Writer Catherine Pigott found this out during an extended trip to Gambia to teach English. She wrote about her experience in The Globe and Mail (March 20,1991). The Gambian women thought Pigott was far too thin and called her "Chicken-hips."
Pigott "marvelled at this accolade, for [she] had never been called thin in [her]life." She found it difficult to explain that in her North American culture, women with too hearty an appetite were thought unattractive and that they denied themselves food to achieve "perfect slenderness."
Dieting is unnatural in Gambia where there is "no place for thinness. It made people sad. It reminded them of things they wanted to forget, such as poverty, drought, and starvation." Pigott changed her weight and her attitude towards weight during her Gambian stay, coming to believe that their views of body size and female beauty were much more natural than those in the North American culture of denial and disapproval.
Despite wishing to retain her new attitude towards her body image and weight, when Pigott came home, she was bombarded with the familiar cultural messages. They "don't use words such as 'cheating,' 'naughty,' or 'guilty' when they talk about eating" in Gambia, but they do in Canada. "Family members kindly suggested that [she] might look and feel better if [she] slimmed down a little."
Pigott joined a gym, dieted, and felt her freedom about weight slip away. The fear of fat had returned, as had the "time to exert control over [her] body."
Pigott's article underscores North American attitudes towards female beauty and body image and towards an ideal of thinness. Yet there can be too much of a good thing. In Mauritania, fat women are so desirable that until only the last few years girls have been force-fed to make them more attractive to prospective husbands. Fortunately, the practice is very much on the decline, and attitudes towards it are changing.
As Pigott writes, it is not good to "romanticize...rock-hard lives" of Gambian women; the value placed on a heavier body may indeed be restrictive for some women in that culture (although not, I think, nearly to the degree it is in Mauritania!).
So there you have it. Worry no longer about those extra pounds! Move to Gambia! The only other sane solution is to change our attitudes about control, thinness, and female beauty. (Why do I think that planning and moving to Gambia might be easier?)
(The Catherine Pigott article originally in The Globe and Mail is anthologized in The Act of Writing: Canadian Essays for Composition. Ed. Ronald Conrad. 8th ed.Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 197-199. The quotes are from the anthology.)