Dela from Ghana

When you were in your 20s in Ghana, what were some ideas of beauty?

When I was younger in my 20s, beauty was defined to me more by appearance – if you were not too fat, neither were you too thin. But just the right size and were nicely shaped. You had hips…like a small waist and then your hips came out nicely. That was a form of beauty to me then. And how you used make-up to suit your facial features, how you kept your hair, and how you spoke. Those were some indications of beauty to me then.

It was always thought (important) to be shaped nicely, like the Coca-cola bottle. We would joke about it. If you were shaped like a Coca-cola bottle, then you were truly beautiful. And not outrageous make-up – say you are black and you put something red – no, something that matches nicely with your color. Women would usually do the eye-shadow, the usual lipstick and the black pencil for their eyelids and lipliner. That was the basic make-up.

By the time you get to your 20s, you start using the relaxer for your hair. So it was part of the beauty for us then. So if you kept your hair natural, it was considered too archaic, outdated. So to look beautiful, you had to use the relaxer and you would go to the salon to have the rollers put in, so it was curled nicely. Women would usually wear curl, although they would occassionally have these kind of braids I have on.

You usually wore beautiful clothes. In those days, women didn’t really wear pants or trousers, so (beautiful clothes meant) anything that looked nice on you. It depended on how you looked. Some people looked good in colorful clothes, some people looked better in plain clothes. If it fit your body, it was considered beautiful. When we were in high school, we were taught that good grooming is the art of hiding the bad features and showing the good ones. So it’s relative. If your legs don’t look too nice, you don’t wear short clothes, so you could hide your legs. So that was a concept of beauty we all grew up with.

Do you have different ideas of beauty now?

Now I think beauty is more from within than what is on the outside. What is the point if you look good on the outside but you are so mean and so wicked on the inside? So to me now, beauty is how you are in your heart. What is in your heart is what comes out on the outside. If you are kind, gentle, loving, I consider that more beautiful than if you are nicely dressed or with make-up. So my concept of beauty has changed drastically.

Why do you think your concept of beauty has changed?

It’s changed because with experience in life, I have come to appreciate that beauty is not what I see on the outside. There’s a lot going on in the world. People are hurting all the time. So what is the point of looking beautiful and then you are so mean? It’s a hurting world where people are in so much pain. I find it more beautiful if you have a heart full of goodness, kindness, nice thoughts about people and acts of kindness. That is what I think should be considered beautiful.

Dela, (much) younger than 50


Dela works with Alliance for Reproductive Health Rights, a NGO which works to provide good reproductive health care for all women, including education to prevent women dying in childbirth. She writes, “ We are currently implementing two major projects in various rural communities in Ghana. The projects basically seek to empower community members to demand for improved reproductive/maternal health services especially for more (midwives, health care centres, better roads to get to the health centres, if any at all and for availability of family planning services) from our health policy makers.”

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thinness and power

The below is a short break from the interviews to reflect on recent conversations and topics…

The following is a conversation overheard on the MUNI (bus line in San Francisco) by a friend of mine.

Two college aged men on the bus:

man 1: Today I found out that two girls in my nutrition class have eating disorders.

man 2: Oh yeah?

man 1: Yeah. First one admitted she had bulimia, then another one said she used to have anorexia.

man 2: Anorexia isn’t an eating disorder. It’s just not eating much. It’s not like bulimia. Bulimia is effed up.

man 1: Well… anorexia is when you like the feeling of being hungry…

man 2: That’s the only way to lose weight!

man1: Yeah, I guess. The anorexia girl is a healthy looking, she’s good looking. The bulimia girl is all fat and gross.

man2: How can you have bulimia and still be fat?

man 1 : I dunno!

both: hahahaha!!!

At this point, my friend changed seats.

Just this week while standing in line at the supermarket, a magazine headline caught my eye: I weighed 82 lbs. (People, 11/15/10). The article continued to talk about how this television actress shrunk to 82 pounds battling anorexia during her sitcom run in the 1990s.

I don’t personally know this actress. She’s not someone whose work I follow professionally. The effervescence of tabloids in the check-out line is another beast all together. But what caught my attention was the normalcy of seeing a headline like this one as well as the feelings and thoughts it was meant to evoke.

We see an attractive Hollywood actress who has “battled” and overcome. She has gone from pitiably (and might I garner enviably) thin and beautiful to still enviably thin enough to be on the cover of a national magazine. Her willpower to control her eating has created yet another magazine headline which will sell. We will all see how pretty and famous she is (even if we’ve never seen her or any of her work before). And we all can easily understand that she is in the spotlight because she has overcome. We want to be like Portia. We hunger for this smallness. And now we envy even more because she is now no longer sick. She has overcome the female malady, hysterics, the slimming away and so now, she can be not only beautiful, but also our role model.

Anyone battling with eating issues would probably be the first to admit how much of a continuum and process it is throughout a life. Recently I interviewed a former dancer who even in older age, wanted to be thin and felt bad about “being overweight.” As I talk to older women, it is interesting to note how and when the topic of thinness comes up.

Granted, I know our present culture has in some ways gone to the other extreme. Children and adults are more obese than ever, creating serious medical issues. But I would posit that the pervasiveness of the obesity epidemic only serves to highlight the wonders of being thin.

Why is Portia de Rossi on the People cover if not to sell magazines? She has battled, yes. But she is still relatively thin. No doubt, if you talked with her, she would probably tell you that her work with self-image and food continues on a daily basis.

Why, on a cultural level of consciousness, do we want female thinness? Why is the anorexic girl “good-looking”? Why do women in their 70s and 80s lament “letting themselves go,” not being anymore as thin as they once were?

To me, it all comes down to the physical space of a woman in society. If you are thin, you take up less space. You are small(er), physically and quite obviously. Again I ask, why do we want this for our women? Why is it nice for a girl or a woman to be petite, slim, tiny, thin, to have lost weight?

Here I am not talking about the importance of being healthy. That word infrequently pops up as a compliment. What is more often admired and envied is merely the physical size of one’s legs, waist, cheekbones and neck, upper arms. We see thin fashion models, created specifically to generate desire…for consumer product, yes, but even more so to look like the woman or girl selling.

Every woman I have spoken with or interviewed has seen media images and advertising of women. Historically, over the last century, media images of women have emphasized size and shape, both of which have tended towards a young woman’s physical proportions. The Flappers espoused being thin and boylike (to try to live the same rights as men). Women appeared curvier in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and then shrunk again in the 1960s on. The last 30 years has fostered a extreme and sometimes dangerous trend in combining the two – curves and thinness, molding the bodies of adult women into those of adolescent girls.

Adolescent girls are not powerful in society. Thin women do not take up much space. If we continue to esteem this shrunken ideal of femininity, what are we saying to our girls and women on a very obvious level? The smaller the better. Focus on controlling your food intake instead of eating as a source of pleasure and nourishment. Men can eat freely and still be attractive and powerful. Women need to always be careful about how we appear to men, how much space we take up, if we can keep our food and our (wild and dangerous) bodies under control.

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