I'm half German, but there's not much of a connection I have with that culture other than my last name and occasional desire to eat cooked cabbage. I would say that most black-Americans are similarly quite far removed from any African roots and so I'm guessing that many culturally African ways of thinking are not deeply ingrained. But it's interesting that during my time in Mozambique surrounded mostly by black women, I often observed a confidence similar to what the study explained.
And I wondered, is it a cultural environment thing or is there just something about being a black woman?
I will say that whatever it is, it was contagious for me. I've never had significant body-image issues, but I personally felt way more confident about my appearance strolling around Mozambique than I do now that I've been back here in America. And I think that's saying a lot considering the fact that there, I was consistently at least 75% more sweaty, dirty, and logistically unable to maintain the kind of personal hygiene habits I enjoy here in the States. Why did I feel better there?
1. In Mozambique, my clothing shopping habits were different. To obtain clothing in Mozambique, an average woman doesn't walk into a clothing store and go to the skinny jeans rack where there are multiple sizes of skinny jeans that she can try to stuff herself into and then blame herself when none of the million sizes available fit her correctly. Instead, she wears a capulana which is incredibly forgiving (one size fits all) or has clothes made-to-order at a tailor (thus a tailor can be blamed if something does not fit) or gets something from a 2nd hand clothing market and just makes it work (she knows that the chances of anyone finding the perfect fit are slim considering the random array of clothing). So there, she tries to make clothes fit herself, not herself fit clothes.
2. In Mozambique, calling someone "fat" is a compliment. This one took a while to get used to. The first few times I heard "epa! Professora esta gorda hoje!", I was pretty pissed and defensive, but then I realized that most of the time, it's genuinely meant as a warm fuzzy. Calling someone gorda or fat is often better translated as beautiful, healthy, happy, content. But even when they do say gorda and really do mean that you look chubby, that is also a compliment. Many women want to be fat, but before I make Mozambicans sound way less intrinsically shallow than Americans, I must make one interesting connection between fat and wealth. In Mozambique as well as some other African countries, having a few chubs means that you're not only healthy (sick people, especially HIV positive individuals stereotypically and in reality are often thin), but also prosperous enough to have enough food to get chubby. So anyway they mean it, fat is good and not the devil.
3. There is not one standard of beauty. When I taught sex ed for the first time with my 8th graders, I remember one boy making the comment, "teacher, I like that kind of girl," as he pointed to some other student across the way who was not of the particular body type that I ever would have guessed a high school boy would be attracted to. And he wasn't just being a smart-ass. As I continued to observe relationships at my high school, I noticed girls who would never get a second look from guys here in the states were still constantly getting attention there. It's like no girl is undesirable. Everyone is sexy to someone. I worked a bit with a woman named Veronica. For a woman her size, Veronica had the largest ass I have ever seen in my life. I always thought the myth of the bootie on which a glass of water could rest was a joke, but it's not. The woman could rest multiple glasses on that thing. And oh how she loved her ass! She would grab it and say it was her riqueza mozambicana or "Mozambican wealth." She also frequently commented that her husband is more than enthusiastic about it also. (To be fair, some Mozambican women feel pressure to be more thin, but to me, it appeared mostly as a result of modernization and Western influences). What relief and freedom those women enjoy when so many shapes and sizes are authentically accepted as beautiful.
Those 3 reasons may help to explain why being in that environment for 2 years made me feel more confident myself.
And then there's Americaland.
Going through high school and freshman year of college, I was sick of hearing people talk about body image crap because I'd never really struggled myself or saw other girls struggle. But later in college, I saw how toxic American culture is for women. As an RA, I was horrified by the percentage of classmates and friends at my college who had eating disorders and are completely messed up in their brain about how they look.
Many blame the media and I will jump on that bandwagon for a few moments. There really is just one narrow definition of beauty in this country. And the media pounds it. In recent years there has been an effort to introduce different sizes as beautiful but it seems like more of a politically correct gesture of pity to people who will never meet certain standards than an authentic celebration of differences. To fill the cast of Glee, they found someone chubby (and hit two birds with one stone because she happens to fill the black quota also), some Asians, a handicapped kid, and an ugly girl (new this season), and a gay kid. But would Americans really enjoy watching Glee without the charming Mr. Shuester, cute guidance counselor, or hot Santana, Brittney, Quinn, Rachel, Puck, Finn, and blond new guy??? No, I don't think they would. The standard of beauty is still Quinn. Everyone else is a concession.
In Hollywood people point to actresses like J Lo, and say "Look, her ass is a couple of inches bigger than the rest" or someone like Kate Hudson and say "Look, her boobs are smaller than the average." A few inches indicate diversity in our definition of beauty.
I usually wake up in the morning and look in my American mirror quite satisfied with what I'm seeing. But if I spend the day shopping, looking at magazines, watching TV, or hanging out with a large group of women, I end my day less enthusiastic about my looks.
But why does all this pressure seem not to affect black women as much? And how do we morph into a culture where all healthy women look at their body and genuinely think, "damn, I look good, and even if that person doesn't fancy me, I'm definitely sexy to someone else."?
Any sistas out there have advice?
Maybe if I stopped looking at pictures and started hanging out with more black girls, I'd feel better again, almost like I was in Mozambique.