The moment a woman becomes aware of herself and begins understanding the world, she goes to war to gain freedom and autonomy over the vessel she walks the earth in. From the images we see on television and in magazines to our society’s cultural practices and beliefs, women are consistently told what they should define as beauty. In some African countries, for example, being “bigger” is the standard of beauty and a believed symbol of wealth, prosperity and good fortune.
The Efik, Ibibio and Annang peoples of Cross River State, Akwa Ibom State and Abia State are among those who view a fuller figure as a sign of good health, wealth, fertility and beauty. In Efik traditional marriage, one of their oldest cultural practices is bride fattening or the fattening room (Ufok nkuho), a practice often accompanied by circumcision. This practice is at the centre of a centuries-old rite of passage from adolescence to womanhood. Its purpose is to prepare a young woman for marriage. Traditionally, the soon-to-be bride is sent into fattening huts or fattening rooms and completely cut off from the rest of the society. There she is fed foods high in fat, like palm oil, fish, and meat, and foods high in carbohydrates, like rice, beans, potatoes and yams. Her movement is also limited, to ensure she puts on as much weight as possible. On average, a total of six meals are eaten in a day, sometimes more and the process can go on for weeks, months or years.
The duration of the practice can last anywhere from six to twelve months and depends on the financial state of the bride’s family and how quickly she responds to the process. The father of the bride is responsible for consistently providing the means to feed his daughter in the fattening house as he takes care of his family. This is what links the plumpness of an Efik bride to wealth. The bigger you are, the wealthier your family must be. A bride’s size is an indication that her family is able to take care of her and a signal to her husband to let him know the standard he will have to live up to once they are married. It is also believed that fattening brides before marriage makes them healthy and presentable to the would-be husband.
Ufok nkuho is not about feeding alone. Older women are assigned to the girls in the fattening rooms and they come in to massage the bride with powdered herbs and white chalk (a form of limestone) at least three times a day. The purpose of this is to make the bride’s body soft to the touch. The women in the fattening huts are also taught housekeeping, how to cook, raise children, cultural dances, folklore and how to make traditional artifacts. It is during this training that the brides learn about sex, pregnancy and how to care for the men who will eventually become their husbands. The women of the huts are also taught moral virtues, their societal values and public etiquette. The teachings pass on knowledge on leadership qualities and skills, marriage, and family life. When the practice is complete, the new bride emerges from the huts in a celebratory graduation ceremony.
In Mauritania, Leblouh, a similar and ancient custom is practiced.
Mauritania’s standard of beauty dictates that women who carry layers of fat are the epitome of attractiveness. The preference is believed to have come from Moors (nomadic Muslims of Arabic and Berber origin) centuries ago. The ritual (leblouh) involves force-feeding young girls to fatten them and make them more attractive to eligible men. Mauritanian mothers start fattening their daughters during the feeding or rainy season as early as age four and continue until marriage. The rainy season is marked as the season of feeding because that is when milk and wheat are in abundance. The girls spend two months in a feeding hut where they are forced to consume over 5000 calories a day through foods like couscous made from millet, corn mixed with milk and porridge and fermented milk diluted in water and sugar. Like the Efik of Nigeria, a “fat wife” is considered a sign of wealth and status. If a man can maintain his wife’s plumpness it shows other members of society that a man has enough money to generously feed his her, and therefore, he holds an honorable position in society.
Similarly, to the ethnic groups in Nigeria, the girls who are made to partake in the practice are often required not to engage in other community activities to ensure they gain the most amount of weight possible. While the culture of bride fattening in Nigeria has been tagged as “old school” and largely a practice of the past, present-day Mauritanian girls still face the ordeal of fattening for marriage.
As I engaged with these customs one thing that was reinforced in my mind is that from a very early age, a girl’s body and definition of beauty “belongs” to everybody but her. The woman herself lacks agency in terms of what she deems beautiful and acceptable. Organizations and activists who continue to speak out in support of women’s health and rights particularly to their bodies make me hopeful that a time will come when the only standard of beauty we entirely hold our individual selves to is the one we alone define.