Monday, November 17, 2008

Recognizing Beauty, The Zambian Way

In college, I made a presentation about differing cultural perceptions of beauty and body image. I was reminded of it recently in Zambia. With the women, we spoke a lot about our bodies, and how they're viewed in our respective worlds. The women we encountered were as intrigued by our cultural quirks as we were by theirs. They were fascinated by the idea of plastic surgery, Botox, and our perpetual quest for thinness. But, fat is good, they said. Fat means well-fed, and well-fed means rich. Wrinkles are good. Wrinkles show age, so all who see you will know you are an elder. Sagging breasts are natural. Sagging breasts show you have nurtured your children well.

Next, they wanted to know if American men demanded these procedures of us. No, no, we said. All of us agreed that most men are far more open-minded about how women should look than we tend to give them credit for. This further baffled the Zambian women. If not for practicality and not for men, then why are we going through these drastic machinations? Many of us ended at a loss for words about it. How do you explain to someone with limited access to television that images and media can shape the way we look at ourselves? How do you tell a woman who has never had a doubt about her beauty what it is like to feel ugly and imperfect?

Zambian women, of course, have their own set of expectations to live up to. But body image is not their problem, at least as far as I can see. To them, the inherent power of femininity is enough to make every woman beautiful. They are not ashamed of their bodies, of sexuality, of the physical realities of life and love, as we are. They take pride in every bulge of fat and roll of skin because they know there is something of greater importance within us.

If we could learn to see ourselves through their eyes, we might all be better off.

How do you feel about your own body image?


Pauline Karakat said...

I am not the only one who believes that the media perpetuates an unrealistic view of ideal beauty in our culture...and then we make it our own. Thankfully, I am not brainwashed into believing that being a Size 0 is my ultimate goal in life. I know that there are many types of beauty, and I am glad that many others are now brave enough to agree with me.

I like my curves, and I should probably work out more for health reasons. My nose is big, but I like it. I won't be running to the plastic surgeon anytime soon, thank goodness!

Original Designer Woman said...

"If not for practicality and not for men, then why are we going through these drastic machinations?"

In my opinion I think we as women do this to each other because we are our worst and best critic. Women are so critical of themselves and what other women are doing its absurd!

Take for example when I walk into a magazine event the first thing I notice are women staring at my shoes. They want to know what they look like or do they have red plastered on the sole, BUT whatever it is causes makes no sense. We have to learn to value who we are and respect other women's differences, then and only then will we love our bodies, fashion sense etc... As the women of Zambia honor what they have.

Great post Kekla!

Kekla Magoon said...

Yeah, Zanade, I agree with you about women being critical of ourselves and each other. Though, I think both rise out of low self-esteem because people who feel good about themselves are less likely to criticize others, right?

I try rise above that sort of self-criticism, like Pauline said, but lately I am finding myself less comfortable. I don't really know why.

I'll never resort to surgery or anything (I don't even understand that impulse) but it stinks that our culture presses people to conform to any "ideal."

habladora said...

For the past couple of years I've been fairly removed from the media, and it has really helped. I'm not living with a big group of friends anymore, so there aren't fashion magazines all over the apartment. We don't have cable, so I see fewer commercials and no reality TV shows about 'how to look like a model.'

We get taught that one look is the only good look, and the message can really have an impact, even on those who consciously reject it. Like Pauline, I've often thought that I have a 'big nose' - and I've even wished I could change it. I realize now, though, that I like my nose! I tend to find people attractive who have distinctive features - big noses, big eyes, or big mouths. So, why was I feeling bad about a feature that, as it turns out, I actually like?

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