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.