Chicken pills and big bottoms

23rd March 2010

Chicken pills and big bottoms

NPR yesterday launched a new online series called “The Kitchen Sisters“, which seeks to explore the hidden world of girls around the world and the women they become. The first series premiered yesterday and focused on girls and women in Jamaica, who go to amazing — and dangerous — lengths to achieve a cultural standard of the idealized woman.  Read the story and listen to the clip here.

In some African cultures, being fat is a symbol of wealth and beauty. Indeed in Nigeria, young women there often enter “fattening rooms” for six months to a year and are sometimes even force-fed before they are considered robust enough to marry. This trend of associating fatness with wealth and prosperity is most often seen among the more have-not developing nations, but for a long while also proved to be the cultural norm in the U.S.  In Jamaica, the “healthy body girl” is at least between 160 and 210 pounds and men especially admire women with “big bottoms.”  Carolyn Cooper and Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, lecturers of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, and Carol Turpin of St. Catherine, Jamaica, who is the head of the 4-H Club, explain in more detail:

“Most males, they love to see women with big bottoms. The whole idea of Coca-Cola bottle shape,” Turpin said. “I don’t want a meager woman,’ that’s how the men would speak. … They’re figuring if you look meager, you look poor, in the sense that you’re not being taken care of.”

“If you have a big bottom that means you’re sitting on a lot of power,” said Cooper.

“If you have no meat on your bones, the society can’t see your wealth, your progress, your being,” said Stanley-Niaah.

While it might be refreshing to know that me and my fat bottom would be crowned queen in Jamaica, it’s important to remember that beauty ideals exist precisely because they are often unachievable for most people.  And in Jamaica, a dangerous trend emerged in the 1990s among Jamaican girls and women desperate to pack on the pounds in the form of “chicken pills” — the same pills farmers give chickens to make them grow faster. The Jamaican government has banned the chicken pill for both chickens and women, but it’s still available across the island in farm stores and on the street.  Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a dermatologist in Kingston, says the pill, which contains arsenic, can have severe side effects, ranging from numbness, diarrhea and dermatitis in people. And arsenic is a cumulative poison that can build up in the body and cause cancer.

But as globalization takes hold of the island nation, another competing form of beauty is emerging: the idolization of white thinness. Although rotundity is still seen as beautiful, slim and trim is also quickly coming into vogue, as well as the longtime goal of appearing “whiter.” Donna Hope, a lecturer in reggae studies at the University of the West Indies says that, like women in all cultures, Jamaican women are using all kinds of artifice, hair extensions, eyelash extensions and skin bleaching as a form of enhancement. The cosmetic concoctions – a mix of toothpaste and curry powder — and are sold in unmarked plastic bags in downtown markets. They’re rubbed on the skin and “work” by literally burning the epidermis.

The complicated body politic in Jamaica might seem polarizing at first, but it isn’t all that contradictory when you consider that the nation emerged out of slavery. Here’s Cooper again:

“There’s a kind of anorexic, Eurocentric model of beauty. Also, a much more Afrocentric body type that is valorized,” explained Cooper. “We still have a racist legacy in which the perception is reinforced that the lighter your skin is, the more beautiful you are, the further you can go in the culture, the more socially accepted you are. Still, in Jamaica, a lot of positions of power are occupied by people who are light-skinned. And the attitude is, if light skin is in, I can get it, too.”

But Cooper sees signs of optimism, too. Jamaican beauty contests traditionally crown lighter-skinned contestants, but three years ago, Zahra Redwood — a Rastafarian woman with organic dreadlocks, broad nose and full lips – won Miss Universe. Fifty years ago, that kind of image would never be paraded on a stage as beautiful, says Cooper.

Fat bottoms. Chicken pills. Bleaching powders. It all may seem strange and bizarre to the rest of us, but the whole discourse of dissatisfaction and anxiety about the body is a common thread among most, if not all, cultures.  In Jamaica, women take chicken pills.  In America, we down Fen-phen and diet pills.  If women have anything in common with our sisters worldwide, it’s that the natural body is never enough.

I’m excited to hear the rest of the series — and they’re looking for more stories. Call the NPR Message Line at 202-408-9576 or share your photos, audio and video here.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010 at 1:08 pm and is filed under Body Image, Fat Acceptance, Feminist Topics, Race Issues, Rachel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 11 responses to “Chicken pills and big bottoms”

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  1. 1 On March 23rd, 2010, Shannon Russell said:

    Hey, I just tweeted this. That story was fascinating. It’s really odd how it seems almost universal that women are expected to alter their bodies to satisfy men, yet the opposite isn’t as strong a mandate. Weird.


  2. 2 On March 23rd, 2010, Dee said:

    In SOME parts of Nigeria they do enter fattening rooms, but it is a practice that’s dying out. And it would shock a lot of Westerners BUT thin is in. You get a lot less play when you’re bigger than a size 14.

  3. 3 On March 24th, 2010, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    I listened to this story, too, and literally gasped out loud when they talked about the arsenic in chicken pills. And nearly started crying when they talked about bleaching their skin. I don’t know why it surprised me, though.
    My husband is Filipino, and there is a lot of emphasis on light skin in the Philippines as well, especially for women. All the female celebrities are light-skinned, and many people wear long sleeves and pants in incredibly hot weather in order to avoid tanning. Not for fear of skin cancer, but because they don’t want to be darker.

    I wonder if we’ll ever be rid of beauty “ideals” and just accept ourselves as we are. I doubt it. We’ll just have to teach our kids to ignore those ideals.

  4. 4 On March 25th, 2010, Willow said:

    Rachel, know that I always enjoy your writing. However, I noticed that in this post, you quoted entire sentences from the article (to which you did link) without any sort of sign to the reader that you were quoting verbatim. That made me uncomfortable.

  5. 5 On March 26th, 2010, Narf said:

    Damn, man. The sexual politics of meat much?

    But in other news (and you don’t have to post this comment), I found something I thought you’d find interesting. You know that 5% statistic of people who keep [percentage] of weight off for X years? It’s the exact same statistic of spontaneous remission.

    At the Orange Papers, I found a bit about how, every year, 5% of alcoholics spontaneously go into remission. They just stop drinking, without official support or anything. They just stop. And this is true of a lot of behavior that I’ve seen – eating disorders, compulsive shopping, etc. They just stop. I know I’m focusing on harmful behaviors, but in my experience it’s much wider than that. Every year, about 5% of all people will spontaneously take on a massive life or lifestyle change and succeed. The people who aren’t in that percentage are highly unlikely to be able to succeed with support.

    So in essence, the effectiveness rate of dieting is 0%.

    Again, just thought you’d find it interesting.

  6. 6 On March 29th, 2010, HolyokeHome said:

    The Kitchen Sisters are actually an independent team of radio producers. This is their latest series, but everything they do is WONDERFUL. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  7. 7 On April 5th, 2010, The Danger of “Real Women Have Curves” said:

    [...] we don’t have the power to turn the tables, and even if we did, we shouldn’t.  Are chicken pills any better than diet pills?  Is being ashamed of your flat chest any more empowering than being [...]

  8. 8 On April 5th, 2010, david smith said:

    it’s funny trying to understand if the pill is actually made for chickens or if it’s just the nickname of the pill, either way do anyone knows what this thing is really made of? Any side effects or addiction level? These are crazy times we’re living in…i only found out about it when my girl friend phoned me up and guess what? She’s started taking the same pill…crazy!

  9. 9 On April 12th, 2010, Kate said:

    I keep hoping that one of the cultures that values heaviness in women will be able to keep it up, but it seems like one by one, they give in to the thin ideal. At the same time, I appreciate you pointing out that whatever the ideal is, even if it’s something that may sound liberating in US culture, it is probably just as difficult to achieve elsewhere as our own ridiculous ideals are here. Sigh.

    Good information.

  10. 10 On April 20th, 2010, lele said:

    This is sick… n trust me men everywhere like fat and skinny. Women stop enslaving yourselves. They’ll want you either way.

  11. 11 On April 20th, 2010, Willow said:

    Lele, women don’t exist to be desired by men.

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