I recently returned home to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Ghana, West Africa. As the Director of Project Development for the Touch A Life Foundation, I have traveled to Ghana a dozen times, but each time I’m there, I’m captivated by the innate beauty of Ghanaian women.
They are gorgeous on the inside and out, to be sure, but what I observe and relish in each time is a different kind of a beauty, one that results from a culture that is less influenced by the media than my own.
Let me explain.
Ghana is a small country, just about the size of Oregon, located in West Africa. The national language is English, though most people still speak regional and tribal dialects. There are plenty of observable multi-cultural influences, both from within Ghana itself (a loyalty to traditional dance routines, a penchant for batik-print clothing) and from other countries (a universal fascination with Rihanna & Jay Z, iPhones being used on every street corner).
What’s interesting, though, is that in spite of the plentiful outside influences, Ghanaian women, at the core, appear to value a more holistic view of beauty and femininity than American women do. There is no doubt that economic, social, and political realities factor into this mindset and behavior, but through my travels, I’ve come to realize that a typical Ghanaian woman – one who works to support her family, spends much of her time raising her children, and accomplishes numerous projects around the house – tends to value a more forgiving and grateful attitude toward her body and her image.
In Ghana, a woman who has gained a few pounds either looks more prepared to bear children, which is viewed as important and beautiful, or appears to have earned enough money for herself to live and eat well.
On one trip to our childcare facility, a Ghanaian staff member turned to me and said brightly, with a wide grin on his face, “You have put on some weight!” I laughed, not knowing how else to respond, while feeling torn up and hurt inside. It was true, I had gained weight after having a knee surgery that had rendered me sedentary, which was a huge change from my previously active lifestyle. I realized instantly, though, that he thought he was giving me a compliment. In Ghana, a woman who has gained a few pounds either looks more prepared to bear children, which is viewed as important and beautiful, or appears to have earned enough money for herself to live and eat well.
Conversely, on my most recent trip, some of the teenage girls reprimanded me for looking too small, exclaiming that they like when women look bigger because they look healthier. I hadn’t lost an unhealthy amount of weight; I shed 15 pounds by cooking more and doing weight-training exercises that kept me strong and toned (allowing me to reach a more natural weight for my height, according to U.S. medical standards) though a difference from my previous trip was noticeable.
What a vastly huge cultural difference, I thought to myself. While women in the U.S. certainly comment about each other’s appearances and especially their own, they talk about themselves in an opposite way than Ghanaian women do, one that reflects my inherent belief when hearing that I’d observably gained weight: getting heavier = bad; being thin = ultimate goal.
… they also aspired to attain a different body type, one that is a result of achieving healthy goals, not of giving in to self-loathing.
In Ghana, being too thin is not cherished or sought after; it’s a visual representation of someone who is unwell, poor or not properly taken care of. I realized that it is quite a first world problem to care about numbers on a scale, to value our society’s definition of beauty over good health, to fritter away precious minutes cringing over the parts of our bodies that we hate. These women not only didn’t have the time or the “luxury” to nit-pick over their bodies, but they also aspired to attain a different body type, one that is a result of achieving healthy goals, not of giving in to self-loathing.
Lessons about body image are ones that I have carried with me over the years. They’re lessons that I’ve tried to implement when I return to the U.S. after a trip to Ghana, bracing myself to inevitably face reverse culture shock, confronting the ridiculous message that in order to be beautiful I need to look a certain (read: skinny) way.
In Ghana I am reminded that good health is the utmost privilege, the most important and valuable aspect of anyone’s life. I am reminded that curves are gorgeous, that a smile is truly a window to the soul, and that everlasting beauty comes from within. I am aware that these are also lessons I could learn in the U.S.; they are embraced and exhibited by incredible women all around the country on a daily basis. But for me, I needed to be removed from the cultural influences that seep into my consciousness without my awareness in order to fully understand them. I needed to literally and figuratively step outside of my comfort zone in order to understand how greatly I had been impacted by messages from the media, and for how long.
I needed the women of Ghana to teach me what it means to love my body, to thank it for its strength and grace, and to share this message with others, inspiring us all to redefine what it means to be beautiful. It may be worth it – necessary, even – for you to step out of your own comfort zone, allowing yourself to assess how society’s presentation of beauty is affecting your view of yourself and your body.
Have you stepped out of your comfort zone to find a new definition of beauty? What was it?
Image via Bethany Douglass