Monday, September 19, 2016

U motenya!


I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles and asks how my work is going. The second smiles and says “Ke bona u ja hamonate,” (I see you eat well) while gesturing at her hips with her hands about a foot away from each side to denote my large hips.

I draw a deep breath and expel a fake laugh before agreeing and noting that I have also have lost 30 kilograms since arriving in the village. The first woman agrees with me. I wish them well and head off to work stewing over being told, yet again, that I am fat.
***

I am in pre-service training on the night before our first community meeting. My host mother explains to me in broken English that I will be wearing her kobo or blanket. She then says she wanted me to wear one of her dresses, “but, you are too fat!”
***

I walk into a store and get a big grin from a female clerk. “Ausi, u motenya!” (Sister, you’re fat!). As my grin fades, a male customer next to her enthusiastically agrees, “E, u motle!” (Yes, you’re beautiful).
***

A taxi conductor attempts to overload my row of the taxi, where is sit alongside two other larger women. We fit comfortably, until he tries to put a fourth person in our row. The woman next to me starts laughing and says, “Ntate, re batenya kau fela!” (Father, we are all fat!) She then looks at me and points first to the woman on her left, then herself, and finally to me repeating the word motenya while smiling.
***
I am at the Peace Corps Medical Office standing on the scale. The doctor glances at it as I point out I have lost over forty pounds since arriving in Lesotho. She smiles at me and says, "Don't worry, it doesn't show." I am crushed for hours until I realize she was reassuring me
***

Living as a fat woman in America is not easy. People write blogs and posts about this everyday. Other people make horrible disparaging comments about how terrible said writers are. American women are bombarded by images convincing them they need to lose weight and look a specific way to be considered pretty or beautiful or even just average. Clothing models are many sizes smaller than the average women and many stores only carry sizes up to twelve or fourteen despite the fact that the average American woman is a size 16 to 18

In Lesotho, women spend their energy worrying
about whether their body can do things, not if
it compares to a supermodel on TV.
After a lifetime of internalizing the buying of extended sizes, the struggling to find active clothing without buying men's clothes, the doctor's running routine vitals or lab work and being shocked at my healthy levels, and the strangers assuming I am a binging, inactive, and unhealthy human simply because I am obese (despite my career choices and personal hobbies proving otherwise), it has been a huge adjustment to live in a place where comments about size are constant and are...

...compliments.

In Basotho culture, a country where most rural people struggle to maintain a healthy and substantial diet year-round, being fat is a sign of good health.  When people are stopping me on the street to tell me I am fat, they are stopping to tell me I look healthy or beautiful. 

Knowing this, however, does not undo three decades of insults and microaggressions. More than two years living in this culture, however, does not stop my American brain from being crushed when someone says "U motenya." The American inside me still translates this to 

You're ugly...

You're lazy...

You're unworthy...


The person delivering the complement smiles and is oblivious to my inability to accept their compliment. Meanwhile, my fake smiles, fake laughter, and forced thank you work their way out as I negatively internalize their complement and proceed to spend the next two days trying to remind myself that they are celebrating my looks and my body, not demeaning them. 

The longer I am away from American standards, culture, and media, the more accepting I find myself being of other people's bodies. I look around me and see women of many sizes and shapes. Instead of seeing wrinkles, big booties, or small boobies, I see beauty. I marvel at the differences between the people I encounter and the uniqueness of them all. I celebrate it. 

I am nervous to return to an America that is incapable of doing the same. More than two years away from the stinging judgement of American culture, it still invades my brain with its negativity and self-doubt. I desperately want to keep my ability to celebrate others' diverse beauty. I desperately want to continue learning to accept compliments on my shape, size, and self without tearing myself down. I am just not convinced that is possible in the United States. 

Meanwhile, I joyfully continue to live in a culture where a villager stops me to voice concern that I'm unhappy as he can tell I have lost weight.


If you like this post, also consider reading Five Lessons From Basotho Women  and Top Ten Surprises After a Year as a PCV.

1 comment:

Jen Webber said...

You are a beautiful and wonderful woman.
I was only just having a discussion on this topic. The clothing store H&M has just released an incredibly body-positive commercial, celebrating diversity in women's shapes and interests. Go, H&M! BUT.... H&M doesn't actually carry clothes that fit me. :/
Still lots of work to do.
xoxo

You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn