much as globalization has narrowed the distance between countries and continents, we North Americans continue to turn a blind eye to the perils occurring not that far away. We need to stop pretending that simply because their citizens don’t live here that it’s not an important issue. It is. For the luck of the lottery, we reside here with good food available for the masses, but at the end of the day, it boils down to this: we all rent space to live on this planet and if we don’t take care of each other, who will?